As Jason Goes K-ward, How Long Will the Braves Wait To Make a Change?

Erskine ThompsonContributor IIApril 10, 2010

ATLANTA - APRIL 5: Jason Heyward #22 of the Atlanta Braves hits against the Chicago Cubs during Opening Day at Turner Field on April 5, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Yes, it's only been four games. Yes, the opening day home run raised everyone's expectations. Yes, he's human.

However, something is undeniably not right with Jason Heyward right now. After four games, he leads the National League in strikeouts, including four in yesterday's 13-inning loss to the Giants.

In that loss, Heyward left four men on base, but more importantly, he seemed nearly clueless at the plate, swinging so wildly that he looked more like he was clearing brush than trying to drive in runs.

Heyward's apparent affinity for pitches in the dirt first came to light on Thursday against the Cubs, when Carlos Marmol struck him out on three pitches—all in the dirt, completely unhittable—and Heyward hasn't made solid contact since.

The concern is that the Braves are looking at a repeat of last year's Jordan Schafer fiasco. Schafer started the year solidly, but by the second week of the season, Schafer was striking out at least twice a game. By the time he was sent back to Triple-A Gwinnett on May 31, Schafer's average was down to .204, and he was on pace to strike out 205 times.

Heyward is already ahead of that pace, with a lower average. He's already hitting .179, and at this rate will easily set a major league record for strikeouts.

Worse is that Schafer, though he struck out a lot, always seemed to take good swings; he just had trouble judging the strike zone, and laid off a lot of close pitches at which he should have swung. Heyward, by contrast, is swinging at pitches in the dirt at an alarming rate, and seems to commit too early to pitches. It's as if he wants to be a home run hitter, since he's had a taste of it, and wants to take any pitch he can out of the yard.

Heyward, though, has never been that type of hitter. As Joe Simpson noted in a broadcast earlier this year, Heyward is more of a line-drive type hitter, who happens to have enough power that what should be a double becomes a home run. Simpson compared him to another hitter like that—Hank Aaron—and said many of Aaron's 755 home runs seemed almost "accidental."

Surely, Jason Heyward has all the tools to be a Hall of Fame player. However, he's got to act quickly to pull in the reins on his free swinging. The Braves are expected to contend this year, and their outfield is far too deep to make mistakes; there are five capable outfielders looking for three daily jobs.

The question remaining is whether Heyward will get it together, and if he doesn't, are the Braves willing to risk making another Schafer-like mistake?