Flushing, NY, USA; Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward (22) rounds the bases after hitting a triple during the sixth inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE
Jason Heyward is 22. And in an article about him next year, I'll probably begin by noting he's 23. I think when he's 26 or so, I'll stop this. But it comes up because if he struggles again this year, it'll be entirely fair to note that he's the same age as a lot of the college seniors who will be drafted in June.
So the Braves have a tricky juggling act with Heyward. They have a young player who can still develop, and become something much more than he already is. This player is also supposed to help his team contend, as a lineup cog. If he can't hit J.A. Happ, well, he shouldn't be in the lineup against J.A. Happ.
Also, we're talking about Fredi Gonzalez sitting Jason Heyward against J.A. Happ on Monday night because, well ... you know. Something.
Happ is a left-handed pitcher, of course. And it was Earl Weaver who would always switch out left-handed hitters against left-handed pitchers, saying he was "playing the percentages. It's what smart managers do." Or maybe that was Montgomery Burns. Regardless, there's a common belief that left-handed hitters -- especially ones who were recently teenagers -- can't hit left-handed pitching. And, to be fair to Gonzalez, there is evidence that this is true of Heyward:
In 282 at-bats, Jason Heyward hasn't done that well against left-handed pitchers. But in a similar sample in the minor leagues, Heyward crushed minor-league lefties. Which one is representative of his current abilities against lefties? I'd wager a compromise between the two, but that's only a guess. No one really has a great idea.
And to be fair to Gonzalez again, Happ has pitched better against left-handed hitters over his career, as you'd expect. Happ is a standard lefty soft-tosser, and he's something of a gas can against right-handed hitters. But he can get left-handers out.
And to be even more fair to Gonzalez, Matt Diaz -- who got the start over Jason Heyward -- has consistently pummeled left-handers in his career. He's a career .328/.368/.506 hitter against lefties -- that isn't too far from George Brett's career line. Even though Diaz has had two down years, he's still shown clear platoon splits.
But other than Heyward having troubles against lefties in his major-league career, Happ pitching better against lefties in his career, and Diaz mashing lefties in his career, what in the world is Fredi Gonzalez thinking?
You can make a legitimate baseball argument that the Atlanta Braves are better suited to win in April, 2012 with Matt Diaz starting in right field over Jason Heyward against left-handed pitchers. You don't have to agree. But it's not like Gonzalez is starting Chipper Jones at shortstop because that's where he was drafted. Diaz over Heyward is debatable, but it's still understandable, if reflexively old school.
If I were making Braves lineups, I'd assume that Heyward has latent, untapped ability against left-handed pitchers, and that more at-bats against them in April, 2012 will be better for the Braves in Augusts 2012 and 2013. But that's just me, and it's just a guess. I don't envy the balancing act that the Braves have with Heyward, simultaneously relying on his contributions in the short term while trying to position the franchise and player better for the long term.
When Gonzalez was riding the hot hand and starting Jose Constanza down the 2011 stretch run? That was slightly insane. But sitting Heyward to play Diaz might make the Braves better against lefties right now. It could net them an extra win for the season. And you don't need to tell the Braves how handy an extra win can be at the end of the season. You may disagree with Gonzalez sitting Heyward, but it's a little early to be disgusted with it.