The Atlanta Braves have been struggling mightily in recent days, and as a result, the team is no longer considered to be a “likely” playoff team in the National League. However, outfielder Jason Heyward has quietly put together an incredible season for the club, and upon further review, his performance should be lauded in a significant way. With that out of the way, there is an interesting question and resulting philosophical debate surrounding Heyward and his accomplishments.
Is Jason Heyward a legitimate MVP candidate?
On one hand, it is relatively easy to see why this notion would be quickly dismissed by a more casual baseball fan, or even a diehard fan who does not wholly appreciate advanced statistical measures. The 25-year-old Heyward certainly does not have a “traditional” MVP profile, and offensively, his production has been positive but not spectacular.
For the season, Heyward has produced a .267 batting average, .353 on-base percentage and .389 slugging percentage (.742 OPS), and with those ratios, he has belted 9 home runs and 19 doubles through 487 plate appearances in 111 games. MVP-level players usually have 30+ home runs and/or exorbitant ratios, and Heyward possesses neither, but he does add offensive value in more under-the-radar ways.
Base-running has been a strength of Heyward’s throughout his career, and the outfielder ranks 26th in the National League (according to FanGraphs) with 1.3 runs added through overall contributions on the base paths. In addition, Heyward possesses an impressive 10.9% walk rate for the season to go along with the lowest strikeout rate of his career (16.0%), and that has helped him to make consistent offensive contributions, including 56 runs scored.
With all of that out of the way, Jason Heyward’s single greatest claim on “superstar” or “MVP-level” status comes when he is wearing a baseball glove in right field. Every Braves fan can recall the dominant defensive season from Andrelton Simmons last season, when he took home Platinum Glove honors while “saving” 41 runs to lead the Major Leagues, but Heyward has been just as dominant in 2014.
With nearly a third of the season remaining, Heyward has already produced 31 DRS (defensive runs saved), and that figure leads all of Major League Baseball, with New York Mets outfielder Juan Lagares behind him with 23 DRS in second place. That is only one metric for success defensively, but it profiles Heyward as easily the most impactful defensive player this season, and when met with the best UZR (ultimate zone rating) in the National League and a 3.0 defensive WAR by baseball-reference (also best in MLB), the full scope comes together.
It is commonly accepted that defense is the least respected of the major tools by general public, and that is certainly true surrounding perceptions about whether a player is a superstar. However, Jason Heyward’s defense clearly vaults him into the “elite” class of players, and that is supported by both of the WAR metrics that are commonly cited by experts and casual fans alike.
Baseball-Reference currently rates Heyward with a 5.6 WAR for the season, and that places him in a tie for second place (with Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki) among all National League players, trailing only Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton for top billing. FanGraphs, who produces the other leading metric, values Heyward at 4.5 WAR, and that ranks him in fifth place in the NL behind Tulowitzki, Stanton, Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen and Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig.
What does that all mean? Well, in short, Jason Heyward rates as one of the best five players in the National League this season by both of the leading services in measuring player value. That, on its own, would minimally place Heyward in the discussion for National League MVP honors, even with his somewhat uninspiring offensive production.
Defense and base-running aren’t “sexy” in the way that bashing home runs or hitting .335 can be, but any perception that Jason Heyward is “struggling” or that he is anything shy of a star-level player is simply misplaced. At this stage, he probably isn’t the MVP of the National League, but he certainly should receive votes if he continues this current pace, and if Heyward is able to build on his recent offensive momentum, perhaps the general public will come around to just how outstanding he has been during the 2014 season.