Jason Heyward was not your usual 20-year-old.
Bobby Cox, who knows a thing or two about managing winning ballclubs, hit Heyward seventh on Opening Day last season. Made sense. Don’t put too much pressure on the kid. That lasted four games before Cox moved him up to sixth in the order. That lasted a month before Cox moved him to third. Heyward finally settled in as the Braves’ No. 2 hitter most of the season.
And what a rookie season it was. His adjusted OPS of 131 was the seventh-best by a 20-year-old since 1950 -- behind guys named Kaline, Mantle, Rodriguez, Robinson, Griffey and Conigliaro and better than guys named Mays, Bench and Aaron. Only Mel Ott and Ted Williams ever drew more walks in a season at age 20, and only 14 players hit more than his 18 home runs.
Heyward was Atlanta’s best hitter in 2010, leading the club in OPS. He’s Atlanta’s best hitter in 2011, sailing along with a .273/.429/.636 line through 11 games.
So it makes perfect sense that new Atlanta Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez is hitting Heyward sixth, right?
No, of course it doesn’t. Nobody bats their best hitter sixth, not even Tony Muser.
Do a Google search for “Fredi Gonzalez Jason Heyward batting order” and you’ll see the blogosphere going apoplectic over this ever since Gonzalez announced late in spring training that Heyward would hit sixth -- with Nate McLouth, he of the .191 batting average in 2010 and .336 career on-base percentage batting second.
So this raises the following list of potential issues:
1. Gonzalez doesn’t understand the basics of filling out a batting order most beneficial to producing runs.
A little disconcerting to Braves fans. Especially when a few games into the season, Gonzalez hinted that he would move shortstop Alex Gonzalez (he of the .291 OBP in 2010) into the two-hole. Gonzalez’s history while managing the Florida Marlins isn’t a positive indicator.
His 2009 Marlins received their second-best production from the six-hole (mostly Dan Uggla), while letting Jorge Cantu bat cleanup 144 times. Their No. 8 hitters actually had a better OPS than their cleanup hitters.
In theory, this is nice. But you score more runs by getting more men on base and by getting your best hitters more plate appearances -- not fewer. Through 11 games, Braves No. 2 hitters have 46 PAs; Braves No. 6 hitters have 42. Prorate that over 162 games, and you’re talking about 59 additional plate appearances for the No. 2 slot over the No. 6 slot.
3. He’s afraid to move Chipper Jones down (or up) in the order.
Sure, Chipper has been hitting third or fourth since Heyward was in elementary school. He’s off to a decent start, but he doesn’t have the power or speed he used to. Why not move Chipper down in the order? (Or hit Chipper second, where his on-base skills would be useful in front of Heyward, Brian McCann and Uggla.)
4. Gonzalez doesn’t actually know how good Heyward is.
Heyward is a special hitter. If he puts up the numbers I think he can this year, you’ll see many more comparisons to the all-time greats who starred at a young age. Now, I’m pretty sure Gonzalez understands Heyward is among the most gifted young hitters we’ve ever seen, but I’m guessing part of his thinking is he doesn’t want to add “pressure” by batting him third or fourth.
Look, great hitters don’t feel pressure -- no matter their age. Just a few examples of young hitters handling the “pressure” spots in the lineup:
Twenty-one-year-old Mickey Mantle mostly hit cleanup for the 1953 Yankees (although he batted fifth or leadoff in the World Series).
Alex Rodriguez was in his Age-21 season and hitting second on a playoff team.
Albert Pujols was 21 when he was hitting cleanup for the Cardinals in the 2001 playoffs.
Miguel Cabrera was 20 when he hit cleanup for the Marlins in the 2003 World Series.
Yes, I mention those guys because Heyward has that kind of potential.
And speaking of young hitters. A rookie named Chipper Jones once started 135 of his 138 games in the No. 3 slot for the Braves. That team managed to win the World Series.
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