He sweeps the bat once in front of his knees, pulls it back behind his left ear, pauses briefly, then — after slightly lifting his right foot and rocking back on his left — unleashes a mighty swing at the motionless ball, sending it flying into the netting.
Then he does it again. And again. And again.
It is here, in the isolation of the batting cages just beyond the center-field wall of Champion Stadium, that the reconstruction of the “J-Hey Kid” takes place on a daily basis in spring training.
“Just get a feel for what you want. Just tell yourself, one-on-one. Get in your own zone, put yourself in game situations,” Heyward said. “When you get in a game, you don’t want to think that much. That’s where you get your thinking done, in the cage.”
Beyond the cage, the Atlanta Braves outfielder faces increasingly familiar questions.
Is he the too-good-to-be-true phenom who hit a homer in his very first at-bat and Hank Aaron predicted could change the face of the game? Or is he the guy who looked so totally overmatched in his sophomore season that he had to share outfield time with a career backup and a career minor leaguer?
From all appearances, Heyward is staring out on a crucial season at the ripe ol’ age of 22.
Just don’t tell him that.
“I’m not even going to break it down that much for you,” he said when queried on any changes he has made this spring. “I’m not thinking about it as much as you are.”
Much like the Jekyll-and-Hyde player he was over the last two years, Heyward can be a bit of an enigma away from the field, too.
There are times he seems laid back and approachable, bantering easily at his locker about the first dog he’s ever had, a 6-month-old Lab named Jhey (pronounced “Jay”). There are times when he’s snarky and abrupt, such as Monday when he came in from a workout and unleashed a string of snippy answers to such hard-hitting questions as whether he had any memories of ex-Braves David Justice and Fred McGriff, who are in for the week as special instructors.
That doesn’t concern the Braves — they aren’t looking for Heyward to win any personality contests.
Atlanta needs him to get back on the track to stardom he was on in 2010, when he broke into the big leagues with a bang. There were his mammoth drives in spring training and the 471-foot homer on opening day that had Aaron proclaiming Heyward could be the type of player who brought more African-Americans to the national pastime.
At midseason, Heyward was voted to the All-Star team. Despite a thumb injury that kept him out of the midseason showcase and limited his effectiveness over the second half of the season, he still managed to hit .277 with 18 homers, 72 RBIs and an on-base percentage of nearly .400. He finished second in the NL rookie of the year balloting to San Francisco’s Buster Posey.
Then, Year 2.
Heyward hurt his right shoulder in spring training, though it would be a while before he revealed that information publicly. He started slowly, got into some bad habits, pressed to turn it around and only made things worse. Coming down the stretch, as the Braves fought desperately to hang on to the wild-card spot, he was relegated to part-time duty, sharing right field with Matt Diaz and Jose Constanza.
In the end, the Braves missed the playoffs on the final day after an epic September collapse and Heyward was left with dismal numbers: a .227 average, 14 homers, 42 RBIs and a .319 on-base percentage.
Now comes Year 3.
Everyone is eager to see which path Heyward takes: The one Aaron and others had projected, or the one taken by Jeff Francoeur, another supposedly can’t-miss hometown kid who went from the cover of Sports Illustrated as a rookie to being traded away at age 25 for backup Ryan Church.
Heyward insists he’s approaching this season like any other.
“I don’t feel any extra pressure, man,” he said. “I’ve just got to be healthy, man. All I’ve got to do is be healthy. It was like any other offseason where you put in the work, put in the dedication. I enjoyed doing so. Once you get here, it’s like, ‘Hey, let’s go play ball.’ ... That’s where the pressure is. We all feel the same way about last season. We all want to get into the playoffs. We all want to go far in the playoffs.”
Of course, the Braves are betting on a Heyward comeback. But, not taking any chances, they brought in not one but two new hitting coaches this season — Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher — a realignment of the staff that was seen as largely Heyward-driven.
“We’re not asking him to win the Triple Crown or anything like that. We’re asking him to be the Jason Heyward we know and he knows can produce in the major leagues,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “I think he’s gonna be fine because ... he’s got ability, he’s got talent, he’s willing to work, and he’s willing to listen to Greg and Fletch. All that other stuff, just throw it out the window.”
Third baseman Chipper Jones, who knows a thing or two about breaking into the big leagues with huge expectations, said the key for any young hitter is having a versatile swing — he refers to “hinges” in the wrist, shoulder, waist and hips — that allows for split-second adjustments. In Heyward’s case, the shoulder injury caused him to flatten out his arms, which essentially made 90 mph pitches seem 4-5 mph faster.
Heyward seems to be addressing that problem.
“He’ll get it done. He’ll get it back. He’s 90 percent back,” Jones said.
Walker wants Heyward to forget about last season and figure out the things that worked so well his rookie year.
“We went back and looked at 2010, when he was really good,” Walker said. “We said to him, ‘OK, this is what you did. You’ve done it before, so that’s you.’ We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here. We’re not trying to change Jason Heyward. We’re trying to get him to maximize his potential. We showed him. We filmed him and showed him what he looks like now, and how he looked in 2010. He saw the difference. To be honest with you, we haven’t made a lot of changes. We’re just trying to clean him up and get him back to where he was.”
That’s solid advice, said Justice, who spent a lot of time Monday chatting with Heyward in the outfield and around the batting cage. He told the youngster to clear out the clutter swirling around in his head after last season, to simplify things and come up with a game plan that is manageable when he goes to the plate.
“This game can be very tough,” Justice said. “No one feels sorry for you in this game. If he’s struggling, the pitchers are not going to feel sorry for him, right? No, they’re going to try to bury him.”