Heyward vs. Justice vs. Jones (Revisited)
Going back to this past May I spent a brief amount of time looking at how Jason Heyward’s early successes compared to two Atlanta Braves outfielders that came before him – David Justice and Andruw Jones. Essentially the discussion centered around the fact that throughout the run of playoff appearances that were made by the Braves throughout the 1990s and early 2000s there was a consistent component, that being a young and upcoming outfielder regularly contributing under Bobby Cox’s tutelage.
At the time of the initial comparison Heyward had only appeared in 46 total games so the comparison was based on that extraordinarily small sample size. Now that his first full season has been completed, it seems like a good time to revisit the discussion considering we have a much broader range of information available. In the interest of having balanced figures to compare I am going to focus solely on each player’s first full season with the Braves. As such, Justice’s 16 game cameo in 1989 and Jones’ 31 games in 1996 will not be taken into consideration.
Before we truly start to compare the three players’ rookie campaigns, we have to note the disparity in plate appearances and at bats between the three players. Heyward has higher totals in both statistical categories mainly due to the fact that he was in a starting role for more of the season, having started 136 of the 142 games he appeared in. Justice did start 117 of his 127 games, however just about half (69 games) of those appearances came as a first baseman (a position he would never play again for the remainder of his career) and not an outfielder. Jones started just 96 of the 153 he would appear in that season.
These disparities were likely due to a combination of the player’s actual performance and the roster surrounding them. For instance, Heyward won his job out of Spring Training in part because the Braves were in need of an outfielder that could provide some production. The 2010 Braves featured few star players on the offensive side, limited to just catcher Brian McCann, second baseman Martin Prado, and aging third baseman Chipper Jones. Justice, meanwhile, was part of a 1990 Braves roster that featured an outfield comprised of Lonnie Smith, Ron Gant, and an aging Dale Murphy. Jones’ 1997 Braves roster included Fred McGriff, Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez, Kenny Lofton, and C. Jones.
Now, obviously having received a higher number of opportunities (i.e. plate appearances and at bats) it would be easy to expect that Heyward’s statistical accomplishments would be higher than those of Justice or Jones. And for many of the more traditional “counting statistics” this certainly does hold true. Heyward leads the three in runs, hits, doubles, triples, walks, strikeouts, and on-base percentage. Justice takes the top spot when it comes to home runs and a look below at his ISO and above at his SLG% confirm he hit for the most power of the three. Heyward, in fact, was the least successful from a power standpoint if you take a look at the three player’s home run/at bat ratio.
As for the Sabermetrically inclined side of the discussion, we can plainly see that Heyward and Justice had fairly comparable years with the lone exception of their power output. Heyward made up for the lack of power with a higher walk rate and BABIP. Meanwhile Jones posted better power numbers than Heyward but would fall last of the three when it comes to on base ability. He also struck out the most of the three, which is perhaps a testament to his “fence swinging tendency” that has plagued him for much of his career.
Statistics, both the traditional and Sabermetric, tell us part of the story here. Perhaps the biggest factor to consider when comparing the three rookie seasons is just how valuable each player was to the Braves during that season. Value is a tough category to truly put a number on. WAR has been developed as one aspect of value, but I have never felt it told the full story. With multiple versions of WAR – the Fangraphs version and Baseball Reference’s – there is no clear method by which we can use the statistic as a simple end-all-be-all to define value.
In addition to WAR, there also needs to be some consideration taken for what the team accomplished and how much the player contributed to said accomplishments. Now “team accomplishment” does not simply mean how deep into the playoffs the team was able to go. There also needs to be a factor taking into consideration with regards to how the team’s performance differs from the season before the player joined the roster.
With that being said, we can ultimately conclude that Heyward in fact had the best season of the three. He lead the way in terms of WAR, both fWAR and bWAR, and was a significant part of the Braves return to the playoffs after a four year absence. It’s also worth reiterating the fact that the 2010 Braves weren’t exactly comprised of an All Star lineup. McCann had another solid season. Prado emerged as a viable compliment and before his injury C. Jones was putting up another respectable season. Heyward’s contributions were significant to the Braves’ success.
Justice ultimately would fall second if we were to rank the three rookie seasons. The Braves may have only improved by two wins from 1989 to 1990 but they were on the verge of breaking out as Cox took the reigns midway through the 1990 campaign. However, Justice was a vital part to the beginning of the run the organization was about to go on. He was just limited in terms of the support around him in 1990. His rookie season, which earned him Rookie of the Year honors, he was of more value to the team than Jones would be in 1997.
That is not to say that Jones wasn’t valuable to the 1997 Braves team that would reach the NLCS. He was an important part of the team, certainly when looking at the WAR. But ultimately that 1997 Braves team was loaded with talent. In addition to the offensive counterparts mentioned above, that team was led by a trio of future Hall of Fame starters in Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine. They also employed Denny Neagle in the lone season he would win 20 games. Jones played a limited role on that team’s successes.
Comparing players over one season of their careers is no exact science. Ultimately the outcome of any such discussion will vary drastically depending on not only the individual making the comparison but also what measurements are used and emphasized. Regardless of the outcome it’s always an exercise that can be enjoyable. As I concluded when I looked at the three players at the end of May, it is far too early to truly evaluate how things will turn out over the course of the player’s full careers. But Heyward certainly seems to be off to a good start. And if he can produce like Justice or Jones did over their Atlanta careers, I think the Braves, and their fans, will be very happy with that outcome.