ATLANTA -- Jason Heyward crushed a three-run home run with his first big league swing, and he spent the first two months of his career proving that he was already capable of doing special things at the ripe age of 20. Blessed both physically and mentally, Heyward stood as baseball's newest phenom.
Sixteen months later, Heyward was surrounded by some doubts and filled with frustration. A left thumb injury tarnished the final four months of his rookie season in 2010, and a sore shoulder had influenced the struggles that led to him losing his starting role during the second half of the '11 season.
While some questioned whether Heyward would live up to the tremendous expectations set when he arrived at the Major League level as the game's top prospect, the young outfielder remained stoic and chose not to blame his struggles on others or his physical ailments.
Instead, approximately two weeks after the Braves completed their epic September collapse last year, Heyward dedicated himself to making the physical and mechanical changes that have helped him progress this season as one of the primary reasons Atlanta is positioned to return to the playoffs.
"It's been a long have at it, but it's been a lot of fun this year, lot of hard work paying off, for sure," Heyward said. "There's a lot of people I could thank, but they'll all tell you, I'll tell you, I'm not satisfied right now."
A legitimate five-tool player with superstar potential, Heyward undoubtedly has plenty of room to grow. But a little more than one month after celebrating his 23rd birthday, the mild-mannered and soft-spoken outfielder exudes a sense of confidence that has drawn great respect from his coaches and teammates.
"Being a new guy and getting a chance to watch him play, I like not only the hitting, but everything else he brings to the team, too," Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said. "His defense is unbelievable. His baserunning has been great. His attitude coming to the ballpark every day has been real workmanlike, like a player who is a lot older than what he is."
When Heyward hit .227 with 14 home runs and a .708 OPS last year, some Braves fans wondered if he was going to travel the same path as Jeff Francoeur, who never reached his potential after his arrival at the Major League level.
It is safe to say those comparisons died over the course of this past summer. Now when attempting to compare Heyward to former Braves, fans are more apt to speak much more reverently by bringing up Andruw Jones, Dale Murphy or Chipper Jones.
With fewer than two weeks remaining this season, Heyward is hitting .273 with 27 home runs and 19 stolen bases. He is bidding to become the first Braves player to hit 30 homers and record 20 stolen bases in the same season since Andruw Jones in 2000.
If Heyward joins this exclusive 30-20 club, he will become just the sixth player in Atlanta Braves history (since 1966) to do so. The others were Hank Aaron (1966), Murphy (1982 and '83), Ron Gant (1990, '91 and '93), Andruw Jones (1998 and 2000) and Chipper Jones (1999).
"This is a [heck] of a year for him," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "The young man has been terrific. We always talk offensive numbers, but I hope he gets consideration for a Gold Glove. I hope the league recognizes that, because he's been terrific out there as well. He's saved our butt out there a couple times by himself."
Courtesy of his determination to stay away from red meat and stick with the offseason conditioning program he began in October, Heyward came to Spring Training 20 pounds lighter than he was the year before. The leaner frame has seemingly improved his range in right field. But more importantly, it stands as the tangible sign of his willingness to make changes this past winter.
When Walker was hired as the Braves' new hitting coach in October, there was no doubt that his primary project would be to focus on fixing Heyward's swing, which had been damaged by the bad habits Heyward developed while attempting to play through discomfort the previous two seasons.
Walker, assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher and Heyward lunched together in Atlanta in early January. The restoration project began a few days later.
"We went and just sat down and talked," Walker said. "I said listen, 'This is how we look at this job. We're here for you, and we're going to be with you through thick and thin. We're going to go to work, and if you come to work every day, you'll figure it out because you're that good.' He's done it. I can't say enough about how mentally strong he has been every day."
Walker preached the need for fans and media members to remain patient with Heyward during the early portion of the season. More importantly, Heyward remained patient as he hit .233 with six home runs and a .739 OPS over the 50 games he played through the end of May.
"The first half of the year, it just felt like I was trying to feel my way through to get a feel for being comfortable," Heyward said.
Heyward has certainly looked comfortable as he has batted .291 with 21 home runs and a .873 OPS in the 96 games he has played since the start of June. In the process, he has started to live up to those tremendous expectations he faced just a couple years ago when he was the game's newest phenom.
"When he was scuffling, the normal thing for a player is to get down on himself," Walker said. "He never did that, not one day or one at-bat. Earlier in the year, when he was struggling a little bit, as a hitting coach, you get concerned about young players. But he told us early in the year, 'Don't worry about me, I'm fine.'"