ATLANTA -- Blessed with the frame, speed and agility of an outside linebacker, Jason Heyward possesses the total physical package rarely seen in the baseball world. Along with intimidating opposing pitchers with his powerful left-handed swing, he has consistently displayed artistic grace while adeptly ranging in the outfield or scoring from first base on a double.
Heyward's athletic presence can be described as picturesque. But the attributes that could set him apart from baseball's other great talents extend beyond the physical skills afforded by his 6-foot-5, 240-pound physique.
"If he keeps going about his business the way he's going about it, it makes for special careers and special people," Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said. "You get guys who are talented and have a special will to win. He has it. Even for that type of player, the game is not easy. It's not easy for anybody. He competes, has a will to win and wants to be great."
Heyward has been nothing short of great while hitting .370 with five home runs and a 1.063 OPS in the 21 games he has played since moving into the leadoff spot. His presence at the top of the lineup has allowed the Braves to notch 18 wins during this 21-game stretch and finally start living up to the expectations of being an offensive juggernaut.
"I am hitting leadoff right now and I am doing well right now," Heyward said. "I can't tell you if it's coincidence or not. But I know I've been putting work in, so I'm not surprised. I can't say I expect to put up crazy numbers. But at the same time, that is what I'm working for. I'm not working to show up every day and not see results."
Although he is just a little more than a week removed from his 24th birthday, Heyward is already in the midst of his fourth Major League season, one that has introduced him to adversity just like each of the previous three. The perseverance he has shown in the midst of his struggles has been a product of a strong upbringing, fueled by his father's instructions to never settle.
"I was taught you need to earn everything you have," Heyward said. "When something gets hard and you get a little adversity, you overcome it. If in a game you felt you got cheated or something, my dad would say, 'Well, be better next time and beat them.' You try and do everything you possibly can to do well. After that, you can't control it."
When Heyward hit .146 with a .533 OPS in the first 30 games he played this year, he could not erase the fact that he had struggled during the season's first two weeks and then been sidelined for a month while recovering from an emergency appendectomy. Heyward simply had to remain focused and pick himself up off the mat like he had after hitting .227 with a .708 OPS in 2011, a season marred by right shoulder discomfort that developed during Spring Training.
Instead of moping or being soured by the fact that Braves general manager Frank Wren said Heyward was not guaranteed a starting job the following season, he entered that offseason determined to make the necessary changes. Heyward committed himself to a rigid conditioning program that made him leaner and allowed himself to be open to the adjustments Walker suggested when he began his current role between the 2011 and '12 seasons.
While Walker stressed the need to be patient, Heyward hit .233 with a .739 OPS through last season's first two months. But after getting comfortable with the adjustments, the prized young outfielder hit .284 with 21 homers and an .845 OPS over his final 108 games.
"He has a will to be great," Walker said. "He doesn't want to be a good player. You run across players that want to be good and want to win. But he has a will to be as good as he can be."
This will pushed Heyward through the first two months of this season, as he battled back from the surgery and got used to the fact that his mentor, Michael Bourn, was no longer around. Heyward's patience and perseverance has once again paid dividends, as he has batted .305 with an .887 OPS and raised his batting average more than 100 points (.146 to .257) in his past 63 games.
"The numbers are going to speak for themselves," Heyward said. "It took some time. It took some DL time, some at-bats and failures. But I'm just trying to stay consistent and learn from everything. I don't want to be complacent with where I am now. I want to continue to get better."
While Heyward might not openly show his intensity by throwing helmets or breaking bats over his knees, he does so while consistently running out ground balls and aggressively breaking up double-play attempts.
"He goes out and competes as hard as anybody I've ever been around," Walker said. "The one thing that separates him from most people who aren't in the clubhouse or the dugout is how hard he competes. He is a gifted player that wants to be a winning player. His game is evolving, but he competes every day and he has a will to win."
Somewhere in the process, Heyward also has the desire to separate himself from the elite of the elite.
"I want to be great," Heyward said. "I don't want to settle for mediocrity. I know that comes with time and patience."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.