Injuries of past seasons give Braves right fielder perspective entering 2014
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Four years have passed since Jason Heyward electrified an Opening Day crowd at Turner Field by hitting a home run with the first swing of his career. Three months later, an enamored baseball world elected the 20-year-old Braves outfielder to start the All-Star Game.
As Heyward prepares for his fifth Major League season, he is still aiming to live up to those tremendous expectations.
"I know what I can do," Heyward said. "I just have to be on the field to be able to do it. I've struggled before, and I've been hurt before trying to play. I feel like I have been through pretty much everything. Now I just want to be healthy, because I do know enough about myself to get out there and make adjustments to have success and help my team. I just want to play. It's as simple as that."
Remaining injury-free has been anything but simple for Heyward, who has batted .259 with a .794 OPS in 532 games through his first four big league seasons. This stretch has been enriched by stretches of greatness and marred by the ailments that have allowed him to play more than 130 games in just two of those seasons.
Heyward's frustrating path began with him hitting .298 with 10 home runs and a .988 OPS in 47 games in 2010 before a left thumb sprain prevented him from the honor of being in the National League's lineup for the All-Star Game and hampered him the remainder of the season.
A sore left shoulder hampered Heyward throughout a disappointing 2011 campaign, during which he hit .227 and compiled a .708 OPS over 128 games. This led him to begin a rigid offseason conditioning program that paid dividends as he hit .269 with 27 home runs, 21 stolen bases and a .814 OPS while playing a career-high 158 games in '12.
But just when it seemed Heyward was heading in the right direction, he incurred two ailments that limited him to just 104 games last year. He was sidelined for a month after undergoing an emergency appendectomy in April and then suffered a fractured jaw when Mets left-hander Jon Niese hit him on the left side of the face with a fastball on Aug. 21.
Heyward's broken jaw sidelined him for a month, putting a halt to one of the most impressive stretches of his career. In the 22 games he played before he was shelved, he hit .357 with a 1.033 OPS and proved to be the consistent leadoff hitter the Braves had been in search of since the beginning of the season.
"You can throw whatever you want to throw at me," Heyward said. "I feel like I have handled everything individually already, anyway. Twenty years old and taking on a lot of attention and then getting up to this point, now it's just, 'What are you going to throw at me that I haven't seen?' Everybody knows by now, the most important thing to me is winning and looking out for my teammates."
As Heyward looks back on last year, he feels fortunate to have returned to Atlanta's lineup for the regular season's final game and in time to play in each of the four games against the Dodgers in the National League Division Series.
While some players have had their confidence shaken for a long stretch after getting hit on the face, Heyward has shown no signs of falling into this category. Some of his comfort comes courtesy of the guard that he has worn on his batting helmet since returning to action in September.
Heyward has batted .333 (16-for-48) with three home runs through his first 18 Grapefruit League games this spring.
"I was absolutely more fragile [in September and October] than I am now," Heyward said. "It was only four weeks after. They said, 'After six weeks, you're going to heal up and everything will be a lot better.' I was a lot more fragile then. I wasn't worried about it or thinking about it.
"It wasn't a matter of me needing to know whether I was going to be OK. I didn't really have time to think about that. I just wanted to be back playing games. At that time of the season, it was huge to be able to come back and do something like that."
Heyward is now preparing to enter the upcoming season with a longer tenure in Atlanta than any other player projected to be on the Braves' Opening Day roster. He gained this status when Kris Medlen suffered a season-ending elbow injury earlier this month.
While he is still young, Heyward believes he will benefit from the trying experiences he has already encountered and the opportunities he had to spend the past few years learning from the examples Chipper Jones, Brian McCann and Tim Hudson set as they served as the senior members of the Braves' clubhouse.
"I just feel like I know how to go about things," Heyward said. "I know what to expect. I'm not really going to get caught off-guard by anything that happens. As far as baseball goes, it's another year. It's another year to have some fun and another year of wanting to be healthy and be on the field."