Away from all the noise, all the tweets, all the reminders of his rough 2011 season, Jason Heyward stepped into the batting cage at Turner Field earlier this month for a quiet moment between hitters.
Chipper Jones looked him in the eye and initiated a little back-and-forth before Heyward picked up his bat to take his first swings, with Jones, new Braves hitting coach Greg Walker and his associate Scott Fletcher looking on.
“How’s your confidence?” Jones said.
“Man, my confidence is good,” Heyward said.
“Is it good?” Jones said. “Or is it sky high?”
“Man, sky high,” Heyward said.
Heyward’s an upbeat guy. Jones knows he’s going to say he’s good even when he’s not. That’s why he was delving a little deeper. And maybe he was doing a little encouraging with his asking, too.
For a 22-year-old who has lived such extremes in his first two major league seasons, this offseason has been about stripping down and starting over, both mentally and physically. And by all accounts, it’s paying off.
“He’s 90 percent back,” said Jones, who has made a point to hit with Heyward as often as possible this month and lend a hand to the new hitting coaches.
Ask Heyward where the renewed confidence comes from, after a season in which he hit .227 with 14 homers and 42 RBIs while mired in bad habits picked up from a shoulder injury, he’ll tell you it has a lot to do with all the work he’s put in this winter.
Heyward’s workouts started two weeks after the season ended. They started with 8 a.m. wake-up calls five days a week, as opposed to just Monday, Wednesday and Friday as in the past.
He did physical therapy to build strength in his shoulder twice a week, workouts with weights at the gym three times a week and for the first time he started a regular routine of running and cardio-work. Look closely in the pool at L.A. Fitness you might have even seen Heyward swimming laps.
He made an effort to slim down, dropping from 256 pounds last spring to 235 now. He’s eating fewer steaks and junk food and adding fruits and healthy snacks to meals of salads, fish, chicken or pasta.
Heyward said he added weight last year in an attempt to build on his standout rookie season, when he finished second to Giants catcher Buster Posey for National League rookie of the year after hitting .277 with 18 homers and 72 RBIs. But after the injury, he started to feel sluggish.
“I wasn’t feeling like myself,” Heyward said. “I didn’t feel that I could make my body do what my mind wanted to do. I wanted to make sure I have that feel, that control again.”
Mentally, he worked on getting rejuvenated, too. That came by leaning on a close group of friends and family and from getting back in touch with what he loves about the game.
Heyward spent a lot of time on his own, running around the warning track at Turner Field, jogging and running intervals, appreciating the place he grew up in Henry County wanting to reach.
“For me it was cool to look [around] and just to continue to have that feeling of being a fan and loving the game, and how much fun I’m supposed to be having doing what I love doing,” Heyward said.
As lonely as he could have felt in those moments, or throughout the winter as the Braves stood pat with their roster, raising expectations even more on Heyward to get turned around, he chose to rely on his teammates.
Heyward said pressure is not something he has to bear alone.
“Yeah I have a lot of to do with this upcoming season, but so does Martin [Prado], so does Freddie [Freeman], so does Mike Bourn, Chip,” Heyward said. “So do [Brian McCann] and [Dan] Uggla.”
When it came time to get back into the batting cage, Heyward knew he would have to start from scratch. The only way to erase his bad habits was to eradicate them. So for the first three weeks in the cage, starting in mid-October, he didn’t pick up a bat.
While the Braves were in the process of hiring Walker, Heyward was working with C.J. Stewart, the same personal hitting coach he’s worked with since he was 14. They focused on the basics.
“I was working on my stance, working on my load,” Heyward said. “Basically all the things I need to have as far as a foundation to allow my swing to work.”
He used exercise bands, took dry swings, and made meticulous work of the program Stewart developed.
“The first day we went in there, we went through the whole workout twice,” Heyward said. “It took me two hours and 45 minutes to go through it because I wanted to make sure. It was that important to me.”
It was frustrating, Heyward readily acknowledges, to have to start over with something he felt he had learned a long time ago — going back to kindergarten as Jones puts it — but it’s been well worth it.
By the time Heyward started hitting with Walker in January, he had something to build on. Personally, Walker had gotten to know Heyward a little first, inviting him to lunch just to talk, before they ever got in the cage.
Once they did, Heyward said, Walker has complemented the work he started on his own. Heyward said he’s gotten a big lift from watching video with “Walk,” “Fletch,” and “Chip,” comparing his swing from 2010 and 2011. Walker agrees.
“Everybody that’s seen Jason swing the bat so far is excited about where he is,” he said.
The next step is seeing it on the field, and building on what Heyward started two springs ago.
“When he got to spring training in 2010 and on into the season when the ball jumped off his bat, it was a sound and a sight unlike you had ever heard before or seen,” Jones said. “... The ball is jumping off the bat now close to what it was in spring training 2010. He’s still making some adjustments and it’s a slow process. As Tiger Woods will tell you, you go through a swing change it’s going to take some time. But he’s starting to get it, and he’s starting to get results.”