PHILADELPHIA – While not a prototypical leadoff man, Jason Heyward has looked comfortable batting there in a Braves lineup that’s performed at its highest level since the big guy moved into that spot just over a week ago.
The Braves hit .303 and scored 62 runs during a nine-game winning streak before Sunday, including six consecutive double-digit hit totals with Heyward as the leadoff hitter before he was out of the lineup for a rest day Saturday (he ended up coming off the bench and getting two at-bats late in the 12-inning win).
“I’m fine doing it,” Heyward said before Sunday night’s series finale against the Phillies, when he hit leadoff for the eighth time in nine games. “I’ve still got the same guy (Justin Upton) hitting behind me, still hitting with the same lineup, and having those guys at the bottom on base when I’m coming up is also nice to have.”
Including one other game atop the batting order May 31, Heyward had a .313 average (10-for-32) and .421 on-base percentage in eight games at leadoff before Sunday, with a double, two homers, 11 runs and eight RBIs. He was moved to the spot July 27, the second day of the Braves’ winning streak.
It’s the first time all season the Braves have had so many hitters healthy and hot at once, and Heyward said that having Chris Johnson, Dan Uggla and Andrelton Simmons lower in the order and getting on base has made for an easier transition for him batting leadoff.
“Because then they’ve got to pitch to me somewhat,” he said. “They can be careful, but if they do walk me in that situation and you put me on, then you’ve got Justin up with two guys on, so you have some trouble there.”
Upton was moved to the second spot when Heyward was bumped up to leadoff, and Freddie Freeman has been the regular No. 3 hitter in that alignment, with Evan Gattis or Brian McCann batting cleanup.
“I like that,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “Fredi was experimenting, trying to get something that clicks and something that works. Whether it ignites guys or makes them feel comfortable, however you want to describe it, he was looking for that right combination, and this one has seemed to fit for everybody.”
The Braves weren’t getting much from a variety of hitters in the leadoff spot with the exception of backup outfielder Jordan Schafer, who thrived in the role (.307 average, .409 OBP in 75 at-bats). He could be back from the 15-day disabled list within a week, but Schafer won’t be in the lineup on a regular basis unless a starter gets hurt.
Fortunately for the Braves, a seemingly unlikely choice – Heyward is 6 feet 4, 240 pounds — has proven to be another effective option in the leadoff spot. Wren believes there’s something to be said for the uniqueness of having Heyward in that role, rather than the typical smaller leadoff hitter with speed but not much power.
“From my perspective, I think it gives the (opposing) pitcher a pause when he looks at what he’s got to start off the game with,” Wren said. “It’s a different look. I’m not sure if anybody else kind of lines up that way, but it definitely makes you think if you’re the other team.”
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Heyward has seen more fastballs in the leadoff role — 65 percent compared to the 57 percent he saw before July 27.
Asked if he’d noticed a difference in the number of fastballs he was getting, Heyward said, “I guess I’ve noticed some. But I still feel like they pitch me pretty tough. They don’t want to put me on, but it’s like they’re trying to be careful at the same time. I still wouldn’t say I’m getting a whole lot in the zone.”
The Braves’ 90 runs since the All-Star break were 12 more than the next-highest total in the majors before Sunday, and for the season they had taken over the National League lead in on-base-plus-slugging percentage at .742, ahead of St. Louis (.741) and Colorado (.739), the teams they swept last week in Atlanta. Their 136 homers were easily the most in the NL.
“This is kind of what we were looking for out of ourselves early in the year,” Heyward said. “We still feel like we can improve. We still feel like we can get more comfortable in situations and whatnot, because we are a young team and we’re all going through this together for the first time, as far as teams hunting for you throughout the whole season. We’re going to get better; we’re going to get better with the situational hitting.
“Right now, I like where everybody’s minds are at. We’re going up there attempting to do a lot of things and not being overwhelmed by it. It’s fun for us. We’ve got to keep going. We’ve got a lot of baseball left. And again, we’ve got to keep guys healthy.”