Tuesday, September 27, 2011

J-Hey and Frenchy

“Born and raised in the Atlanta area, Francoeur was kissed by the sporting gods... He seemingly can do anything on a ball field, even sing.”
- Michael Farber, “Georgia’s New Peach”, Sports Illustrated, August 29, 2005

“Heyward doesn’t so much swing as slash, bringing his hands down and then flat through the strike zone. Like a purely struck one-iron, Heyward’s blasts are line drives with backspin. His home runs don’t soar, they scream and climb.”
Tom Verducci, “Legend Before His Time”, Sports Illustrated, April 19, 2010

Their stories are so close it’s eery. Heralded rookie right fielders raised in the Atlanta area who hit the majors like an August hurricane. Baseball scouts swooned over their seemingly effortless talent while NL East pitchers shook in their boots.

Today, both players look more like baseball’s version of a one-hit-wonder.

After storming into the Braves lineup, Francouer’s batting average dropped from .300 in 2005 to .239 in 2008. When Atlanta traded him to the Mets in 2009, his OBP was .282. (Comparatively, Matt Kemp’s OBP this season is .400.)

The player Sports Illustrated had dubbed “The Natural” has found himself among the hundreds of journeyman players in the major leagues. Frenchy is now with his third team since leaving Atlanta, exiled to the woeful Royals. After beginning with so much promise, his career looks more like Crash Davis than Roy Hobbs.

“He is a corner outfielder who has proven- unquestionably and repeatedly- that he cannot hit well enough to be a regular in the major leagues.” - Joe Posnanski, “Frenchy and Hope”, SI.com, March 1, 2011

Jump to 2010. Atlanta and the rest of the major leagues are awestruck with a new, young right fielder who crushed a Carlos Zambrano fastball to the outfield seats at Turner Field in his first at bat. Former manager Bobby Cox said, “You can tell with your eyes closed when Heyward is hitting. It’s louder than when anybody else hits.” Catcher Brian McCann raved, “He might be the best 20-year-old rookie to ever play.”

At the close of 2011, Heyward’s batting average is an anemic .228 with just 42 RBIs. He hit just seven home runs since April and drew the ire of veteran leader Chipper Jones for not playing with injuries. He’s now batting consistently in the bottom half of the Braves lineup.

“Jason Heyward is in a pretty serious gutterfunk right now,” Grant Brisbee, Baseball Nation, August 11, 2011

Like Frenchy before him, Heyward seems headed down the dark road of disappointment.

Maybe we can blame Sports Illustrated for this. Maybe in search of a great baseball story they hyped these players so much they had no where to go but down. Or maybe it’s the Braves management, or the Atlanta fan base who put too much too soon on them. It could be Heyward’s shoulder problem, or Francouer’s inability to lay off breaking pitches, and they just need another chance to adjust their game.

Or maybe they were never as good as we all hoped. 

Rarely does anyone, in any field, live up to lofty expectations. In the same way heroes are loved and given elevated status, those who fail to reach their perceived potential are often crucified or labeled a disappointment. Even President Obama has his hands tied by the “messiah” expectations that got him elected.

This reality, however, is so glaringly obvious in sports. First round draft picks are considered a bust if they’re not immediate all stars (i.e. Reggie Bush), and successful players are considered “choke artists” if they don’t pull through in clutch moments (i.e. Lebron James and Alex Rodriguez).

This is painfully unfair, but it goes to the heart of why we watch sports. Athletes make us believe we can be great, therefore they are expected to be transcendent. When they’re not, it’s crushing.

This is even more true when applied to baseball. The sport creates legends whose personas and accomplishments grow larger with time. Just revisit Field of Dreams or the aforementioned The Natural. Baseball fans get dreamy eyed for talent like teenage girls watching Justin Bieber. If that talent is never fulfilled, their stories become Greek tragedies.

Heyward and Francouer have no doubt benefitted from the continued belief they will someday be spectacular, and both players have and will have ample opportunities to turn their careers around. But regardless of the future, both will spend their lives compared to what they could have been.

It’s a hell of a burden for a couple of guys still in their twenties.


  1. Disagree strongly. Look at Francoeur's numbers this season, he was very, very good and is going to probably have a long, solid MLB career. Not superstar like many predicted but very good and productive. The bad seasons will be more blips on the radar than the norm or regular.

    Heyward is too talented--this is from scouts and player personnel people--to not pan out in some fashion. He was awful this year, but he will still have a season or two where he is the gem in all of baseball and possibly a career that could still be of Hall of Fame caliber. It's not time to declare anything yet.

  2. I agree Francouer has had some solid seasons, and in the broad landscape of ball players he is very successful. My point is he and Heyward have yet to live up to the grandiose hype around them when they first came into the league.

    Heyward is young and I agree it's early, but his story is starting to resemble Francouer's.

    Thanks so much for reading. I appreciate your honest feedback.