Atlanta Braves miss their unspoken leader: Jason Heyward


Jason Heyward watches from the dugout.
Jason Heyward watches his team struggle without him. (Kevin Liles/USA TODAY Sports)

As the Atlanta Braves were battling for their 90th win at home against the San Diego Padres on Sunday, it suddenly occurred to me what they are really missing. Like all teams in the majors, they have their ups and downs, hot and cold streaks, and adversities to deal with. But unlike many other teams, there’s a piece missing that seems to tie it together for everyone else. And this one isn’t really anyone’s fault.

The Braves are missing a leader.

This is going to be a post that, while I’m going to include numbers, isn’t about numbers. That’s right, folks, I’m talking about intangibles — concepts that don’t really have hard statistics to back them up, yet they impact the game just the same. Intangibles come into play in every game, in every sport, in everyday interactions. But our focus is baseball and specifically the Braves, so we can table the rest for another time.

This isn’t about the manager. Fredi Gonzalez is the boss, the general, the president. His business is strategy and doing his best to create the best possible situations and scenarios for the players. Whether they deliver or not is up to them, and Fredi is responsible, ultimately, for their success or their failure. More often than not, though, it’s just for their failure. When teams are doing well, people credit the players. When teams are doing poorly, people blame the manager. And Fredi knows more about that than most (I’m looking at you, Jeffrey Loria).

No, this is about the guy on the field. The guy on the bench. This is about the guy who leads by example because he’s not the boss. He doesn’t give orders or argue with the umps about bad calls. He’s a peer and a brother in arms. But his influence is invaluable.

The Braves lost that guy when Chipper Jones hung up his spikes.

Because Chipper, while seemingly dodging the title of “team leader,” was that guy. As far as I know, he only called one official team meeting to pump the guys up and set them right. But his work ethic, his approach to the game, and his performance on the field spoke volumes between the lines. He never wore a “C” on his jersey or had anything in his contract giving him the crown, but his teammates looked to him to set the standard and learned how to play the game the right way from him.

Typically, the role of leader falls on the shoulders of veterans, the older guys who have played for years and garnered the respect from the younger players. So, it wasn’t a surprise this season when Tim Hudson inadvertently inherited the position. He’s the oldest player on the roster, has played in the Braves’ organization for nine years and has the strong work ethic that drives the rest of the team. And the Braves lost him, too. Not that he’s not around anymore; in fact, he was in the dugout today. But he’s not on the mound and won’t be for the rest of the season. Which puts him in a similar position to the managers and coaches.

Before he left, Chipper anointed a successor, and that guy was Brian McCann. Which makes perfect sense — he’s a catcher, another legacy player who hasn’t played for anyone else and a guy who’s one of the faces of the franchise. Even though I think McCann was a good choice and feel fine about it moving forward, I don’t think he’s the one. Sure, at 29, and even as a catcher, he arguably has years left in him to lead this team. Yet his injury history and the fact his contract expires at the end of the season have put that in doubt. And even though he came back from surgery with a surge, his average rests at .257, his home run total is hovering under his career average, and his walk and RBI totals are down. While I did say this wasn’t about numbers, I didn’t say they had nothing to do with it.

But now we’ve spent a lot of time talking about who isn’t the leader, and not a lot of time talking about who is. On a team with so many young players and not a lot of clear standouts, it’s not the easiest pick. So, I’m going to use performance and results to find the guy. I’m going to look at the season as a whole and find the times when the team looked cohesive and performed like a team in a daily battle for best record in MLB. And I’m looking for the guy who made that possible.

That guy is Jason Heyward.

Now, it pains me to say that, considering he’s currently on the DL and expects to stay there for at least another week or two. At best, he might make it back for four or five games before the end of the season. And I’m concerned about the impact of his brutal injury on his mindset when he does return to the game. But Heyward is a game-changer like Chipper was. They do it in different ways, certainly, but the result is the same.

Look at the numbers. When Heyward began hitting leadoff in late July, the Braves offense exploded. It was a ripple effect that went all the way down the lineup. Justin Upton moved into the number-two spot, which seemed strange for a power hitter; but it allowed him to see more fastballs, which turned out to be his bread and butter. As you probably recall, the Braves went on a 14-game winning streak. You might also recall they scored 40 runs in four games against the Rockies after completing a sweep against the Cardinals. During that same 14-game span, they outscored opponents 78-31.

Now, here’s the intangible part: I can’t say for sure it was due to Heyward batting first. I can’t say for sure it wasn’t in response to losing Hudson for the rest of the season. What I can say is, before Heyward began hitting at the top, the lineup couldn’t seem to pull the pieces together. And they haven’t been able to do it since Heyward went down with a broken jaw. Justin Upton, who still spent time batting second, hasn’t been batting as well. In fact, the only hitters who have kept up their success are Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson. Then again, they were before then, too.

Frankly, right now, the Braves don’t look like the same team. Were the playoffs to start today, I can’t honestly say I like their chances. They have the pitching. They have the offense. But the thread that really ties them together is working his way back and they look a little lost without him. They’ve had a chance to lock down the NL East and, instead, have been mostly treading water. On the bright side, they may be able to clinch in Washington — in front of the Nationals fans — which would bring a significant amount of sweet revenge, but I’d feel better if they went ahead and got it done.

The fact is, the July/August Braves were a force to be reckoned with. I’d put that team against any team in baseball and not just like my chances, I’d love them. But right now, without Heyward, they are a team scuffling and struggling to put up runs against teams not nearly of the same caliber. Sure, it could be September. It could be guys are just tired and the games aren’t the same dramatic, high-stakes games NL Central teams are playing right now. But I think this team needs a leader. They need the guy who’s going to lead this team to victory and bring them a ring in October. They need a game-changer who is a catalyst in every situation.

They need Jason Heyward.

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