JASON HEYWARD needed an intervention. It was the winter of 2011, and gone was the J-Hey Kid, the tools goof who drew comparisons to Willie Mays. Gone was the sweet-swinging lefty who launched a 476-foot bomb in his first big league at-bat in April 2010, the prodigy who led the Braves in OPS in his first season and nearly beat out Buster Posey for NL Rookie of the Year. In his place stood a confused 22-year-old in search of his mojo.
In 2011 Heyward had battled through a nagging right shoulder injury that robbed him of both playing time (34 games) and power (.708 OPS, down from .849 in 2010). "He'd lost his way a bit," Atlanta hitting coach Greg Walker says. So much so that Walker thought nothing of making the drive from his south Georgia farm to Turner Field -- seven hours round-trip -- twice a week after the season ended. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Heyward, Walker and assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher watched video of bad habits that Heyward's injury had bred: He wasn't using his lower half. He wasn't keeping his hands inside the ball. He was too passive on early-count fastballs.
Knowing what needed to change, Heyward also spent his Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays holed up at an Atlanta training facility with C.J. Stewart, his mentor and personal coach since middle school. Over the winter, he logged 3,000 cuts -- 100 per session -- to rediscover his swing. "That's how many repetitions it takes to develop a habit," Stewart says.
By spring training, Heyward felt like a toddler after a timeout. "It was like I'd just gotten my favorite toy back, and I couldn't wait to use it," the 6'5", 233-pound outfielder says. But his excitement showed a little too much as he whiffed 50 times in his first 50 games and hit just six homers in 172 at-bats. Once summer rolled around, however, the winter work started paying off. Heyward hit 21 jacks after June 1, more than he'd hit in any full season as a pro. But it wasn't just about the power. Last season the rangy rightfielder posted baseball's highest UZR -- a measure of defensive prowess -- en route to his first Gold Glove. More important for fantasy, Heyward, with a career-high 21 steals, became the first Brave to go 20-20 since Andruw Jones in 2000.
Suffice it to say this winter was different from the one before. "Jason felt so good that he told me not to even bother coming up," Walker says. Which makes you wonder: With a clean bill of health and a clear head, a strong grasp on his swing and a strong 2012 behind him, just how high is the ceiling for the new and improved J-Hey Kid?
"I've got a skill set that is rare," Heyward says. "If I can get enough at-bats, the numbers will come." Big ones, as Stewart sees it. "Before his career is over, he'll be a 40-40 guy. If it happened this year, I wouldn't be surprised."
And neither should fantasy owners.