Jason Heyward Sucks His Thumb?


Hello again everyone!

As I look out my window into the backyard, I can wistfully report that the snow has now accumulated to almost three baseballs deep (who needs a ruler?). I only point this out because I’ve gone at least two posts without complaining about the weather here in Michigan. I didn’t want you guys to wonder if you were in the right place or not :-).

As Fred so astutely pointed out in his last post here, it is indeed a slow news day on the Braves front. That’s why I was so surprised to see a headline coming across the ticker proclaiming “Jason Heyward Sucks His Thumb”! Wow!

Oh, wait a minute! I misread that. It actually said “Jason Heyward’s Thumb Sucks”. I’m pretty sure that it was meant as a lead-in to the video posted by Jim Duquette on January 28th about Jason’s thumb (take a look at it here if you’d like):

Jim Duquette Discusses Heyward's Thumb

In case you may have forgotten, Jim Duquette (not to be confused with his cousin, Dan Duquette, who used to be in the Red Sox front office) was Omar Minaya’s predecessor in New York and a key architect of the Mets current “dynasty” that started its run under his control in 2004. He also traded Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano. I tell you this just so you’ll know how astute his player analysis skills are.

Having watched the clip a couple of times, I honestly can’t say for sure what he thinks the impact of the injury will be on Jason in 2011. He almost says that he thinks it will impact his power, but not quite. He almost says that Jason has figured out how to hit with it, but not quite. I think at the end of the day he really didn’t want to be pinned down on the issue. And his on-air cohort didn’t even agree that the head-first slide into third that they showed several times actually caused the injury. But Duquette did go on record that he didn’t like head first slides, so we do have that. And, as I said, it was a slow news day!

That leaves it to us to decide if this is going to be a problem for Jason, not this year but perhaps throughout his career. I’m sure we’re up to the task.

I guess it makes sense to look at the evidence we have. First, there is no doubt in my mind that the slide caused the injury. We don’t have to look any further than Jason himself to get verification. Second, there’s very little doubt that the acute injury – – before the Braves put him on the DL and forced him to rest his hand — impacted his ability to hit the ball. Duquette quotes the numbers, and to me it’s obvious that a drop in over a 100 points in batting average and the loss of almost all his extra-base power from the time of the injury to the DL stint proves that the acute injury was a major problem (and to his credit Duquette agrees).

It’s the impact of the chronic, long-term injury that is still at issue. The numbers after the injury don’t provide a lot of evidence one way or the other, in my opinion. He hit over .300 for the rest of the season after returning from the DL. And he even had a 25 game stretch where he had an OPS over 1.200. But he also tanked at season’s end, hitting less than .200 in the last 12 games and striking out in half of his post-season at bats. However, I think you have to remember that he was a rookie playing the longest season of his life. Even with the injury, he still played in 146 games (including the post season). As such, I don’t think the numbers for the last half of the season tell us anything that can convincingly be attributed to the thumb injury, and probably tell us more about fatigue and the wear-and-tear a full season takes on a person’s body.

What other evidence do we have? Since we can’t interview Jason directly (which Duquette interestingly didn’t do himself), we have to rely on what Jason has told others, and what others have seen. First, Jason says that he has regained his strength but not his full range of motion in his thumb. He also says that he has no pain. And he says that there is no swelling in the joint. Finally, he has been back in the cage and based on the reports of others, the ball still sounds like “classic Jason” coming off his bat (wow, it’s strange saying “classic” about a 21 year old). And the “classic Jason” sound has been compared favorably to the sound made when Hank Aaron hit the ball. (As an aside, there are fabulous descriptions of the sound of a ball coming off Aaron’s bat in his autobiography, “If I Had A Hammer”. A must read for all Braves fans).

OK, I took one other step and actually talked to an orthopaedic surgeon about these kinds of injuries. As I suspected, pain and swelling are the two biggest factors to deal with chronically. Even if these symptoms pop up, which I suspect they might to some degree over the course of a season, they can be effectively managed.

My verdict? While sub-optimal, the injury will not materially impact Jason’s performance. He is a world-class athlete. World-class athletes deal with nagging injuries all the time. Jason will do so as well. I fully expect the Braves to see Jason’s power fully realized this season, with him racking up over 25 homers.

Any other opinions?