By and large, professional athletes do not want to blame poor performance on injuries. The reasons for this range from ego-centric to purely pragmatic, but the upshot is that you will understandably not see a player having a down year saying daily that it’s because his shoulder or knee is hurting him just enough to degrade his play, but not enough to keep him out.
That often leads to uncomfortable speculation situations for those of us on the outside, like we saw with Bryce Harper last year. There were reports that he was dealing with a shoulder issue almost all season, but the Nationals very aggressively denied it. His performance was down dramatically, and it was only logical to connect dots, even if it was awkward to do so.
We ran into a smaller, less national-intrigue-laced version of that last year, when Jason Heyward suffered an early-season wrist injury, but did not miss significant time. There were all kinds of problems with Heyward’s swing last year, leading to abysmal results, but wrist injuries are notorious for sapping hitters’ ability to strike the ball with authority (the primary problem Heyward was having), and we were concerned about it even immediately after the injury occurred.
Given what we were seeing with his swing, however, I don’t think it would have been fair to say a lingering wrist issue was the sole cause of Heyward’s woeful performance, but we always did try to check that box as a possible contributing factor when talking about his season. But, personally, I wasn’t comfortable saying “he is dealing with the lingering effects of a wrist injury,” because there was no public indication that it was a significant contributor to his struggles.
With some time and distance, and a very hot start out of the gate, I was very interested to see mention of the wrist issue at ESPN today. The explanation about that injury, and its relationship to Heyward’s swing troubles, is very illuminating.
“I’ve always been a handsy hitter,” Heyward told ESPN. “That’s me. Growing up, hit with my hands. Arms are just for leverage and to cover the whole plate. Last year, having the wrist injury, [I] got into a lot of bad habits. Tried to do more and muscle the ball, and even when that [injury] went away, I had bad habits and didn’t come out of it.”
Doesn’t that all sound so right? Remember how long Heyward’s already awkward swing got? How arm-involved it got, which slowed things down and allowed him to be beaten consistently by good velocity?
Again, I don’t want to chalk everything up to the wrist issue, but you are reminded about how difficult it can be unwind swing changes in the middle of a season. And if Heyward had locked into his muscle memory a new kind of swing because of the way his wrist was impacted, it’s not hard to see how things could immediately be significantly better this season after a ton of offseason work. (You are also reminded that, in addition to struggling, Heyward was also very unlucky last year.)
There’s much more in the ESPN piece about the changes in Heyward’s swing, and the reasons for his success this year. It’s a great read, and a great reminder about how much of this game can only be understood with time, distance, and large samples. It’s possible that Heyward will keep raking like this, have a perfectly good and normal Heyward season, and then we’ll always look back at 2016 not as the start of a decline, but as a totally anomalous blip caused by a confluence of factors, most prominently, a wrist injury that barely cost him any time at all.