Chris Heisey faces present promise, future doubt


Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Spring is a contradiction.

It’s the season that promises growth, but also, promises dampness.

Or, to quote a book that none of you have read, The Secret Garden, “It is the sun shining on the rain and the rain falling on the sunshine.”

On this day, in Chris Heisey‘s world, there is sunshine. He hit his fourth home-run of Spring Training on Thursday, continuing to display the pop and promise that once made Cincinnati Reds fans drop that dreaded “p” word, potential, like you’d drop the beat in a club. And boy were we all dancing. Boy were we all drinking the punch.

But this season, in Chris Heisey’s reality, there is a storm coming. There is rain. Because despite what springtime in Arizona brings, it doesn’t erase the past. And in the past, Heisey failed to turn potential and promise into production. The music stopped. And Reds fans were left staring at the walls of a frozen club and realizing the stains didn’t look as good under the still black light.

Forgive the mixed metaphors, but Spring is a contradiction. In Summer, we find some facts:

We find that after Heisey made an impact as a pinch hitter in 2010, he’s entered his prime years, yet somehow, also entered a steady decline in his prowess, his patience, his approach at the plate. That from 2011 to 2013, his walk rate decreased each season. Subsequently, his strikeout-to-walk ratio went up, to the point that he nearly struck out six times more than he received a free pass in 2013. That his OPS+ fell below league average, and his on-base percentage never made it there.

All this after we’d seen the speed, seen the pop (18 home runs in 2011), seen the range he covered in the outfield grass. But it never seemed to come together. And after four seasons of blips, but never a trend, Reds fans are right to wonder if what they are seeing in the desert this Spring is truly a mirage. If their thirst for an outfielder to supplement the aging Ryan Ludwick will remain unquenched.

History suggests we could be seeing the start of something new. And history suggests we could be seeing the same old, same old. I told you Spring was a contradiction. When one searches for the players most similar to Chris Heisey through their age-28 season, a plethora of possible outcomes, and precedence, rises to the top. Just look at the names on the list.

  • Chris Heisey through age 28 | .254/.308/.433 | 162 Game Average: 16 HR, 57 runs scored
  • Jayson Werth through age 28 | .259/.352/.430 | 162 Game Average: 17 HR, 78 runs scored
  • Gates Brown through age 28 | .259/.320/.435 | 162 Game Average: 15 HR, 62 runs scored
  • Brandon Moss through age 28 | .251/.317/.442 | 162 Game Average: 18 HR, 60 runs scored
  • Glenallen Hill through age 28 | .249/.299/.445 | 162 Game Average: 24 HR, 66 runs scored

Heisey might face any, or none, of these scenarios. He likely writes his own narrative. But it helps to see where others have been to guess where someone else might be going.

Werth probably represents the best case scenario. Werth was already, at this point, a better hitter than Heisey (especially in his ability to draw a walk), but no one predicted he was about to skyrocket. In his age-29 season, Werth hit .273/.363/.498 with 24 home runs. The next season, he’d hit 36 long balls. The surge in power ended up garnering him a huge contract from the Washington Nationals, some All-Star honors, and an OPS+ well over league average after that stuttering start. So in Heisey, there is hope.

Gates probably represents the worst case scenario. His age-29 season went inexplicably well, as he hit for a .370 batting average as a reserve. But Gates, even with strong defensive reputation, never earned a consistent, starting gig. He’d never play more than 125 games in a season after his 28th birthday. He only reached 100 games twice, and none of those were the midsummer All-Star classic in July. So in Heisey, there is a chance we’ve seen what we’ll see.

Moss represents the rise, the potential becoming kinetic. His age-29 season came just last year for the Oakland Athletics, when he finally earned a full-time role. He answered the call by collecting 30 home runs and scoring 73 times. His OPS+ of 139 represented that rise from mediocrity to something well above what we’d consider average. So in Heisey, there is the promise of power, of a new peak.

But in my opinion, Glenallen Hill, despite possessing a different skill set, represents the most likely scenario. Hill became a better player than that early start suggested, but never so much so that he entered a new stratosphere of success or earning potential. He put together a respectable career, spending 13 years with seven teams on his tour of Major League Baseball. And even though he averaged less than 100 games per season, he also averaged a respectable line of .280/.331/.500 after that age-28 season.

So where does Heisey fall on that spectrum? Is what Redleg Nation witnessed on Thursday a sign of things to come, or a sign of what might’ve been? Or is it both?

Spring is a contradiction. And if baseball is its secret garden, where all scenarios, at once, are possible, yet impossible to predict, then Heisey faces two paths.

Upon one, his recent power streak is the sun shining on the rain, overcoming the storm, the struggle, of those first four seasons. But on the other, his past is the rain falling on the sunshine, a larger sample size of truth that points to more of the same and less of this latest surge.

But that’s the beauty of spring, of Spring Training, of baseball. The contradictions.

It’s a season of growth, but also flooding. It’s a time of ball games, but no one moves in the standings. It’s a sport where there is no clock, but there are rain delays.

It’s a triumvirate that can conflate Heisey with hope. Because anything is possible. Even when everything tells you it isn’t. Success is a contradiction.