When the Atlanta Braves announced that rookie Jason Heyward was going to be the team’s starting right fielder this season, Heyward instantly became the favorite to win the National League Rookie of the Year award. More than 50 games into the season, it had become a foregone conclusion.
After all, Heyward, the 220-pound, 6-foot-4 left-handed slugger, is competing for a lot more than a rookie award. As the Braves began a three-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies on May 31, Heyward was batting .301 with 10 homers and 38 RBIs. That put him near the top in all three categories, and he’s still adjusting to the big leagues, which means he might improve as the air thins in Hotlanta this summer. After all, he hit .358 in May with a .475 on base percentage.
Essentially, Heyward is in the running for the National League home run title and is even a candidate, though perhaps a long shot, for the batting title. Meanwhile, he also has a good shot at setting a number of rookie records. As of Memorial Day, Heyward is on pace to hit 34 homers and knock in 128 runs. The National League record for RBIs by a rookie is 130, set in 2001 by St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols. The Major League mark is 145, a record set by a fella named Ted Williams in 1939. The most homers in a season by a rookie is 38. Boston’s Wally Berger (1930) and Cincinnati’s Frank Robinson (1956) share the mark.
In case you’re not keeping count, those rookie records are held by a group that includes a pair of Hall of Famers and a shoe-in future Hall of Famer. As well, Pujols and Williams are thought by many to be the two greatest hitters in the game’s history. That’s good company for a kid who still isn’t a household name even among many baseball fans.
Of course, there’s another mark that isn’t lost on Atlanta Braves fans. In 2007, San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s all-time home run mark of 755. Bonds finished his career with 762 homers, but he got a bit of a cold shoulder from Aaron amid swirling allegations that Bonds took performance-enhancing drugs during his career.
Many baseball fans still consider Aaron, a beloved figure in Atlanta, where he retired from the game after 23 seasons, the home run king. Now, though, there’s a chance that another Atlanta player could legitimately reclaim the title. Heyward is only 20 years old. He doesn’t turn 21 until Aug. 9 of his rookie season. Provided he hits 30-35 homers per season, Heyward could challenge Bonds’ record if he stays healthy and has a long career.