The similarities are striking. Both were high school baseball stars in Georgia. Both were first-round draft picks of their favorite and hometown team, the Atlanta Braves. Both play right field.
And, unfortunately, their career paths seem to be going in the same direction.
Jeff Francoeur was Atlanta’s top pick in the 2002 draft. Jason Heyward got the honors five years later. In effect, Heyward replaced Francoeur, who was traded a half-season before Heyward made his big league debut in 2010.
Perhaps the expectations were just too high for both to ever live up to. It’s not easy for a young star to play in his own back yard, with his friends and family watching even more closely than if they were playing in Seattle.
But both players are struggling to get over that hump and become the complete player they were supposed to be. It’s getting a little late for Francoeur, who is 29 now. And if Heyward doesn’t get his career back on track, he might follow the same fate.
As the Braves opened their series in Kansas City Tuesday night, the statistics stuck out like a sore thumb. Francoeur, now in his third season with the Royals, was hitting .212 with three home runs, 13 RBI, a .254 on-base percentage and a .330 slugging percentage in 179 at-bats.
Heyward was hitting .211 with five home runs, 13 RBI, a .312 on-base percentage and a .332 slugging percentage in 190 at-bats. What is basically the difference in those two sets of numbers? Heyward has walked 15 times more than Francoeur, which has always been Francoeur’s Achilles’ heel.
When the Braves decided to cut bait with Francoeur almost four years ago, his numbers were not that much different than what Heyward has done in his three-plus seasons with the Braves. Francoeur had hit .266 with Atlanta, along with 78 home runs, 359 RBI and a .308 on-base percentage in 631 games.
Heyward has hit .255 in his 480 games with the Braves. He has hit 64 home runs and driven in 209 runs, with a .348 on-base percentage.
But the numbers have trended downward for Heyward since his rookie season. Since the start of the 2011 season, Heyward is hitting only .246 with an on-base percentage of .326. That is much worse than the .277 batting average and .393 on-base percentage Heyward had in his solid rookie season.
Both Francoeur and Heyward are outstanding fielders, with rocket arms in right field. They are also both very good baserunners. But again, the only difference between the two players is that Heyward walks more and is a more patient hitter than Francoeur.
It was easy to believe Heyward might be on track last year, when he stayed healthy and hit .269 and clubbed 27 home runs and drove in 82. But he has just struggled to be productive this season. Perhaps it’s because Heyward mainly has batted second in the lineup, which has been a disaster. But even after returning from his appendectomy in May, Heyward still has not done particularly well. He has hit only .250 with a .336 on-base percentage since getting off the disabled list.
Here’s the problem. We thought Francoeur was going to be a great player -- the next Dale Murphy. He turned out to be only decent. And it looks like Heyward is going in that same direction. The skills are there, but he’s just not the outstanding player we thought he was going to be.
With Jordan Schafer doing well in the lineup, when given the opportunity, Heyward is all of a sudden under pressure to do well. The Braves are pretty much stuck with Justin Upton and B.J. Upton. Both are under long-term contracts and just joined the team this year. Heyward, who reportedly turned down a long-term contract from the Braves last offseason, is the most expendable of the three main outfield starters.
And if Heyward doesn’t turn things around, he could face the same exact outcome as Francoeur, who was traded after almost four complete seasons in Atlanta. Heyward’s fourth season ends in September, and many won’t be disappointed if he’s finishing it in another uniform.
Maybe there’s still hope for Heyward, who is surprisingly viewed more positively than he should be, considering his lackluster statistics. But the Braves are desperate for some offensive consistency, and if Heyward’s not good enough to be in the lineup, he’ll be the latest hometown talent shuffled out of town.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.