LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It was easy to understand why Jason Heyward escaped a frustrating 2011 season with motivation to alter his swing and dedicate himself to an intense conditioning program. His decision to remain dedicated to this rigorous program after an impressive 2012 season simply enhanced visions of him living up to his tremendous potential.
"I think Jason knows what he wants and what he wants to do," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He wants to play this game a long time and be successful. You can really see over the past years the maturity that he has gained. It wouldn't surprise me if he emerged as one of the leaders of the clubhouse, if he's not already there."
Two weeks after the Braves suffered their season-ending loss to the Cardinals in the National League's one-game Wild Card playoff, Heyward resumed the running and lifting programs that helped him shed 20 pounds between the 2011 and '12 seasons. His efforts this past winter simply added some muscle to an athletic frame that would certainly draw the attention of football's talent evaluators.
When Hank Aaron arrived at Braves Spring Training and saw the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Heyward, he said, "My God. Whew!"
It seems sacrilegious and ridiculous to compare any 23-year-old player to Aaron. But as Heyward rises toward greatness while occupying the same right-field position Aaron manned for two decades with the Braves, it is impossible not to draw a link.
Through their first three full seasons, Heyward and Aaron totaled an identical 428 games.
Aaron hit .310 with 66 home runs, a .354 on-base percentage and a .521 slugging percentage during that span. Heyward's stats through his first three seasons include a .261 batting average with 59 homers, a .352 on-base percentage and a .447 slugging percentage.
"Jason can be probably one of the greatest players in the league," Aaron said. "He runs the bases well. He can steal bases. He plays the outfield about as well as anybody in right field. He's got a great arm, and he plays well. You like to see a player like that, because he doesn't play like he's going to get hurt. He plays reckless, and he runs the bases very well."
At this time last year, Heyward was answering questions about the disappointment he encountered while battling a sore right shoulder throughout the 2011 season. Now he is drawing glowing compliments from a legendary Hall of Famer who is considered by some to be the greatest player in baseball history.
"Coming from Hank, you appreciate it because you know he doesn't have to say certain things or answer any questions," Heyward said. "When he just says it, he's only going to say it because he really means it. He doesn't have any reason to blow smoke because he's not getting anything out of that. So that is definitely appreciated."
Heyward's dedication and patience proved to be some of his greatest assets as he hit .269 with 27 home runs, 21 stolen bases and an .814 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) last year. His unselfish approach and understanding of the game is better appreciated when he says the number that gave him the most pride was 158 -- the number of games he played.
"The more games, the more reps," Heyward said. "The more reps, the more I'm going to learn. I'm a student of the game."
After hitting .227 with 14 homers and a .708 OPS in 128 games in 2011, Heyward completely altered the mechanics of his swing and remained attentive to the direction provided by new Braves hitting coach Greg Walker, who preached the need for everybody to remain patient during the early portion of the regular season.
Heyward was heading toward another mediocre season as he hit .234 with six home runs and a .738 OPS through his first 51 games. But everything seemed to change when he delivered an opposite-field single against Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez during a June 3 win over the Nationals. He recorded three hits against the Marlins the next day and then produced a two-homer game before leaving Miami two days later.
"Once I have a feeling and I know how to repeat it, I'm pretty disciplined and able to get back to it as quick as possible," Heyward said. "I don't get complacent and I don't like to stretch something out. I just want to get to the problem right away. I think that's the biggest thing. That's why you saw Chipper Jones put up his numbers. The guy made his corrections almost immediately."
Once Heyward found his timing with his feet and hands, he experienced little trouble the remainder of the season. He hit .284 with 21 home runs, 12 stolen bases, a .339 on-base percentage and a .507 slugging percentage in his final 107 games. That pace would have given him 32 home runs and 19 stolen bases over a 162-game season.
Still just six years removed from high school, Heyward is approaching his fourth Major League season with great anticipation. Last year, he became just the 10th player in Braves history to record at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in the same season.
Now as Heyward prepares to join B.J. Upton and Justin Upton to form a dynamic outfield trio in Atlanta, he is motivated by the desire to prove last year was just a stepping-stone toward bigger and better things.
"I'll take the year he had last year for the next 10 years," Fredi Gonzalez said. "But there's still a lot left there that he can do. I think he knows that and that's how he goes about his business."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.