Is Chase Headley Actually Good Again?

The only time that recent history shows me discussing Chase Headley is that time during the offseason where I declared that the New York Yankees should look at Luis Valbuena as a potential upgrade at the position. Obviously, whatever points were made there were moot, as Valbuena went on to sign with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim later on in the winter. Nonetheless, I wasn’t terribly high on Headley coming into the 2017 season, and you’d be hard-pressed to find folks (who aren’t liars) that were or even are.

Regardless of expectations, Headley is off to the best start of any player at the third base position. Yes, the same position that includes Bryant, Donaldson, and Machado, among a handful of other high-end players currently sports Chase Headley as the class of the hot corner. He was the first third sacker to eclipse the 1.0 WAR mark and the early trends have him returning to a level of offensive prominence that we haven’t seen since, like, 2013 when he was still in San Diego.

It’s extremely difficult to make any declarations about a player who has less than 60 plate appearances on the season. It’s even more so when that player has provided negative offensive value in each of the last two seasons that followed a 0.1 Off rating in 2014. We’ll look at some of the detractors that could prevent excitement over Headley’s start, but let’s first look at some of the things that he’s done well early on in 2017. For comparison’s sake, we’ll look only at 2015 on, when Headley was a full-time Yankee.

2015 .259 .324 .693 .110 21.0 7.9 92
2016 .251 .329 .712 .133 22.3 9.6 92
2017 .395 .509 1.114 .209 17.0 18.9 220

Obviously we’re looking at 53 plate appearances from this season against PA totals of 642 and 529, respectively. The former two seasons are just there as a baseline to give you some semblance of perspective as to how decidedly mediocre Headley has been over the past couple of seasons. And a lot of what’s there is entirely unsustainable, especially when you toss in a .469 batting average on balls in play. But there are some things about Headley’s approach and contact trends early on that are at least interesting as we move further into this new campaign.

Swing% Contact% SwStr% Pull% Oppo% Soft% Hard%
2015 42.6 80.0 8.6 44.3 20.0 17.4 27.8
2016 44.0 77.0 10.1 41.5 24.6 17.2 31.4
2017 37.1 80.2 7.3 35.3 38.2 17.6 26.5

By virtue of swing percentage, and the fact that his pitches per plate appearances has jumped from 3.96 to 4.38 from 2016 to 2017, it’s definitely possible that we’re looking at a player with an improved approach. That’s mainly true in terms of the overall zone, because there isn’t anything that particularly stands out among his swing rates against individual pitch types, other than the fact that they’ve largely declined, just like his Swing%. Oh yeah, the walk rate is also a pretty strong indicator that the approach has improved to a certain degree.

At the same time, how does a player who experienced a decrease in hard contact and remained relatively constant in his contact rate experience such an uptick in his ability to hit his way on base? For one, and this is a major one, is his sudden ability to hit the ball the other way. Headley has faced the shift in 36% of his plate appearances, with some sort of shift taking place in 19 out of 53 plate appearances heading into Tuesday. That ability to go oppo is a stark contrast to what he’s turned in in the past few seasons.

Additionally, he’s keeping the ball off the ground. His GB% has fallen from 43.1% in 2015 and 44.2% in 2016, to just 30.3% thus far in 2017. As such, his linedrive percentage has jumped up from 23.8% last year to 39.4% in 2017. The combination of an ability to take the ball the other way and an increase in balls in the air is absolutely resulting in a formula for success for Headley in 2017.

As splendid as it’s been to watch him get off to this type of start, though, it certainly remains to be seen if this is something that he can carry farther into this new campaign. We shouldn’t expect the power to come along with it, and it’s not like his isolated power is off the charts to a degree that we’d expect an uptick in power anyway. But is Headley primed to become an on-base machine this season, in a way that none of us could have expected?

Ultimately, we’re going to have to wait just a little bit longer to figure out. Virtually every statistic needs to at least double in sample size, at a minimum, before it begins to stabilize. It’s, of course, unreasonable to expect Headley to perform at this kind of level over the course of an entire year, given that we’ve become accustomed to league average (if not just a touch below) production from him at this point. But if this evolution in his approach, which has manifested itself in an increased walk rate and more opposite field contact, is any indication, then Chase Headley could certainly be a catalyst for a surprising Yankees squad.

And a suddenly intriguing option at a third base position that didn’t already lack for intrigue.

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Ryan Brock

No mention of his 27% IFH rate coming from bunting against the shift lately?