Where Is Chase Headley Headed?

Fantasy baseball players can, at this point, feel pretty safe in making the judgment that the 2012 season represents an outlier in Chase Headley’s statistical ledger.

The switch hitter went yard 31 times and led the National League in RBIs with 115 that year. He tied a career best with 17 swipes, to boot. He also played in 161 games for the second time in his lifetime; that much playing time isn’t exactly baseline performance level, either, although it’s hardly the No. 1 factor in his limitations both before and after that career year. He posted extremely similar rates in each of the past two campaigns, and they aren’t much different from the three he produced before that legendary rotisserie line.

The object at RotoGraphs is to point out the obvious, so, case closed. Please surf the Interwebs safely. Don’t forget to tip your cloud.

There are a couple of reasons to be optimistic about Headley’s future, of course. He’s a free agent, for starters; the New York Yankees, who traded for him this past July, are strongly interested in bringing him back, according to Jon Heyman. Giddy up. Also, the third baseman made a documented change this past season, and his results both before and after it indicate a discernible, positive effect on his performance. Yee ha.

Breaking news: Yankee Stadium’s park factors are better for hitters than Petco Park’s, especially for batters who hit from the left side often. Meh. It happens, or it doesn’t. Let’s move on.

Midway through this past season, Headley changed his grip on the handle of the bat, something we’ve mentioned here and there in the past few months, too. The timing was incredibly convenient: (1) His performance began to improve as the non-waiver trade deadline approached, and (2) the adjustment occurred right around the midpoint of the season, allowing for easy halving of his year’s output.

Well, would you look at that? It’s settled, then. Headley will be the free-agent bargain of the century this winter. He’s the most exciting fantasy baseball sleeper of 2015.

OK, obviously, not bloody likely. Those post-adaptation marks aren’t exactly exceptional. Just how much should they affect his projection for next season, future residence aside, though?

The differences reside mainly in results that aren’t really predictive. No noteworthy changes in his walk rate, strikeout rate, or many of rates in plate discipline – with the exception of contact rate (increased from 76.3% to 82.7%) and swinging-strike rate (10.0% to 7.3%). Those last two would be lifetime bests in a full season, but in context, they don’t set off the alarm; those pre-modification percentages would be career worsts in a full campaign. His zone profiles and heatmaps for said periods don’t seem to indicate much new.

Perhaps most interesting is that his batted-ball rates transformed notably. Headley basically swapped some FB% (34.4% to 30.0%) for some LD% (24.2% to 30.0%). Change in swing plane, then? Perhaps. And that’d seem to bode well for his future AVG, although probably not for his HR total. His batted-ball percentages are pretty drastically different from his career norms, period, however; even the pre-fix rates would be outside the norms. I wouldn’t read into these too much or start making predictions based on them.

Besides, from the UTSD article, we know that this grip of the bat is actually something he’s used for most of his career, and only a 2013 preseason injury prompted a deviation from his usual practice. It’s reasonable just to say that he was more comfortable after he reverted to a previous habit. It makes his overall results for that second stretch some percentage – what that is, I don’t know exactly – more characteristic of what we should consider his mean performance for the past two years and factor that into his next projection.

Steamer (.257/.343/.413 in 634 PA) doesn’t do that, naturally. It’s not a poor projection, but the home run total (18) weighs 2012 too much, which basically seems fair to do, on the optimistic side, only if he should end up back in Pinstripes or on a club with a similar home run environment. It’s also, by contrast, not quite as forgiving, I think, as it should be for his batting average. Given the way Headley seems to have trended, he should continue to post a super-20% line-drive rate and, more easily, perhaps, a super-10% HR/FB, though, with speed continuing its slight decline in his age-31 season.

The PT is also a bit too generous, for me. As mentioned, an injury is what prompted Headley’s grip alteration last year. The UTSD article reported that the corner infielder received an epidural shot (ouch) earlier this past season to combat pain from a herniated disc, which plays some indeterminable part in his second-half outcomes, too. His injury history, as chronicled at Baseball Prospectus, is littered with mild to medium soft-tissue as well as structural problems. I don’t like that such a back problem is in the picture on this side of his 30th birthday.

It was a fun puzzle to ponder, to some prognosticators, for some time: What would Headley do if he weren’t confined to Petco Park and the Padres’ putrid batting order? Much of the joy of that imaginary scenario has worn off, just in time for it to become reality. What will weigh on fantasy owners’ minds more come the 2015 draft season? Headley’s, by that time, change of scenery, which isn’t likely to affect his outlook much but can often increase hype? Or his history of mediocre health and results, where the former mitigates optimism, more so in terms of AVG, for the latter? That question is a lot less stirring. At least his production’s ceiling is likelier to be a little loftier than it was in San Diego sans 2012.

Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.

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