Even before they acquired him last season, Chase Headley was a player on the minds of Yankee fans for a long time. A switch hitter with power and patience, wallowing the Petco Pitcher’s Paradise, he seemed the perfect fit for the Yankees, even before considering his reputedly elite glove at third base. Many people, myself included, thought getting Headley at any point before free agency was something of a pipe dream. Like many other things I’ve said about baseball, I was quite clearly wrong about that.
When he joined the Yankees last season, Headley did about what was expected: provide good defense and get on base (12.9 BB%) and hit for a little bit of pop (.136). Mostly, he righted the ship at third base, which had been taking on an entire ocean of water in the absence of Alex Rodriguez. So far this year, through Friday, 6/5, Headley isn’t hitting all that great, and has had some hiccups in the field (along with a glut of spectacular plays, though). His line sits at .254/.305/.395, good for a .306 wOBA and a 93 wRC+. That’s not all that great to begin with, and it looks a little worse when compared to the average Major League third baseman , who’s wOBAing .318 and wRC+ing 102. It seems that we’ve been waiting for a big breakout from Headley and it seems like it hasn’t exactly arrived–at least at first glance. Looking a bit deeper, we’re smack in the middle of a month-long rebound from Headley.
From Opening Day through May 10, the day his OPS bottomed out at .633, Headley hit just .224/.280/.353, ‘good’ for a wOBA of just .295. His BABIP was a fairly low .274 and his ISO was just .129, both off from his career marks of .329 and .143 respectively. On May 11th, however, Headley started a hot streak that is ongoing. That day, he went 2-4 with a homer and four batted in to kick off a stretch that’s seen him hit .294/.337/.447, a .338 wOBA. His ISO in that stretch is .159, over his career average and over the average ISO for a 2015 third baseman (.155). As I’m fond of saying, there’s the ‘what,’ now let’s look for the ‘how.’ How did Headley start turning things around? Using the same date ranges as before (4/6-5/10 and 5/11-6/05), let’s jump into the batted-ball data that the ever-awesome Brooks Baseball provides for us.
In the early part of the season, Headley was getting eaten alive by fastballs, sinkers, and changeups. That’s a bad thing no matter what; it’s even worse when those are the three pitch types you see the most. He hit just .234; .167; and .167 against them respectively, with ISOs of .149; .000; and .056 respectively. Those marks are as ugly as his overall line was for that stretch of time. His BABIPs against those pitch types were also low: .278; .188; .231. Since then, things have improved. From 5/11-6/05, Headley has reamed fastballs at a .393 clip with a .607 SLG (.214 ISO) and a .435 BABIP. This marked improvement on ol’ number one has been sparked by a change in batted-ball type for Headley.
During this hot-stretch, Headley has gotten more grounders, line drives, and home runs (per fly balls/line drives) against fastballs than he did in April and early May. We know that grounders and line drives are way more likely than fly balls to be hits, so that helps explain the big uptick in average and BABIP. The increased home run totals speak for the jump in ISO. Similar things have happened against sinkers and changeups for Headley, too.
He’s hitting fewer grounders on balls in play against sinkers now (57.14%) than before (62.50%), which plays against what pitchers aim to do when they throw sinkers. And though he still hasn’t left the yard on a sinker (0.00 HR/FB+LD on sinkers for the year), he’s been hitting a higher portion of them, 33.33% to 18.75% for line drives.
Of the changeups Headley put into play in the first part of the season, he pounded 92.31% of them into the ground, which plays right into what pitchers are hoping for when they throw a change. The other 7.69% were line drives. Those totals have been altered quite a bit in the May-June hot streak as he’s lowered the ground ball rate t0 33.33% and upped the line drive rate to 41.67%. The most impactful change, though, has been that of the changeups he’s put into play (25% rate total), 25% of them have gone for homers. He’s gone from being mastered by changeups to mastering them right out of the park.
The rebound we wanted from Headley in early May seems to have arrived and is continuing as I write this and as you read it. What he’s hitting during this stretch is probably the upper bound of what we can expect from him as a hitter and may be hard to sustain. However, this is what we envisioned when we saw Headley traded to the Bronx last summer, something that made us pretty happy. Hitting like this would make that aforementioned pipe dream a reality.