Chase Headley and the Simple Goal of Being Dependable [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees went into the offseason with two third basemen and left with a completely different one. Alex Rodriguez‘s suspension ended and yeah, technically he’s still a third baseman, plus they had Martin Prado in tow as well. The team clearly (and rightfully) has little faith in A-Rod‘s ability to actually play the hot corner because he’s pushing 40, has two surgically repaired hips, and hasn’t played a whole lot the last two years.

So the Yankees proceeded as if Rodriguez was not a third base candidate this winter, though eventually they traded Prado to the Marlins for Nathan Eovaldi. Before they did that though, the club re-signed Chase Headley to a four-year contract worth $52M. Trading Prado probably wasn’t going to happen without Headley back in the fold first. New York wanted Headley back so much they caved into his four-year demand as well.

After coming over from the Padres last year, the 30-year-old Headley hit .262/.371/.398 (121 wRC+) with six homers in 58 games and seemed to be in the middle of everything. He also played standout defense at the hot corner and that’s his true calling card, not his bat. Overall, Headley put up a .243/.328/.372 (103 wRC+) batting line between San Diego and New York in 2014. What purpose does he serve in 2015? Let’s look.

Yankees Need: Dependable Offense

Thanks to Yangervis Solarte in the first half and Headley in the second half, the Yankees got a .254/.329/.404 (107 wRC+) batting line out their third basemen last year, which is pretty solid. It’s nothing that will carry a lineup, but that’s workable. My guess is the Yankees would be happy with similar overall production from Headley this year.

But, most importantly, the Yankees need Headley to be dependable near the middle of the lineup because all their big name middle of the order guys come with questions. Carlos Beltran is old and coming off elbow surgery. Mark Teixeira has been trending downward for years. Brian McCann was dreadful during his first year in New York. A-Rod? Good grief. The Yankees need Headley to be a mainstay and someone they can count on to produce from Opening Day through Game 162, no questions asked.

Headley Can: Offer Reasons To Expect More Than 2014

Let’s get this out of the way: 2012 Headley, the guy who put up a .286/.376/.498 (145 wRC+) batting line with 31 homers, is not coming back. It would be awesome if he did, but that very likely was Headley’s career year, and that’s okay. His 2013 season — .250/.347/.400 (114 wRC+) with 13 homers — was pretty good between a great 2012 and an average 2014.

Headley is still relatively young, certainly not at an age when you’d expect his bat to decline precipitously, and he’s moving into a much more favorable home ballpark. Going from Petco Park to Yankee Stadium should, if nothing else, boost his power numbers. They moved the Petco walls in recently but there’s nothing they can do about the marine layer that knocks the ball down at night. That’s the real problem.

When the Yankees acquired Headley last year, Brian Cashman said the team’s internal metrics measured an uptick in his “hit velo,” and we’re just going to have to take Cashman’s at his word. There’s no publicly available “hit velo” data aside from the stuff at Hit Tracker, which shows Headley’s six homers with the Yankees averaged 105.3 mph off the bat after his seven with the Padres averaged 105.6 mph. That’s only homers though, not all hits. Either way, the team has something telling them Headley is hitting the ball with more authority now.

Headley has always drawn a fair amount of walks and while he is a switch-hitter, he is very shiftable as a left-handed hitter (2012-14 spray charts). That’s taken a bite out of his batting average in recent years and you can be sure teams won’t stop shifting against him. But, between the walks and more favorable ballpark (don’t discount the mental “thank goodness I’m out of Petco!” factor), there’s reason to believe Headley can improve on last year’s 103 wRC+ and get him back to something close to his 114 wRC+ from two years ago.

Yankees Need: Sturdy Defense At Third Base

This offseason the Yankees set out to improve their infield defense. It was clearly a priority. Headley came over at midseason last year and was a breath of fresh air compared what the team had been running out there in recent years, the hobbled A-Rods and Solartes and Youkilises of the world. If the Yankees are going to contend this year, strong infield defense is a necessity, not a luxury.

Headley Can: Play Sturdy Defense In His Sleep

Defense is Headley’s specialty. He’s a gloveman before a hitter, and we saw that firsthand in the second half year season. I do think it’s important to note the defensive stats — all of ‘em, UZR, DRS, Total Zone, the whole nine — all love Headley, but last year they loved him more than ever. They had him saving something like 20+ runs in the field after having him in the 5-10 runs saved range from 2011-13. Defense is like offense, players can have a career year in the field. Headley’s a very good fielder. He’s probably not going to be as outrageously good as he was last year again though.

Yankees Need: Headley To Stay Healthy

Moreso than any other position, the Yankees don’t have a viable backup plan at third base should Headley miss an extended period of time. It’s hard to think A-Rod will be able to play the hot corner regularly, and the other options are Brendan Ryan, Jose Pirela, Cole Figueroa, and Jonathan Galvez. That’s … not very promising. Maybe A-Rod will show he can play the field regularly and exceed expectations. But unless that happens, Headley will be extremely difficult to replace if he gets hurt.

Headley Can: Stay Healthy, Hopefully

Headley’s injury history isn’t all that gruesome. He’s been on the DL three times in his career: once because he broke his pinkie sliding into a base (missed 44 days), another time because he broke the tip of his thumb sliding into a base (26 days), and another time with a calf strain (15 days). Unless Headley is a such a chronically bad slider that his fingers are always in jeopardy, there’s nothing recurring there to worry about.

Headley’s back, on the other hand, is another matter. He’s had on and off back trouble over the years but has never missed more than a handful of games at a time. In fact, he has missed 18 days total in his career due to back trouble, including four last summer. Of course, Headley did need an epidural last year — Cashman noted the “hit velo” spike came after the injection — and that’s worrisome. But, to date, the back has been nothing more than a minor nuisance. Hopefully it stays that way going forward. Aside from that, Headley has no lingering physical issues to worry about.

Yankees Need: Some Leadership

I don’t want to harp on this too much but it is worth noting. The Yankees not only waved goodbye to Derek Jeter this offseason, they replaced him with the very young Didi Gregorius. There’s a leadership void in the clubhouse and on the left side of the infield. Headley, as a relatively big free agent signing, will be counted on to fill some of that void.

Headley Can: Provide Some Leadership, Maybe, Possibly

Headley looks like a leader type, right? That’s good enough for me. By all accounts he fit in well in the clubhouse after the trade last season and I’m sure he’ll be able to help Gregorius with positioning and stuff. That seems leadership-y.

email

Poll: The Most Important Addition of the Offseason

Miller appears to be 95% arms and legs. (Presswire)
Miller appears to be 95% arms and legs. (Presswire)

Spring Training has begun and the offseason is over. The Yankees made a lot of transactions this winter — I count eleven trades and free agent signings involving actual MLB players — and accomplished their goals of getting younger and more flexible. It was a different winter in the sense that there were no massive free agent contracts handed out.

Some offseason pickups are more important to the Yankees than others, obviously. More important not just for the success of the 2015 Yankees, but for the 2016 and beyond Yankees as well. Which offseason addition was most important both short and long-term? That’s what we’re here to decide. With all due respect to one-year guys like Stephen Drew and Garrett Jones, and fringe roster guys like Chasen Shreve and Chris Martin, here are the team’s six biggest offseason pickups.

RHP David Carpenter

Acquired from the Braves in the Manny Banuelos trade, the 29-year-old Carpenter is going to step right into some sort of setup role this year. Shawn Kelley’s old role, basically, which is fitting because they are similar fastball-slider pitchers. It’s hard to consider any non-elite reliever like Carpenter a long-term piece — he’s been traded four times and claimed off waivers once already in his career — but he is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2017. If he performs well, he’ll stick around in the bullpen for a few years.

RHP Nathan Eovaldi

Eovaldi, who just turned 25 ten days ago, was New York’s big rotation addition this winter. He had a shaky year with the Marlins in 2014 (4.37 ERA in 199.2 innings) but there are signs of growth, specifically his continually improving walk rate (2011-14: 13.7 BB%, 8.9 BB%, 8.9 BB%, 5.0 BB%) and FIP (2011-14: 4.35, 4.13, 3.59, 3.37). The Yankees acquired Eovaldi because of what they believe he will become, not what he has been, and his raw tools — specifically one of the hardest fastballs in the game — suggest major upside. Upside, of course, means he’s not there quite yet. Like Carpenter, Eovaldi is under control through the 2017 season as an arbitration-eligible player and the team envisions him fronting the rotation by time he qualifies for free agency.

SS Didi Gregorius

(Ralph Freso/Getty)
(Ralph Freso/Getty)

Needless to say, a starting shortstop is a pretty big deal. The Yankees had to find a new starting shortstop this winter for the first time in two decades and Gregorius, who turned 25 last Wednesday, gets the first crack at being Derek Jeter‘s long-term replacement. He’s basically the polar opposite of Jeter as an above-average defender and below-average hitter. It’ll be a shock to the system for many Yankees fans initially. Gregorius came over in the Shane Greene three-team trade and he’s under team control for five more years, including the last four as a Super Two arbitration-eligible player. He’s never going to be a guy who hits in the middle (or even at the top) of the order, but shortstop is a damn important position.

3B Chase Headley

The Yankees acquired the 30-year-old Headley at the trade deadline last year and saw firsthand how well he fit both in the clubhouse and on the field. A switch-hitter with patience and some pop to go with excellent defense at the hot corner is the kind of player every team could use. The Yankees re-signed Headley this offseason to a four-year contract worth $52M to take over as their starting third baseman, A-Rod or no A-Rod. He probably won’t be asked to hit in the middle of the order at the outset of 2015, but honestly, I could see him hitting second or third before long if the guys expected to hit in the middle of the order repeat their 2014 efforts.

LHP Andrew Miller

Although he’s a lefty, Miller replaced David Robertson on the roster. They’re both top notch late-inning relievers. Handedness doesn’t matter. The Yankees gave Miller a four-year, $36M deal over the winter and it remains to be seen if he’ll be the team’s closer or setup man this season. Either way, the team expects him to be a force in eighth and/or ninth inning. This isn’t your garden variety lefty reliever. Miller, 29, will be counted on to be a late-inning force during the life of his new contract.

LHP Justin Wilson

Like Miller, Wilson is no typical lefty reliever. He has power stuff — averaged 96.3 mph with his fastball last year — and is able to face both lefties and righties. Walks have been an issue for the 27-year-old Wilson in his two years and one month as a big leaguer (career 10.6 BB%) but he has missed plenty of bats (career 22.0 K%) and gets plenty of ground balls (50.9 GB%). He’s basically a left-handed complement to Carpenter. Wilson has four years of team control remaining. He can’t become a free agent until after the 2018 season.

* * *

As a reminder, this poll is trying to balance short and long-term importance. That isn’t necessarily easy. Veteran players like Headley and Miller figure to have their best years in 2015 and gradually decline during their four year contracts. And, if all goes according to plan, younger guys like Gregorius and Eovaldi will get better each year, so 2015 will hopefully be the worst years of their time in pinstripes. Make sense? Anyway, let’s get to the poll.

Who was NYY's most important pickup of the winter?

Ranking the 40-Man Roster: Nos. 6-10

Over these next two weeks we’re going to subjectively rank and analyze every player on the Yankees’ 40-man roster — based on their short and long-term importance to the team — and you’re inevitably going to disagree with our rankings. We’ve already covered Nos. 11-14, 15-16, 17-19, 20-25, 26-31, and 32-40.

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
Miller. (Patrick Smith/Getty)

As we enter the top ten of our 40-man roster rankings, we’ve reached the cornerstone players. The guys who are under contract or team control for multiple years and are expected to be key contributors going forward. Everyday players, no-doubt starting pitchers, late-inning relievers. The core of the roster.

Today we’ll cover Nos. 6-10, which are something of a mixed bag with three position players and two pitchers. But, again, these guys are all going to play major roles for the 2015 Yankees as well as the 2016 and 2017 Yankees, if not longer. Maybe not the stars of the show, but the best of the supporting cast. To the next group of rankings …

No. 10: Andrew Miller

2015 Role: High-leverage reliever. Maybe even closer. It remains to be seen exactly how the late innings will shake out, though there is no doubt Miller will factor into the eighth and/or ninth inning somehow. He’s left-handed but no lefty specialist — Miller is a very high-strikeout pitcher who dominates both righties and lefties. Joe Girardi won’t have to worry about platoon matchups when using his new bullpen toy.

Long-Term Role: The same, high-leverage reliever. The Yankees gave Miller a four-year contract worth $9M annually to replace David Robertson — Robertson got a bigger contract from the White Sox and New York gained a draft pick in the process — which maybe wasn’t the most popular sequence of events, but it was a sound baseball move. At age 29, Miller should have multiple peak years remaining before fading into a LOOGY later in his career. Then again, relievers age differently than everyone else. Either way, Miller was given that contract to be a factor in the late innings.

No. 9: Chase Headley

2015 Role: Starting third baseman. Make no mistake, the Yankees didn’t re-sign Headley to be a part-time player and Headley didn’t come back to the Yankees to be anything less than the starter at the hot corner. There is no third base competition between Headley and Alex Rodriguez. The job is Headley’s. The Yankees have made it abundantly clear.

As the starting third baseman, Headley will be expected to be a two-way threat. His defense is his best tool and he’s well-above-average at third. We all saw it last year. Headley’s offense is more of a question. He hit .243/.328/.372 (103 wRC+) with 13 homers overall last year, down from .250/.347/.400 (114 wRC+) with 13 homers in 2013 and .286/.376/.498 (145 wRC+) with 31 homers during his career year in 2012. The 2012 version of Headley ain’t coming back, but the 2013 version sure would be nice.

Headley. (Elsa/Getty)
Headley. (Elsa/Getty)

Long-Term Role: The third base job is Headley’s going forward even with 2013 first rounder Eric Jagielo slated to open the season at Double-A. (Jagielo has to work on his glovework before we have to worry about him displacing Headley.) The Yankees gave Headley a nice four-year contract worth $52M that I think we’re going to look back on next offseason and say it’s one hell of a deal. There are no good third basemen set to hit free agency these next few years.

Ideally, Headley would slot in not as a middle of the order guy, but into the sixth or even seventh spot of the lineup. He did hit .262/.371/.398 (121 wRC+) with six homers in 58 games for New York after hitting .229/.296/.355 (90 wRC+) with seven homers in 77 games for the Padres last summer, and there’s no doubt moving from spacious Petco Park into tiny Yankee Stadium will help his offense. Headley is right in the prime of his career at age 30, and hopefully the guy we saw in the second half is the guy we’ll see the next four years. Maybe with more power too.

No. 8 Brett Gardner

2015 Role: Everyday left fielder and table-setter for the rest of the lineup. Derek Jeter‘s retirement means Girardi is free to use Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury — two leadoff hitters by trade — in the one-two spots of the lineup, in whatever order that may be. Gardner’s role is simple: catch everything in left and get on base for the middle of the order. If he hits 17 homers again like he did last year, great! But I don’t think that’ll happen.

Long-Term Role: Same thing, everyday left fielder and someone who hits high in the order. The Yankees finally got with the times and put an end to that silly “no extensions” rule last spring by signing Gardner to a four-year, $52M contract. That extension starts this year — the four-year contract was tacked on top of his existing one-year deal for 2014 — which means Gardner is locked up through his age 34 season. The Yankees have always spoken highly of him and they put their money where their mouth is last year.

Eovaldi. (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty)
Eovaldi. (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty)

No. 7: Nathan Eovaldi

2015 Role: Innings eater. Eovaldi, who turns 25 next month, will have a full-time rotation spot this coming season, though sticking a number on him (No. 2 starter, No. 3 starter, etc.) is pointless. He’s going to get the ball every fifth day and be counting on for innings, like the 199.2 he threw for the Marlins last year.

There’s more to the story though. In addition to eating innings, the Yankees will work with Eovaldi to get better results out of his high-end stuff. It’s a development year as well. No soon-to-be 25-year-old pitcher is a finished product. The Yankees acquired Eovaldi with the idea of getting good innings out of him now and great innings out of him later.

Long-Term Role: Frontline starter, or close to it. That might be a little too much to ask. I’m sure the Yankees would be thrilled if Eovaldi developed in a consistent above-average innings eater, a guy good for 200+ innings and, say, a 3.50-ish ERA. They paid a good price to get him in a five-player trade with the Marlins – second baseman Martin Prado and the generally reliable David Phelps — and control Eovaldi’s rights through 2017. The plan is to get good innings this year and dominant innings by 2017. Eovaldi’s development is critical to the future of New York’s rotation.

No. 6: Brian McCann

2015 Role: Starting catcher and middle of the order power source. McCann’s first year in pinstripes was a mostly disappointing mixed bag. His defense was very good — he threw out 37.2% of attempted base-stealers and again ranked as one of the game’s elite pitch-framers — as expected, and while he provided power at the plate (team-high 23 homers), his overall .232/.286/.406 (92 wRC+) line was less than hoped.

This coming season, the soon-to-be 31-year-old McCann will again handle everyday duties behind the plate. The Yankees are also hoping for a rebound at the plate, that his poor 2014 season was simply the result of moving to a new league and having to learn an entirely new pitching staff. With any luck, McCann will be more comfortable this time around and get back to being the guy he was with the Braves, who put up a 119-123 wRC+ four times in five years before coming to New York. He’s expected to drive in runs and lots of ‘em.

McCann. (Elsa/Getty)
McCann. (Elsa/Getty)

Long-Term Role: There are four years left on McCann’s contract and the reality is that there aren’t many everyday catchers at age 34+, which McCann will be in the last year of his contract. Since 2000, only 41 catchers age 34 or over have managed 400+ plate appearances in a season, and most of them were flat out awful. Here’s the list.

At some point the Yankees will have to scale back on McCann’s workload behind the plate, and it could start this year. That doesn’t mean he won’t be in the lineup — McCann could always DH, and, as we saw last year, the team is open to sticking him at first for a day — just that they have to protect him from the wear and tear of catching. They knew that going into the contract.

So, McCann’s long-term role is starting catcher and mentor to John Ryan Murphy, the obvious in-house candidate to take over as the No. 1 catcher down the road (unless Gary Sanchez shows marked improvement behind the plate this year). The perfect world scenario would be a Girardi/Jorge Posada-esque apprenticeship, where McCann’s time behind the plate gradually decreases and Murphy increases these next four years. No matter how many games he catches, McCann’s power is an important competent for the team’s offense.

Coming Wednesday: Nos. 3-5. Three young players, all with less than two full years of MLB experience, expected to be part of the core of the next great Yankees team.

New additions will help Yankees against pitches down in the zone

Jones is a weapon against low pitches. (Scott Cunningham/Getty)
Jones is a weapon against low pitches. (Scott Cunningham/Getty)

As first explained by Jon Roegele last January and revisited by Jeff Sullivan in September, the strike zone has been expanding in recent years. It is expanding downward, specifically. There are more called strikes at the knees and below nowadays than there were a few years ago for whatever reason. Pitchers have been taught to keep the ball down for decades, and now there is even more of an incentive to do so. It’s hard to do anything with pitches down in the zone.

As a result, some teams have started seeking out low-ball hitters to counter the expanding strike zone. Josh Donaldson, who went from the Athletics to the Blue Jays this offseason, is one of the best low-ball hitters in the game, putting up a .273 AVG and .180 ISO on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below the last two years. The MLB averages were .230 and .103, respectively. The best low-ball hitter in baseball the last three seasons has been (who else?) Mike Trout, with a .343 AVG and .229 ISO.

Last season, the Yankees as a team hit .229 with a .101 ISO on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below, the 17th and 15th best rates in baseball, respectively. The MLB averages in 2014 were a .232 AVG and .103 ISO. Keep in mind those are raw AVG and ISO numbers, unadjusted for ballpark or anything like that. The Yankees were a below-average hitting team on pitches down in the zone despite playing home games in hitter happy Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees have remade their lineup a bit this offseason, at least compared to the Opening Day lineup a year ago. They have a new projected starters at the three non-first base infield positions plus a new primary DH regardless of whether Alex Rodriguez or Garrett Jones gets the majority of the at-bats. Let’s look at how the current roster has performed on pitches down in the zone the last three seasons, with an enormous thanks to the indispensable Baseball Savant.

The Infielders

AVG ISO BABIP K%
C Brian McCann .219 .148 .236 18.5%
1B Mark Teixeira .193 .147 .225 23.4%
2B Stephen Drew .179 .072 .276 33.7%
SS Didi Gregorius .245 .115 .286 17.5%
3B Chase Headley .225 .098 .318 28.5%
MLB AVG .230 .107 .300 25.3%

I was curious to see Teixeira’s down in the zone stats before looking them up because, anecdotally, it seems like he’s a high-ball hitter based on what I’ve seen during his first six years in pinstripes. Sure enough, the data backs it up. Teixeira hit .193 with a .147 ISO on pitches down in the zone these last three years while hitting .268 with a .266 ISO on all other pitches. The MLB averages for pitches not down in the zone since 2012 are .273 AVG and .175 ISO, for reference.

Both Teixeira and McCann are power-before-average hitters, which is why they have a better than league average ISO but a below-average batting average on pitches in the bottom third of the zone and below. Headley has been below-average on low pitches but not by much, just a few points in both AVG and ISO. Remember, AVG and ISO are unadjusted and Headley spent most of the last three years in cavernous Petco Park. I expect these numbers to come up going forward. Drew … yikes. Let’s leave it at that.

Gregorius is interesting because he has actually been slightly above-average on hitting pitches low in the strike zone, though only slightly. On the other hand, he has hit .244 with a .134 ISO on pitches not down in the zone, below those .273 AVG and .175 ISO league averages. Seven of his 13 big league homers have come on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below — one of those seven is his first career homer (video), which came at Yankee Stadium off Phil Hughes in April 2013 — so it seems like Gregorius has some golf in his swing. That’s useful.

The Outfielders

AVG ISO BABIP K%
LF Brett Gardner .229 .106 .306 25.6%
CF Jacoby Ellsbury .257 .108 .308 18.8%
RF Carlos Beltran .230 .121 .279 22.1%
MLB AVG .230 .107 .300 25.3%

Ellsbury is a high contact hitter who consistently gets the fat part of the bat on the ball, so it’s no surprise he’s fared well on pitches down in the zone. The power production is only league average, but that’s not really his game. Gardner has been so close to being perfectly average on low pitches these last three years that it’s kinda freaky. He’s off the MLB average by one point of AVG, one point of ISO, and three-tenths of a percentage point in strikeout rate.

Beltran has been above-average low-ball hitter by virtue of having an average AVG with better than average ISO and strikeout rates. That said, the Beltran we saw last year was not the same Beltran the Cardinals had from 2012-13. During his two years in St. Louis, Beltran hit .237 with a .133 ISO on low pitches. Last year it was a .211 AVG with a .092 ISO. Hopefully that is just a function of playing through an elbow injury for most of the summer rather than a decline in skills. If that is the case, healthy Beltran is a real weapon against pitches down in the zone.

The Bench

AVG ISO BABIP K%
DH Alex Rodriguez .263 .180 .321 24.8%
C John Ryan Murphy .256 .070 .367 28.3%
IF Brendan Ryan .160 .050 .231 30.0%
OF Chris Young .158 .131 .210 31.0%
UTIL Garrett Jones .244 .157 .290 22.2%
MLB AVG .230 .107 .300 25.3%

First things first, let’s just ignore Murphy’s numbers. He has only 112 plate appearances in the big leagues and fewer than 50 of them (46, to be exact) have ended on pitches down in the zone, so it’s a very small sample. Everyone else’s stats are based on a few hundred plate appearances that ended on low pitches.

Anyway, look at A-Rod! He flat out mashed low pitches from 2012-14, which really means he mashed low pitches from 2012-13 because he didn’t play last year. On the other side of the coin, he put up a .267 AVG with a .142 ISO against non-low pitches the last three seasons, both below-average rates. We have no idea what Alex can do next year at age 39 with two surgically repaired hips after missing all of 2014. If he puts up anything close to the 113 wRC+ he had from 2012-13, it would be a major win, low-ball hitter or not.

Jones has been a real threat against pitches down in the strike zone. His AVG, ISO and strikeout rate have been better than average the last three seasons. By comfortable margins too. I guess that’s not surprising — take a few minutes to watch this highlight video and it’s obvious Jones can go down to get a pitch and lift it a long way. Young has some pop on low pitches but is generally well-below-average. Ryan isn’t much of a hitter, low pitches or otherwise.

The additions of Gregorius and Jones figure to help the Yankees against pitches down in the zone in an age when more low strikes are being called and even more pitches are at the knees or below. Headley should also help now that he’s in a much more favorable park, and A-Rod is a wildcard. Maybe he’ll help but probably not. The Yankees weren’t a very good low-ball hitting team in 2014 and their additions this winter appear likely to help improve the situation this coming season.

Looking at the new left side of the infield using Inside Edge data

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

With Derek Jeter retired and Alex Rodriguez basically a non-factor, the Yankees had to rebuild the left side of their infield this offseason, and they did that by trading for shortstop Didi Gregorius and re-signing third baseman Chase Headley. The Yankees are hoping those two will hold things down on the more glamorous side of second base for at least the next four years, the term of Headley’s deal. (Gregorius has five years of team control remaining.)

Headley performed very well during his limited time in pinstripes this past season while Gregorius has a little more than a full year of MLB time under his belt, so he’s more of an unknown. Both guys have similar profiles though — they’re defense-first players who do their best work catching baseballs, not hitting them. Headley’s been an average or better hitter basically his entire career, though his glove is his calling card. Gregorius definitely fits the all-glove, no-bat profile.

At the very least, the Yankees will have a much better infield defense next season, especially on the left side. How much better defensively? Substantially, really. On the order of two or three wins, I think. Maybe more. To get a better idea of just how improved the defense at short and third will be next season, let’s look at some Inside Edge data and compare the 2014 Yankees to the incoming Gregorius and returning Headley.

Shortstop

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Jeter was a disaster in the field this past season. I mean, he’s been below-average in the field pretty much his entire career, but the 2014 season was his worst defensively. The combination of age and his broken ankle late in 2012 sapped whatever mobility he had left, and his arm left something to be desired as well. The Cap’n put Mark Teixeira‘s scoop tool to work at first base this summer.

The Inside Edge data shows just how terrible New York’s defense at shortstop was during the 2014 season:

1-10% (remote) 10-40% (unlikely) 40-60% (about even) 60-90% (likely) 90-100% (almost certain)
2014 Yankees 0.0% 11.1% 35.3% 64.3% 95.3%
2014 MLB AVG 3.7% 24.1% 49.2% 74.1% 97.2%
2012-14 Gregorius 14.3% 25.0% 52.6% 69.2% 98.2%

Inside Edge is fairly straight forward. Batted balls are recorded by human stringers (so there is some scorer bias) and are split into six groups — the five in the table above plus “impossible,” which register at 0% league-wide — depending how difficult the play will be for the defender. For example, batted balls considered “likely” to be turned into an out are plays that are made 60-90% of the time, with the league average at 74.1%. Got it? Sure you do.

The 2014 Yankees, who had Jeter at short for 78.3% of their defensive innings, made no very difficult plays (“remote”) at shortstop and were comfortably below the league average when it came to making “unlikely,” “about even,” and “likely” plays. Long story short, anything not hit right to the shortstop was converted into an out at a considerably below-average rate. Jeter was that bad in the field. Everything was an adventure.

Gregorius, on the other hand, has been above-average at making every type of play since breaking into the league with the exception of “likely” plays, where he’s been a tick below-average but not Jeterian. Other young middle infielders like Adeiny Hechavarria and Dee Gordon have a similar Inside Edge profile and the thought is they have occasional lapses in concentration and botch the routine play. Tougher plays like “remote” and “unlikely” are all instinct. There’s no thinking.

In theory, those lapses in concentration can be fixed. Then again, they might not even be the problem. It’s just a theory. Baseball America has consistently ranked Gregorius among his organization’s top prospects throughout his minor league career, and over the years their defensive scouting reports have said “his hands are still somewhat erratic” (2010), “his hands are his biggest drawback defensively” (2011), and “he showed improved consistency (with his hands)” (2012). Hands that are “somewhat erratic” but showed “improved consistency” seem like the kind of thing that could contribute to his below-average rate of making “likely” plays.

Either way, the Yankees are getting a substantial defensive upgrade at short by replacing Jeter with Gregorius. Even with those bad hands or lapses in concentration or whatever, Gregorius has made plays at a much higher rate than Jeter these last few years, and it’s expected he will continue to do that going forward. His youth and athleticism mean Didi is more likely to improve going forward than crater and became a below-average gloveman. It’s been a very long time since the Yankees had an everyday shortstop as good as Gregorius defensively.

Third Base

Between the hobbled A-Rod and Kevin Youkilis and the defensively blah Jayson Nix, Yangervis Solarte, and Kelly Johnson, the Yankees have dealt with some really shaky hot corner play the last few years. Headley was a breath of fresh air after coming over at the trade deadline. He made every play he was supposed to make — that was an accomplishment for the 2014 Yankees — plus more than few highlight reel plays.

The Inside Edge data for the team’s third basemen this past season is pretty interesting:

1-10% (remote) 10-40% (unlikely) 40-60% (about even) 60-90% (likely) 90-100% (almost certain)
2014 Yankees 0.0% 41.2% 76.9% 77.5% 95.8%
2014 MLB AVG 2.7% 25.9% 57.9% 76.5% 95.9%
2012-14 Headley 2.4% 22.0% 72.9% 85.6% 97.4%

According to Inside Edge, the Yankees were well-above-average at making “unlikely” and “about even” plays at third base in 2014 and basically average at “likely” and “almost certain” plays. When it came to making something more than the routine play, the 2014 Yankees were collectively better than the 2012-14 version of Headley.

Of course, the 2014 Yankees and 2012-14 Headley are not mutually exclusive since he did play a few hundred innings at third for New York this summer. Let’s compare Headley’s defense to the team’s other third baseman this past season:

1-10% (remote) 10-40% (unlikely) 40-60% (about even) 60-90% (likely) 90-100% (almost certain)
2014 Non-Headley NYY 3B 0.0% 30.0% 75.0% 77.4% 94.2%
2014 Headley with NYY 0.0% 57.1% 80.0% 77.8% 99.1%

The team’s non-Headley third baseman were actually above-average at making non-routine plays and about average making “likely” and “almost certain” plays, so the hot corner defense wasn’t a total disaster. Headley, however, managed to improve on all of that across the board. So yeah, the Yankees were getting pretty good glovework at third, but Headley took it to another level.

Now, defense is like anything else in baseball, players can have good defensive years and bad defensive years. It’s like batting average. Robinson Cano hit .306 in 2007, .270 in 2008, then .320 in 2009. Did his talent level change those three years? No, that’s just baseball. The same applies to defense. The various defensive stats (not just Inside Edge) say 2014 was either the best or second best (behind 2010) defensive season of Headley career. He was still above-average from 2011-13, but not as good as 2014.

Given his track record, there’s a chance Headley’s defense going forward won’t be as good as it was this past season, and again, that isn’t to say it will be bad. To go back to Cano for an example, he hit .342 in 2006 and then .308 from 2007-14. He was awesome in 2006 and slightly less awesome from 2007-14. Headley’s defense was outstanding in 2014. It’ll probably be slightly less outstanding going forward, and that’s okay. As long as he continues to be above-average, he’ll be an upgrade on what the team was running out there the last two years.

Going from Jeter to Gregorius will be a substantial improvement for the 2015 Yankees. In fact, it might be the single biggest defensive upgrade at any position in baseball. Maybe second biggest behind the Allen Craig to Jason Heyward move the Cardinals made, but, either way, New York will be considerably better at short next year. They’ll be better at third base as well, just less so. With a ground ball-centric pitching staff, the improved defense on the left side of the infield figures to be very noticeable. It was an upgrade that had to be made.

Headley’s signing is good for Refsnyder and Pirela

Jose Pirela
(AP Photo)

All Rob Refsnyder has done is hit. After starting slowly following the 2012 draft, he’s put up monster numbers at every level of the minors in the last two seasons, ending 2014 in AAA with a .300/.389/.456 (137 wRC+) line. It seems, or at least seemed, that his time in the Bronx is near.

Then the Yankees re-signed Chase Headley, which pushes Refsnyder out of immediate consideration for a starting spot.

It might appear as though the Yankees crowded Refsnyder out of a spot, but by re-signing Headley they might have made his transition to the big leagues easier. The same is true for Jose Pirela, and other candidate for an infield position before Headley signed.

It’s all about versatility

The trade for Martin Prado last July gives the Yankees flexibility. They took advantage right away, starting Prado multiple times at 2B, 3B, LF, and RF. It appears that he’ll start the season as the everyday second baseman, but that could change at any time — not because of Prado’s performance, but because others are stepping up.

Instead of starting Refsnyder at second out of the gate, they’ll have him continue what he started at Scranton Wilkes-Barre. If he continues pummeling the ball as he did in 2014, he can force his way into a call-up even if Prado is performing to expectations.

As of today, Alex Rodriguez is the Yankees’ primary DH. That could change between now and Opening Day, but let’s assume it’s true. In that case, who are the Yankees two biggest on-field risks? Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran. Should anything happen to either, Prado can move to the outfield and Refsnyder can take over at second base.

(Refsnyder did play nine games in the outfield last year, and another 42 in 2012. He was an outfielder in college. But it appears that the Yankees want him to stay at second base. There’s a better chance that they move Prado to the OF rather than Refsnyder.)

Pirela is a man of many positions, having started multiple games at every spot except catcher in 2014. He also continued hitting well, a 117 wRC+ in 581 PA at AAA, which followed a 118 wRC+ in 530 PA at AA in 2013. Basically, ever since he reached AA he’s started to hit. Given his versatility, the Yankees can easily find a spot for him whenever a need arises.

Pirela can slide in for anyone who gets hurt, other than Brian McCann. The Yankees can work in Refsnyder in the event that anyone other than Didi Gregorius gets hurt, moving Prado to whatever position and inserting Refsnyder at 2B.

By fielding a team of veteran major leaguers, the Yankees can let Pirela and Refsnyder signal when they’re ready. With their flexibility, they can probably work in one of those guys at almost any time. Additionally, they provide depth in case of injury. If any of the seven non-mask-wearing fielders gets hurt, the Yankees have an easy way to fill the void.

When the Yankees signed Chase Headley they didn’t block two young players. They merely changed the way they’ll fit into the 2015 plans. It might be for the better, for all parties.

Yankees re-sign Chase Headley to four-year deal

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

4:57pm: Sherman says the contract does not include any no-trade protection. Headley will receive a $1M assignment bonus if he is traded during the life of the contract, however.

1:54pm: The Yankees have officially announced the signing, so it’s a done deal. Here are the (very favorable) ZiPS projections for the contract, if you’re into that sort of thing. Steve Adams says it’s a four-year deal worth $52M guaranteed, plus Headley can earn an additional $1M each season when he reaches 550 plate appearances, so the contract can max out at $56M. As with the Gregorius trade and Andrew Miller signing, the Yankees went from rumor to agreement to press release in less than four hours. They run a pretty tight ship in the Bronx. Not many leaks at all.

10:53am: After doing not much of anything at the Winter Meetings last week, the Yankees handled one of their most important remaining pieces of offseason business on Monday by filling out the infield. The club has agreed to re-sign Chase Headley to a four-year contract worth approximately $51M to $52M. There are no option years and the deal is still pending a physical. Ken Rosenthal, Jon Heyman, and Joel Sherman all had a hand in breaking the news.

A few weeks ago we heard Headley had a four-year offer worth $65M in hand from an unknown team (rumored to be the Astros), and Jack Curry says Yankees officials do believe that offer was legitimate. If true, Headley took a whole lot less money to return to New York. The Yankees, for what it’s worth, initially said they wouldn’t give Headley four years until caving last week and saying they would do it as long as the contract came with a lower annual salary.

Headley, 30, hit .262/.371/.398 (121 wRC+) with six homers in 58 games with the Yankees after being acquired at the trade deadline this past season. He hit .243/.328/.372 (103 wRC+) with 13 homers in 135 games overall between New York and San Diego in 2014. That came with his usual standout defense at the hot corner as well. That’s where he’ll have his biggest impact, in the field. All you need to know about Headley — including his often overstated history of back problems — is in our Scouting The Market post.

After the season, Headley reportedly told friends he enjoyed playing in New York more than he thought he would, and that he would consider returning as long as he was an everyday player. “I know they have a player under contract,” he said after the season, referring to Alex Rodriguez. “We’ll see how that shakes out. We’ll see what my role would look like … I want to be a guy that plays. At what position? Obviously, third base I think is my strongest position. I don’t want to be a part-time guy.”

With Headley on board, the Yankees figure to play Martin Prado at second base and use A-Rod as the primary DH. It also means Carlos Beltran will see most of his action in right field. At least as long as he and Alex are both healthy at the same time, anyway. Rob Refsnyder will presumably return to Triple-A and wait until injury strikes. When that happens (inevitable), Prado can move around to fill in and Refsnyder can take over at second. Jose Pirela still has a clear path to a bench job.

Although Headley will probably never get back to being the hitter he was in 2012 (31 homers and a 145 wRC+), he’s still no worse than a league average hitter and a well above average defender, making him a huge upgrade at third based compared to whom the Yankees have been running out there the last two or three years. With Didi Gregorius recently acquired to play short, the Yankees now have an average or better defender at all four infield positions. The ground ball heavy pitching staff will appreciate that.

Now that the lineup and position player group has been settled, the Yankees can focus on improving the pitching staff, which still needs at last two starters and maybe another reliever as well. Max Scherzer and James Shields remain unsigned but the team continues to insist they will not hand out the massive contracts it would take to sign them. They’ll scour the second and third tier pitching options, maybe hope Hiroki Kuroda returns, and go from there.