Chase Headley’s miserable slump shouldn’t change the plan for Gleyber Torres

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

After two days on the bench, Chase Headley returned to the starting lineup yesterday afternoon in the series opener against the Orioles. He went 1-for-2 with a walk and is now 21-for-121 (.174) with a 28.9% strikeout rate over his last 31 games, dating back to the series against the Cardinals. Calling this a miserable slump would be an understatement.

Headley, as you know, was excellent to start the season. He was a big reason why the Yankees won eight straight games in the middle of April. Since then though, it’s been all downhill. See?

chase-headley-wrc

Yeesh. Headley has struggled on both sides of the ball too. He had a stretch a few weeks ago in which he committed seven errors in the span of 13 games. Headley has straightened things out defensively the last two weeks or so, but not with the bat. Maybe yesterday’s game was a sign he’s turning things around. I’m not buying it yet.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the Yankees promoted top prospect Gleyber Torres to Triple-A last week, and he played his first three games at the level at third base. (As well as his last two at Double-A.) The Yankees have been working to increase Gleyber’s versatility this season and playing the hot corner is part of that.

Torres, who is going to spend this entire season at age 20, has gone 5-for-21 (.238) in six Triple-A games so far, and is hitting .275/.376/.472 (138 wRC+) overall in 2017. He’s doing pretty much everything you’d want a top prospect his age to do at the upper levels of the minors. Plus he’s doing it while playing relatively new positions in second and third bases.

Given Headley’s awfulness, it’s only natural to wonder when Torres will be called up to take over at third base. Why not now? He couldn’t be worse. Specious logic aside, it is only a matter of time until Gleyber replaces Headley, partly because Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro sure as heck aren’t going anywhere. Third base is the obvious spot for Torres, at least in the short-term.

Fans want Torres to replace Headley right now and I imagine it’s awfully tempting for the Yankees to make the change, especially since they’re surprisingly atop the AL East. It would be pretty easy to justify the move. It would be one thing to bench Headley in favor of, say, Ruben Tejada, a journeyman having a good year in Triple-A. Doing it for a top prospect like Torres is another.

That said, the Yankees have to keep the big picture in mind here, and I do believe they will. We’ve already gone through something like once already this season, right? Gregorius went down with a shoulder injury during the World Baseball Classic and everyone and their mother wanted Torres to play shortstop in the meantime, especially since he was tearing the cover off the ball in Spring Training.

Gleyber. (Justin K. Aller/Getty)
Gleyber. (Justin K. Aller/Getty)

The Yankees didn’t do that though. They had a development plan in place for Gleyber and they stuck to it. The same should be true now despite Headley’s terrible play. Headley being bad doesn’t make Torres more big league ready. (He is closer to MLB ready now than he was during the spring by virtue of playing Double-A and Triple-A games, of course.) The Yankees, despite being in first place, are still a team in transition, and Gleyber’s long-term development has to be the priority, not a quick fix at third base.

“I’m not looking at Gleyber right now on the Major League side,” said Brian Cashman to Dan Martin last week. “I’m just looking at Gleyber taking the next step at Triple-A. Just like when we were faced with, ‘Are you going to bring Gleyber up because Didi is down?’ The answer was, ‘No, we aren’t going to interrupt his player-development process.’ And currently he’s earned the right to go Triple-A.”

Keep in mind the Yankees are moving Torres very quickly already. Prior to this season he’d never played above High Class-A. Thirty-two Double-A games later, he was in Triple-A. Not normal! Not for a 20-year-old, anyway. The Yankees clearly have Torres on an accelerated timetable, which means we could see him in the Bronx later this season. Players this talented have a way of shooting through the minors quicker than expected.

Two conditions have to be met when Torres is called up, in my opinion. One, the Yankees have to believe he’s truly ready for the big leagues and not simply being rushed to patch a hole at the hot corner. And two, he has to play everyday. They can’t call Gleyber up and play him once or twice a week. That would defeat the purpose. There is definitely something to be said for learning while on the big league bench, but Torres is too good to sit more often than not.

This is what I think will happen: the Yankees are going to stick with Headley for the time being, perhaps working in more Ronald Torreyes starts, to give Torres at least a month in Triple-A. That feels like the bare minimum. Keeping him there until the All-Star break wouldn’t be a bad idea. Then, in a few weeks, they’ll reevaluate things. See where Headley is at, see where Torres is at, and make a decision. Perhaps they won’t have to do anything! Who knows?

In my mind, everyone from Double-A on up is eligible for consideration in the big league if we have any needs,” said Cashman to Martin. “I check on what he’s doing everyday like I do all our prospects, but not how he’s going to fit on the big league club in the near-term. I’m not looking at that. Let him get baptized at Triple-A and let’s see how that treats him.”

Point is, the Yankees have to stick to their plan with Torres, whatever it is. Maybe their plan is to call him up in two weeks. I doubt it, but hey, stranger things have happened. The Yankees shouldn’t alter the development plan of their top prospect — arguably the best prospect in all of baseball, at that — because of a slumping big leaguer. Gleyber is going arrive at some point, likely later this year. Headley’s struggles shouldn’t dictate his timetable though.

The two Aarons and thinking about a new top of the lineup

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Once upon a time, I was a lineup complainer. The lineup would be posted each day at 4pm-ish and I’d complain about it. So and so is hitting too low, this guy is hitting too high, why is bench player flavor of the week not playing, that sort of stuff. A few times a year the Yankees would play the “ideal” lineup. Otherwise it was the same story, day after day. The lineup stinks and I was Mad Online.

I’ve outgrown that, thankfully. Daily lineup complaints are no way to go through life. As long as Joe Girardi doesn’t do something crazy like bat his best hitter ninth (which he never does and would never do), whatever lineup he runs out there is fine with me. So this post shouldn’t construed as me complaining about the lineup. This is more of a rational discussion about the batting order nearly one-third of the way through the season.

For the most part, I think we can all agree on one thing regarding the lineup: Brett Gardner should lead off, and Chase Headley and Chris Carter should bat eighth and ninth, really in either order. I guess that’s three things. Anyway, that stuff is straight forward. Gardner is, yet again, one of the team’s best on-base players and count-workers. Headley and Carter have been terrible and should get the fewest at-bats. Simple, right? Right.

The few spots beyond Gardner are what I really want to discuss. This is my ideal top of the lineup right now, given the available personnel:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Aaron Hicks
  3. RF Aaron Judge

The three outfielders, left to right. Gary Sanchez has been hitting second most of the season and I am totally cool with that. It works for me. Sanchez has looked a little jumpy at the plate the last few days, but I’m not worried. Hitters go through their ups and downs. Sanchez is one of the team’s best hitters, so by all means, hit him second. Josh Donaldson and Kris Bryant won MVPs hitting second in recent years. Power hitters can hit there too.

That said, I like Hicks hitting second over Sanchez right now because, well, Hicks has been the better hitter this season. The better overall hitter and, more importantly, the better on-base threat. Hicks has a .426 OBP this year. Sanchez has a .356 OBP. That’s still good! But it’s not .426. Batting Hicks second means more runners on base for Judge, who has inarguably been the Yankees’ best hitter this season.

Judge started the season hitting lower in the lineup and understandably so, but he’s forced his way up, and now he is in entrenched as the No. 5 hitter. Moving Judge up even further to the No. 3 spot means more at-bats. More at-bats over the course of the season, and a better chance to get Judge that one extra at-bat in an individual game. Through 48 team games the No. 3 spot has 14 more plate appearances than the No. 5 spot for the Yankees. That’s 14 more times Judge would have come to the plate in the late innings. It’s not nothing!

We’re not splitting atoms here. Hicks (.426), Judge (.419), and Gardner (.363) have the three highest OBPs on the Yankees. They make fewer outs than anyone else. Judge is also one of the game’s top power threats. Batting Gardner and Hicks first and second is, by far, the best way to get men on base for Judge. Batting these three atop the lineup also means they get the most at-bats, therefore giving the Yankees more chances to score.

Going with Gardner-Hicks-Judge atop the lineup and Headley-Carter at the bottom leaves you Sanchez, Starlin Castro, Matt Holliday, and Didi Gregorius for the 4-5-6-7 spots. What’s the best way to order them? I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer. I’d prefer hitting Sanchez fourth because I think he’s most likely to be an impact bat the rest of the season, but if you said the same thing about Castro or Holliday, I wouldn’t argue (much).

The important thing, as far as I’m concerned, is getting Judge more at-bats because because the guy is a monster, and the more he plays, the better the Yankees’ chances to win. Jacoby Ellsbury‘s concussion — Girardi said yesterday Ellsbury is still experiencing headaches, so he remains shut down indefinitely — ensures Hicks will be in the lineup everyday, and as long as he’s hitting like this, Hicks is the perfect No. 2 hitter. On-base ability, power, speed, switch-hitter, the whole nine. Perfect.

The lineup almost seems to write itself from there. Gardner leads off, Hicks hits second, Judge hits third. Your two best on-base players and your most devastating hitter. Sanchez, Holliday, Castro, and Gregorius add quality lineup depth through the No. 7 spot too. I get why Girardi hits Sanchez second, Holliday third, and Castro fourth. I do. But nearly 50 games into the season, it’s the clear the more Aaron Judge hits with men on base, the better. The lineup should be built in such a way that maximizes those opportunities.

Grounded for the Month of May

(Norm Hall/Getty)
(Norm Hall/Getty)

On Friday night, with the game tied at 0, Chase Headley came to the plate with one out and two runners on–first and second. To say that my faith in Headley was low would be a bit of an understatement. Tragically for Masahiro Tanaka and the rest of the Yankees, Headley proved my lack of faith right by grounding into a double play, ending the inning. He didn’t even have the common freakin’ courtesy to just strike out or hit into the infield fly rule. Until now, I didn’t quite realize just how indicative of his descent into dumpster fire at the plate that play was.

We all know Headley started out the year on fire, tearing up the league, topping leaderboards for a few weeks in April. Since then, though, it’s been a steady decline to where he sits right now: a career low 82 wRC+ thanks to a .292 wOBA and a .228/.299/.367 batting line. Consider, folks, that he ended April with a .388 wOBA and a 148 wRC+; that’s one hell of a drop. And as his performance has dropped, so have the balls he’s been hitting, quite literally.

Per FanGraphs, Headley was quite adept at hitting the ball in the air for the first month of the season. In April, he sported a robust line drive percentage of 30.2% and hit fly balls 33.3% of the time. He generally avoided weak contact, evidenced by his low 4.8% infield fly ball rate. That script has flipped for the month of May.

Gone is the high line drive rate, down to 21.7%. Gone is the low ground ball rate, up to 54.3%. Gone is the high fly ball rate, down to 23.9%. Gone is the low IFFB rate, up to 18.4%. Thanks to TexasLeaguers, we can see the results of these drastic changes.

Here’s Headley’s April spray chart. Nine outs in the field, ten if we count that one behind the plate.

headleyapril

Now May:

headleymay

17 in the infield, including the foul balls. Also, there’s a huge cluster in right field that wasn’t really there during April, indicating that Headley’s hitting his grounders–at least as a lefty batter–right into the shift.

A trip–well, two trips to Brooks will show us just what’s going on here. In April, Chase was getting pretty decent lift on pretty much everything. Now in May, something is making him play right into the pitcher’s hands. Like they’d want him to, he’s hitting almost 56% grounders on sinkers, almost 77% (!) on change ups, 75% on curves and 100% on cutters.

The other alarming note on Brooks is the big uptick in whiffs/swing on fastballs, going from 13% and change to almost 23%; from April to May, Headley’s strikeout rate has climbed from about 20% to about 35%. Not so coincidentally, Headley’s walk rate has plummeted; he’s walked just once in May–and has been hit by one pitch. Also not so coincidentally, Headley’s been chasing the ball more in May than he did in April. The league average o-swing rate is a touch over 29%. While he’s been under that for the year, May has seen a spike. In April, there are four locations on the chart showing Headley swung at balls at a higher-than-league-average pace. Fast forward to May and the number goes up to eight.

Beating the ball into the ground–especially in this day and age of the fly ball–and chasing balls out of the zone are not a good combination for success. So, Chase, if you’re reading this, get on that, huh? I like you, I really do, but it’s getting hard to watch at this point.

Yankeemetrics: Bronx Bummer (May 11-14)

(AP)
(AP)

Game of Inches
Entering Thursday the Astros and Yankees were baseball’s two best teams, separated by just .001 in the win percentage column, so it was fitting that the first game of the series was decided on the final play, by mere inches.

Down two runs in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and two men in scoring position, Gary Sanchez lined a single through the left side of the infield; Aaron Hicks scored easily from third base but Jacoby Ellsbury – racing home from second – was thrown out at the plate as the potential game-tying run.

Those types of rally-killing outs on the bases have been piling up for the Yankees this season. It was the sixth baserunning out at home plate by a Yankee this season, tying the Red Sox for the most in the AL through Thursday, and one shy of the major-league-leading Marlins.

Yet, the heart-wrenching nature of this play is actually quite rare: This was just the third time since 1930 that a game ended on a base hit with a Yankee being thrown out at home as the potential game-tying run.

The last time it happened was August 12, 1987 against the Royals when Wayne Tolleson was nailed at the plate trying to score from first on Roberto Kelly’s double to left field. Before that, you have to go back all the way to May 9, 1930 against the Tigers, when Tony Lazzeri was thrown out trying to score from second on Bill Dickey’s single.

Ellsbury was also involved in the Yankees only other run, when he got a catcher’s interference call with the bases loaded in the fifth inning. It was his 28th catcher’s interference, one shy of tying Pete Rose for the all-time MLB record. Of course, Rose is also the all-time record-holder in career plate appearances (15,890), while Ellsbury ranked 960th in that stat (5,084) through Thursday.

In yet another oddity, it was the first time in his career that Ellsbury got a catcher’s interference call with the bases loaded. And it had been more than two decades since any Yankee did that – the last one was by Pat Kelly in 1992 against the A’s.

(Newsday)
(Newsday)

Dead Bats Society
The Yankees offense went into a deep freeze on a chilly Friday night in the Bronx, barely avoiding a shutout in a listless 5-1 loss to the Astros. Didi Gregorius‘ RBI single with two outs in the ninth kept the Yankees as one of three teams (Twins, Nationals) that haven’t been blanked this season.

Brian McCann delivered the big blow for the Astros when he clubbed a three-run homer in the fourth inning to break a scoreless tie. It was his 47th homer at Yankee Stadium since 2014, the most home runs hit by any player at the Stadium in that span – and 12 more than the next guy on the list (Carlos Beltran, who also was sitting in the visiting dugout this weekend).

Lance McCullers dominated the Yankee lineup with a devastating mix of 95-mph fastballs and knee-buckling curves, holding them to zero runs on four hits over six innings while striking out seven and walking none. That seems good, eh? McCullers (23 years, 222 days) is the youngest pitcher ever to throw at least six scoreless, walk-free innings with seven-plus strikeouts in his first road appearance against the Yankees.

(AP)
(AP)

Comeback kings strike again
The Yankees kicked off Mother’s Day/Derek Jeter Night with a slump-busting, 11-6 come-from-behind win in the first game of Sunday’s double-header. It was their eighth victory when trailing by at least two runs, the second-most in baseball this season.

The first rally came in the fourth inning and was sparked by a couple longballs off the bats of Starlin Castro and Aaron Judge. Castro’s two-run homer knotted the score at 3-3, his fourth game-tying homer of the season, which matched Freddie Freeman for the most in the majors. Judge’s go-ahead, 441-foot solo blast to dead-center was his MLB-leading sixth home run of at least 430 feet in 2017, two more than any other player.

The second and decisive rally came in the seventh inning, when the Yankees erupted for six runs to erase a 6-4 deficit. The biggest blow was a tie-breaking, bases-loaded triple by Chase Headley. In the last 20 years, the only other Yankee with a go-ahead, bases-clearing triple in the seventh inning or later was Bernie Williams on June 21, 2005 against Tampa Bay.

(Getty)
(Getty)

#RE2PECT2JETER
The excited buzz and loud cheers lingering from the Stadium crowd following Derek Jeter’s number retirement ceremony were quickly silenced when George Springer stepped into the batter’s box and led off the game with a home run. That sparked a six-run first inning for Houston and paved the way for a deflating 10-7 loss by the Yankees.

Masahiro Tanaka was clobbered amid a chorus of boooooos, producing the worst start of his major-league career. He matched career-worsts in innings pitched (1 2/3) and homers allowed (4), while surrendering a career-high eight runs, and etching his name in the record books — for the wrong reason.

Tanaka became the first pitcher in Yankees history to give up at least eight earned runs and four home runs in a game while pitching fewer than two innings.

Three of those home runs came in the first inning, putting the Yankees in a huge early hole that even the Comeback Kings couldn’t dig out of. Going back to 1950 (as far back as Baseball-Reference.com has mostly complete play-by-play data), the Astros are the only visiting team to hit three-or-more home runs in the first inning of a game at Yankee Stadium.

As horrible as this game ended up, we can still end this Yankeemetrics on high note by honoring The Captain with the ultimate #JeterFunFact.

Here’s the list of players in major-league history to compile at least 3,000 hits, 250 homers, 350 stolen bases and 1,300 RBIs in a career: Derek Sanderson Jeter.

How to handle Chris Sale’s dominance of the Yankees

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

On Thursday, the Yankees get their first crack at Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale. However, there’s a fair amount of familiarity between Sale and the Yankees.

If you’re not familiar with the numbers, they’re gaudy, to say the least. In 53 1/3 innings against the Yankees, Sale has surrendered just 32 hits, 12 walks and 4 HBPs while striking out 61 batters and allowing just 13 runs (seven earned). That’s good for a 1.17 ERA and a WHIP of .820. Sale has the lowest ERA of any pitcher in MLB history with at least 50 innings against the Yankees (h/t to Katie).

Unfortunately for the Yankees and their fans, Sale is going to be tacking on a lot more innings to that total over the next three years. With team options, the Red Sox have Sale under contract through 2019 and there’s nothing saying they couldn’t bring him back on a longer contract when that’s up. We’re talking about a pitcher with five All-Star appearances in the five seasons he’s been a starter, and he hasn’t finished lower than sixth in the Cy Young voting. That’s a keeper.

So what does this mean for the Yankees? What can the Bombers do to counteract the way-too-early favorite for AL Cy Young? Here are a few things to know about facing Sale.

1. Lefties are practically useless against him: Sale is a beast but especially vs. lefties. He’s given up 114 home runs in his career and just eight were hit by left-handed batters. While RHBs have a .228/.283/.370 line against him, lefties are far worse at .202/.258/.268. No power and no average.

In his seven starts against the Yankees, Sale has faced few lefties. The Yankees started three against him in 2012 and in the six starts since, haven’t started more than two. Typically, it’s been the lefties you don’t take out of the lineup, the Robinson Canos of the world. You have to try and load up on the platoon advantage to neutralize Sale because his size and motion are so difficult to pick up for a LHB.

This is why you acquire Chris Carter and Matt Holliday. Not just for Sale of course. For any tough lefty. Sale, David Price, etc. Having a veteran with some savvy in the middle of the order can counteract Sale … as much as you truly can counteract Sale. When Sale took the mound vs. NYY last May, it led to a distinctive lineup with Aaron Hicks leading off, Brett Gardner batting seventh and no Jacoby Ellsbury. Sale threw a complete game, but the point still stands. Maximize your potential by platooning like crazy. You may see a lineup that goes something like this.

1. Aaron Hicks, CF
2. Chase Headley, 3B
3. Matt Holliday, DH
4. Starlin Castro, 2B
5. Aaron Judge, RF
6. Chris Carter, 1B
7. Brett Gardner, LF
8. Austin Romine, C
9. Ronald Torreyes, SS

You have to sit one of Gardner or Ellsbury for Hicks here and moving the one lefty outfielder down the card makes sense, too. Last season’s lineup shows Joe Girardi is willing to do just that. He’s done some interesting things like put Yangervis Solarte in the five-hole as well. The lineups this season with Ellsbury batting fourth and so on have looked pretty peculiar, so Thursday’s lineup may just blend in.

2. Headley is key to hitting Sale: Headley has been much maligned at times during his stint in pinstripes, but boy can he hit Sale. He has the third highest OPS off Sale of any batter with at least 10 plate appearances. In 14 PAs vs. the 6-foot-5 southpaw, Headley is 5-for-13 with two home runs, a double and a walk.

Sale even helped Headley get back to being himself last season. After a horrible April and early May, Headley got his second extra-base hit of 2016 off Sale with this home run.

Girardi has put Headley near the top of the lineup card with Sale on the mound, both in 2015 and 2016. His first homer off Sale came back in 2014 during an interleague series between the White Sox and Padres.

The point being, Headley is really important here. I’m not sure I expected to be saying that, but here we are. Headley has similar numbers off the person I would say is Sale’s most logical current comparable, Madison Bumgarner. He has three home runs and 10 hits in 36 at-bats off Mad Bum. Go figure.

Only three other Yankees have multiple hits off Sale: Carter, Castro and Hicks. Hicks is 4-for-12 with a double, Carter is 2-for-13 with a double and a homer, and Castro is 2-for-11. Unsurprisingly, Carter has struck out seven times vs. Sale. Ellsbury and Gardner are a combined 1-for-16 with two walks, a hit-by-pitch and nine strikeouts. Welp.

3. Time for the Baby Bombers: I’m unsure if the Yankees were trying to be cruel last May, but they had Gary Sanchez make his first MLB start as the DH facing Sale. You will no doubt be shocked to learn he went 0-for-4 with a strikeout.

However, this is where having a few young, dynamic, right-handed bats comes in handy. Sanchez may be hurt right now, but he’ll get more opportunities off Sale during the next few seasons. Sanchez, Judge and even Clint Frazier or Gleyber Torres can give the Yankees an element few teams have vs. Sale: An all-righty top of the lineup that can withstand him. They’ll surely have some troubles off him like Sanchez last May, but they’re NYY’s best shot. These guys will get plenty familiar with Sale over the next few years.

As for Greg Bird, it makes sense to bench him for Carter in terms of trying to win that day’s game. However, starting Bird vs. Sale would be interesting for the long-term. Giving him some at-bats against him now could give Bird a chance against him in future meetings, plus Bird has hit lefties well in his early MLB career.

4. If he wasn’t on the Red Sox/facing the Yankees, Sale would be a lot of fun to watch: Sale’s mesmerizing. His herky-jerky motion is not something you’d teach any kid and that may be part of what makes it so effective. It’s different and it’s been nearly impossible to hit. He’s a consistent Cy Young contender for a reason and despite a motion many in baseball would label a concern, he’s remained pretty healthy, making at least 29 starts in four of the last five seasons.

And he’s quite simply fun to watch. He strikes out guys with ease, averaging 227 strikeouts a year since he moved into the rotation. How many pitchers do you see make hitters look like this?

sale-strikeout-gif

Or make Sanchez look like this?

sale-strikeout-sanchez

The Yankees are going to have to contend with Sale for a while and we may as well enjoy the ride. Pedro Martinez had some dazzling performances against the Yankees in the late 90s/early 2000s and beating him was a joyous occasion. It’d be nice to have a pitcher-against-the-Yankees rivalry like that going again and Sale is a prime candidate to make that happen. And even when he inevitably adds a win or two to his record vs. the Bombers, you’ll still be able to see one of the best of this generation take the mound.

No, Chase Headley won’t be this good all year, but there are some promising signs in his game

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Something weird happened last night. Chase Headley was not in the starting lineup. That in and of itself isn’t weird. Joe Girardi is pretty good at making sure his regulars get enough rest. What was weird was the reaction. Fans were upset! In our comments, on Twitter, and probably on a bunch of other social media sites I don’t even know exist. Upset about Headley being out of the lineup! What a time to be alive.

Fans were upset for a good reason, of course. Headley has been a monster hit season. He is hitting .409/.519/.614 (227 wRC+) with two home runs, three stolen bases, ten walks, and nine strikeouts through the team’s first 14 games. No, he won’t do that all season, but hot damn, Headley has been a beast early on. It’s the complete opposite of last year, when he was beyond useless in April. Remember that? How could you forget.

“I started extremely poorly, and that contributed to the team starting bad,” said Headley to Zach Braziller earlier this week. “I knew I couldn’t start the way I started last year. You can’t just take a month and two weeks out of the season, and say, ‘Oh, I had a (good) season with the exception of this month and a half.’ It counts … It’s a small sample size, but I feel like I’m playing the way I’m capable of. I feel like I’m swinging at the pitches I want to, and that’s always a good place to start.”

Headley is not really as good as he’s been so far this year nor is he really as bad as he was last April. The truth is somewhere in the middle, and the question is where. Hopefully closer to this year than last April. Here are a few notable early season trends within Headley’s game that help explain why he’s been so productive these first two weeks and change of the new season.

1. He’s going the other way an awful lot. In the very first game of the season Headley beat the shift three times against the Rays. Once with a bunt and twice with ground balls directed the other way. We haven’t seen Headley beat the shift quite that obviously since then — I’m talking about those well-placed rollers where the defense is normally positioned — but he has continued to use all fields. Here’s the batted ball direction breakdown:

chase-headley-batted-balls

That covers both sides of the plate, though it essentially represents Headley’s numbers as a left-handed hitter. Only eight of his 54 plate appearances have come as a righty so far, and in those eight plate appearances he’s put six balls in play. So yeah, for all intents and purposes, those are Headley’s numbers from the left side of the plate.

As you can see, he’s going the other way substantially more than he has in the past. We’re talking nearly twice as often as he did from 2014-15. And the important thing here is not just the number of balls he’s hitting the other way. Look how many he’s pulling too. Headley has nearly an even split. He’s going the other way as often as he pulls the ball. That makes him tougher to defend.

2. He’s not hitting the ball on the ground. When Headley was going through his brutal April last year, he was beating the ball into the ground, and that is no way to hit. Especially when you’re not a good runner. Fly balls and line drives not only go for hits more often than ground balls — the league BABIP on fly balls and liners is .388 this year compared to only .240 on grounders — they also go for extra-base more often. The next ground ball I see go for a home run will be the first.

So far this season only 32.4% of Headley’s balls in play have been on the ground. That is tiny. That’s Kris Bryant (31.0%) and Nolan Arenado (31.9%) territory. Slugger territory. Headley’s ground ball rate was 44.2% last year and it is 44.4% for his career. He is well below that now. Between this and the first point, Headley is hitting the ball in the air to all fields in the super early going this year. Of course more hits are going to fall in when you do that.

3. He doesn’t swing out of the zone. Headley has always had a pretty good eye. He walked in 9.6% of his plate appearances last year, and he had several seasons with a walk rate north of 10% back with the Padres. Headley knows the strike zone, and his year he’s taken his plate discipline to another level. Look at his chase rate on pitches out of the zone:

2014: 25.8%
2015: 25.1%
2016: 25.8%
2017: 18.1%

That 25.8% chase rate last year? That’s really good. The MLB average was 30.6% and Headley was several percentage points below that. Now he’s all the way down at 18.4%. Right now 194 players have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title and Headley’s chase rate is fifth lowest. He’s been one of the most discipline hitters in baseball.

Keep in mind this is not just about drawing walks. Walks are overrated. Okay, maybe not, but people focus on them too much. The entire point of working the count is to get a hittable pitch. Laying off pitches out of the zone helps get the count in Headley’s favor, which better allows him to do damage. Also, chasing fewer pitches out of the zone means fewer balls in play on those pitches, and putting a pitch out of the zone in play usually results in weak contact.

* * *

Inevitably Headley will cool down at some point and not because Girardi gave him the night off last night. Something tells me he’s not really a true talent .485 BABIP hitter. Just a hunch. He’ll cool off and go back to being Chase Headley and everyone will resume complaining about the days he is in the lineup, not the days he’s on the bench.

In all seriousness, Headley is showing some promising early trends — using all fields, getting the ball in the air, not chasing out of the zone, etc. — and those things will help him be a productive hitter going forward. His performance is a bit on the extreme side right now. His ground ball and chase rates are so incredibly low that they have nowhere to go but up. But, if Headley can maintain these trends to some degree, he’ll help the Yankees more at the plate this year than he has the previous two seasons.

Yankeemetrics: We’re Going Streaking (April 14-16)

(Getty)
(Getty)

Comeback kids
Behind the improved pitching of Masahiro Tanaka, and the power of Starlin Castro and Austin Romine, the Yankees opened their 2017 Interleague slate on Friday night with a 3-2 come-from-behind win over the Cardinals. This was the Redbirds first visit to the new Yankee Stadium, making the Padres the only team that hasn’t visited the Bronx since 2009.

Masahiro Tanaka entered this matchup having allowed just one run in 21 innings (0.43 ERA) over three Interleague starts at Yankee Stadium. That was the lowest ERA in the majors by any pitcher with two career home Interleague starts … until the third batter of the game, Matt Carpenter, crushed a two-run homer to give the Cardinals an early 2-0 lead.

He settled down after that rocky first frame, retiring 10 straight at one point, before faltering again in the seventh. Tanaka has now given up 13 runs in three outings this season – a number he didn’t reach until May 10 last year in his seventh start of the 2016 campaign.

Castro quickly evened the scored with a two-run blast in the bottom of the first. It was Castro’s 11th game-tying or go-ahead homer in pinstripes, two more than every other Yankee since the start of last season.

Romine then delivered the eventual game-winner, a solo homer in the bottom of the second to put them ahead 3-2. It was the first time in his career he went deep to give the Yankees a lead.

(AP)
(AP)

Sabathia > Father Time
CC Sabathia produced a vintage performance in Saturday’s 3-2 Yankee victory, throwing 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball, while picking up his his 225th career win on Jackie Robinson Day. That moved him past Hall-of-Famers Jim Bunning and Catfish Hunter for sole possession of 66th place on MLB’s all-time wins list.

Sabathia also lowered his ERA to 1.47, the third-lowest of his career through his first three starts of a season; the only better marks were in 2011 (1.45) and 2005 (0.92).

The Yankees needed Sabathia’s masterpiece because their offense remained stuck in neutral for much of the game. They went 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position, left 12 men on base and tied a franchise record with 17 strikeouts (done three times previously). Somehow, the Yankees are now 2-1-1 all-time when striking out 17 times in a game.

Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez was both utterly dominant and laughably wild at times on Saturday afternoon, finishing with one of the most bizarre pitching lines you’ll ever see: 11 strikeouts, eight walks, four hits, three runs allowed.

He’s the first pitcher to walk at least eight guys and fan at least 11 batters since Randy Johnson in 1993, and the first to do that against the Yankees since Bob Feller in 1937.

Even more ridiculous is that he did this all in just 5 1/3 innings. Martinez is the only pitcher in major-league history to have 11-or-more strikeouts and eight-or-more walks in a game and not make it out of the sixth inning.

Seventh Heaven
The Yankees completed the sweep of the Cardinals on Sunday with a convincing 9-3 win, extending their win streak to an MLB-best seven games. They now have two sweeps in two home series this season, after notching just three sweeps in 26 home series in 2016.

The victory also pushes their Yankee Stadium record to 6-0, the second time in the Wild Card era (since 1995) they’ve won their first six games at home. It also happened in 1998, a season that ended … yeah, pretty sweet.

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Greg Bird broke out of his brutal season-opening slump in style, as he reached base in all four plate appearances with a home run, double, single and a walk (hey, a triple short of the cycle!).

Prior to his second-inning homer, Bird was hitless in his previous 20 at-bats, and had just one hit and a whopping 13 strikeouts in 30 trips to the plate this season. Entering Sunday, his batting average (.038), slugging percentage (.077) and OPS (.244) were each the worst among the 237 MLB players with at least 30 plate appearances this season.

Bird’s homer was his first since Oct. 1, 2015, making him the 10th different Yankee in 2017 to go yard. That’s tied with the Tigers, Rays and Brewers for the most players with at least one homer this season.

Chase Headley continued to swing a hot bat, pushing his batting average above .400 and notching his seventh multi-hit performance of the year. He’s the first Yankee third baseman since Bobby Murcer in 1969 to have seven multi-hit games this early into the season (first 12 team games), and joins Derek Jeter (2010, 2012) as the only Yankees at any position to do it in the last decade.

Michael Pineda followed up his near-perfecto with another excellent outing, showing a hint of the consistency that has so far eluded him during his Jekyll-and-Hyde career in pinstripes. It was just the second time as a Yankee that he pitched at least seven innings and surrendered no more than two runs in back-to-back games (also May 5-10, 2015).