Chase Headley: Exceeder of Dreams

I don’t intend to mean-spiritedly pick on the fine folks over at Baseball Prospectus, but in this instance I can’t not make a little fun. A couple excerpts from paragraphs found on Chase Headley‘s player page:

I don’t think Headley is going to have more than .150 Isolated Power. Partially due to Petco, partially because he’s not that kind of hitter. (5/5/2010)

That was on Chase Headley’s power potential, not on Headley just in 2010. Another:

Yes, PETCO suppresses some of his power, but even in Citizen’s Bank Park, Headley wouldn’t hit more than 24 HR. (12/20/2010)

Headley, right now, has 27 home runs, and a .202 Isolated Power mark. He’s already got the second statement beat, and while Isolated Power is a rate, Headley failing to beat the first statement is for all intents and purposes a statistical impossibility. Chase Headley was already a fine player before this season; now he looks to be a great player who hits for power.

While spending half his time in Petco Park, which can’t go unmentioned. There are 18 games remaining in the Padres’ regular season, and nine of them are at home. The most dingers ever hit in Petco Park in a single season is 14, by Adrian Gonzalez in 2008. The next-highest total is 12. Chase Headley has hit ten home runs at home so far, so it doesn’t look like he’s going to match or beat the record, but it is within his reach. And Petco isn’t even where Headley has been doing the bulk of his damage.

There are various ways to examine just how good Headley has been in 2012. There have been 174 batters who have batted at least 200 times on the road. Sorted by wRC+, here is the top of the leaderboard:

  1. Melky Cabrera
  2. Mike Trout
  3. Chase Headley
  4. Buster Posey

Maybe you don’t like throwing away an entire half-season’s worth of numbers, which is perfectly reasonable. In that case, sorted by WAR, here is the top of the National League leaderboard:

  1. Ryan Braun
  2. David Wright
  3. Andrew McCutchen
  4. Buster Posey
  5. Chase Headley

Various MVP candidates and a third baseman for San Diego. Headley has added only modest value with his glovework, and he’s subtracted value with his baserunning. Chase Headley is way up there because Chase Headley has been hitting like a maniac. A very talented maniac, who is able to suppress his mania when he’s standing in the batter’s box.

The point isn’t that the Baseball Prospectus authors were wrong. The point is that most evaluators were apparently wrong, when it came to Headley’s power potential. Headley was highly thought of as a prospect, but more for his line-drive doubles power than for his over-the-fence homer power. Headley certainly didn’t show much in the way of consistent homer power earlier in his big-league career. Last season, Headley went deep four times. His previous high was a dozen homers, in a full season in 2009. This season, Headley went deep a dozen times between August 1 and September 3.

Looking at it in a different way, Headley’s previous best was about seven percent home runs per ball hit to the outfield. This year, he’s up to 15 percent, and by the more familiar HR/FB%, Headley’s up to 22 percent, from a high of 11 percent. Headley’s fly balls have been twice as likely to leave the yard as ever before, and I’ll remind you again that Headley homered four times as recently as last year. He missed some games, but he didn’t miss all that many of the games.

Were there any indicators of Headley’s power surge? Headley had hit some long homers before, serving as proof of concept. Perhaps more significantly, Headley owns a career .338 BABIP. That’s .302 at home, and .369 on the road. Since 2008, Padres hitters have posted a .282 BABIP at home and a .301 BABIP on the road. Padres pitchers have allowed a .275 BABIP at home and a .300 BABIP on the road. Headley plays half the time in a park that suppresses hits on balls in play, and still he routinely posts one of the highest BABIPs in baseball. What that suggests is that Headley has always been able to make better-than-average contact, and now perhaps that solid contact is translating into more homers.

Interestingly, through the All-Star break, Headley seemed basically like himself, with eight home runs and a .780 OPS. You’ll remember that around this time he was the subject of countless trade rumors. Since the break, he’s homered 19 times, with a .950 OPS. The Padres are surging, and Headley’s a big reason why. Lately he’s just been hitting all of the snot out of the ball.

Also interestingly, Headley’s big season corresponds to an increase in groundball rate and a decrease in contact rate. Earlier this year, in an interview with Jonah Keri, Headley said over the offseason he made just a few minor mechanical tweaks. A quote:

I’m not a guy who’s going to hit a ton of home runs, but I should have hit more than I did (laughs).

The numbers suggest that something is quite different, but sometimes a very minor adjustment can have very major consequences. Everybody wants to know how much of this is sustainable, and it’s hard to say without being able to pinpoint the cause. Headley’s 28, and maybe this is just what Chase Headley looks like in his physical prime. Maybe he made a certain tweak that made hitting for power a lot easier. The raw numbers make this look like a fluke, but maybe Headley is doing what Edwin Encarnacion is doing.

It’s incredible that Headley has been doing what he’s been doing. It’s more incredible that he’s been doing it while playing in Petco, which has always just murdered him. Headley’s a switch-hitter who spends the majority of his time batting left-handed. Petco is pure death to left-handed hitters. Headley’s career right-handed road OPS is 72 points higher than his right-handed home OPS. Headley’s career left-handed road OPS is 187 points higher than his left-handed home OPS. Headley seems to be better from the left side, meaning he calls home the wrong ballpark.

But he’s flourishing anyway, and if the Padres make ballpark adjustments this offseason, Headley’s raw numbers could skyrocket. If they don’t, he might just remain successful and underrated. He’ll probably be underrated regardless, because he plays for the Padres. All of a sudden, Chase Headley looks to be one of the very best position players in baseball. Maybe he’ll slip a little bit going forward, I don’t know. But he can give some ground and still remain a star.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.