What Happened To Chase Headley?

Another piece in this year’s trade deadline mosaic fell into place on Monday, as Chase Headley was dealt from the Padres to the Yankees in exchange for 3B Yangervis Solarte and High-A RHP Rafael De Paula. Headley promptly jumped on a plane, was inserted into what became a 14-inning marathon with the Rangers, and delivered the game-winning hit. Moments like this have been hard to come by for the switch-hitting third baseman since 2012, when he unfurled a .286-.376-.498 line with 31 HR and an NL-leading 115 RBI, while playing his home games in a pitchers’ park.

He basically became the poster child for an underachieving, and dare I say boring Padres club. It’s clearly unfair to heap all of the 2013-14 Padres’ problems on the back of Headley, but it goes with the territory when you bat in the middle of the order daily and haul down a large salary by San Diego standards. What on earth has happened to Headley since 2012, and what can the Yankees expect to get from their new third sacker for the rest of the 2014 season?

Headley was a chief topic of discussion in virtually every draft room back in 2005, when the Padres selected him in the 2nd round. He was one of those “college performer” types that lacked in-your-face physical tools, and didn’t impress many traditional scouts. I was the Brewers’ Assistant Scouting Director at the time, and we talked long and hard about Headley. Our scouts were split on him, but oh, those numbers……Headley hit .387-.534-.689 for Tennessee that season, against very strong competition, and even more strikingly, had a sterling 63 walks as compared to only 23 strikeouts.

He was a switch-hitter, and his sturdy 6’2, 200+ frame looked like it could grow into some home run power. He was the classic “hit before power” guy, one of the few college bats in any draft that you’d really like to get your mitts on. As it turned out, the Padres made a great pick: Headley and Yunel Escobar — though Travis Wood might eventually have something to say about it — have established themselves as the two best players to come from that 2005 2nd round.

Headley torched his way through the Padres’ minor league system, batting .301.-398-.498 overall and first forcing his way to the big club barely two years after being drafted. In 2008, he became a Padre regular, splitting time between left field and third base. Each season, I create an ordered list of minor league position players and starting pitchers who meet a sliding scale of relative production and age criteria. Headley qualified for this list in each of his minor league seasons, with a lofty peak rank of #15 following his 2007 Double-A campaign. This marked him as an extremely likely major league starter, possessing star upside.

For his first three and a half major league seasons, Headley might not have been a star, but he was a solidly above average player, combining above average defense with an average to slightly above average bat. The power was slow to develop, but the strikeouts that come when a player is attempting to tap into his power started to pile up.

His always solid walk rate made him a solid on-base threat throughout this period. Headley supplemented his value by stealing 44 bags on only 54 attempts over this period. He was basically a 3.0 WAR guy heading into his arbitration years, and both club and player were content to see where his continued development would lead before entering into any type of long-term commitment.

Then 2012 happened. The strikeouts and walk totals remained high, but Headley finally tapped into his power. He had hit 36 homers in the three and a half seasons preceding 2012…..and has hit only 27 since. Let’s take a closer look at his recent past by examining his 2012-14 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data to see what has gone wrong. First, the frequency data:

FREQ – 2012
Headley % REL PCT
K 22.5% 114 76
BB 12.3% 154 91
POP 4.4% 52 11
FLY 33.2% 114 82
LD 22.1% 99 47
GB 40.3% 101 57
FREQ – 2013
Headley % REL PCT
K 23.7% 119 83
BB 11.2% 141 85
POP 4.7% 60 19
FLY 30.1% 106 65
LD 22.4% 105 62
GB 42.8% 101 55
FREQ – 2014
Headley % REL PCT
K 23.8% 117 80
BB 7.1% 91 40
POP 6.1% 79 33
FLY 32.0% 115 83
LD 25.4% 122 92
GB 36.5% 84 10

Headley’s strikeout percentile ranks have floated in a narrow band between 76 and 83 since 2012. That’s not exactly what one would have expected by looking at his college stat line, but it just goes to show how high a bar must be set when looking at college stats, especially back then, prior to the change in the standard of the bats used by the NCAA. The plunge in Headley’s BB rate percentile rank, from 91 in 2012 to 40 this season, is very alarming, but it is likely more of an effect than a cause.

One of the best things Headley has going for him as a hitter is his ability to maintain a low popup rate while hitting a lot of fly balls. Only high quality hitters can do this. His pop up percentile ranks have ranged from 11 to 33 over the past three seasons, and believe it or not, the 33 will be a career high if maintained until season’s end. His fly ball percentile rank has ranged from 65 to 83 since 2012, and has been above MLB average in all but one of his seasons as a regular. Headley has also consistently posted high line drive rates – his 47 percentile rank in 2012 is his career low, and his mediocre 2014 numbers are propped up by a very high liner rate (92 percentile rank).

Prior to 2014, the foundation for a very strong offensive foundation was still in place. The solid BB rate offset the high K rate to a large extent, and the absence of popups and abundance of line drives kept alive the possibility of hitting for both average and power. As long as he was able to continue to hit the ball hard in the air, of course. Now let’s take a look at his production by BIP type for 2012-14, both before and after adjustment for context, and see if he has been able to do so:

PROD – 2012
FLY 0.431 1.188 233 189
LD 0.646 0.792 100 100
GB 0.251 0.269 110 118
ALL BIP 0.385 0.670 157 145
ALL PA 0.285 0.374 0.497 143 135
PROD – 2013
FLY 0.330 0.725 110 105
LD 0.617 0.827 90 109
GB 0.239 0.290 111 117
ALL BIP 0.343 0.549 115 124
ALL PA 0.250 0.335 0.399 107 113
PROD – 2014
FLY 0.302 0.746 109 79
LD 0.580 0.680 69 110
GB 0.181 0.194 55 103
ALL BIP 0.310 0.483 93 112
ALL PA 0.227 0.284 0.354 81 96

Headley’s actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and it’s converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

Let’s cut right to the chase here – Headley’s fly ball production, both before and after adjustment for context, has fallen off a cliff since 2012. Remember, Headley hits a lot of fly balls, so his fly ball authority is the essence of his game. High walk and liner rates and a low popup rate make you solid and reliable – but if you want to be a star, you have to do damage in the air. Headley’s ADJ PRD on fly balls has plummeted from 189 in 2012 to 105 in 2013 to an unacceptably low 79 thus far in 2014. His liner and grounder authority has been a bit above average throughout the entire measurement period – his decline in batted-ball production has been solely attributable to diminished fly ball authority.

Digging a little deeper into the numbers points out some other disturbing developments. In 2012, Headley hit 37 fly balls at 97.5 MPH or harder, and 23 of them were hit from LCF to RCF, in the middle of the field. In 2013, he hit only 9 fly balls that hard, and only 4 of them were hit from LCF to RCF. This season, he has hit only 5 fly balls that hard, and only 2 of them were hit from LCF to RCF. Not only is he hitting the ball in the air with significantly less authority, he has totally lost the ability to do damage in the air to the gaps, where you have to hit the ball that hard to do so.

You can hit 90 MPH homers down the line, depending on the park. This has resulted in him pulling the ball more from both sides of the plate, and has caused his actual performance on grounders to decline substantially, as evidenced by his 55 ADJ PRD this season. Another consequence of his loss of power to anywhere but the extreme pull side is the decline in his walk rate. Pitchers are no longer afraid to challenge Headley, as balls that he used to drive to the gaps and beyond are now routine fly outs.

This is a fairly common sequence of events for a player in decline. Peak fly ball authority decreases, the player has to pull more to tap into his power, holes in his plate coverage materialize, and pitchers no longer need to nibble around the edges of the plate to have success. Is Headley in an irreversible decline? Not necessarily. There could be something eminently correctable in his swing mechanics that could get him back on track to some extent. On balance, however, I would surmise that his best days are behind him. He is not a great athlete or quick-twitch type. He has also begun to accumulate some nagging injuries, and the back tweak that landed him on the DL last month is particularly worrisome.

Taking a step back and analyzing this deal, however, it appears to be a very solid gamble by the Yankees. For all of his early season heroics, Solarte is what he is – a six-year minor league free agent signee who made good. He’s a fringe to marginal big leaguer, not good enough to start, not versatile enough to be a quality backup. He’s a tough out who can hold his own in the majors over short stretches.

De Paula has a live arm and has missed a lot of bats, though at 23 he’s a bit old to have never pitched a Double-A inning. He did rank #74 on my list of minor league pitching prospects last year, and #102 on my 2014 midseason list. Until he has similar upper minor league success, this merely marks him as a guy to watch, but not a top prospect. He likely projects as a pen arm, but does have a solid chance to have a big league future.

Headley’s defensive performance has remained strong as he has slumped offensively, and he could benefit offensively by the move to Yankee Stadium. Fly ball hitters make their bones down the lines (and to RCF) in Yankee Stadium, and Headley’s dead RF hot spot now matches up perfectly with his ballpark’s. Yankee Stadium has made a lot of one-dimensional and/or declining hitters look better than they are, and Headley could continue that tradition.

For two to three months, this has a chance to be a very good marriage. Afterward? Clubs should be very careful not to put too much stock into a strong finish in a friendly park, and instead pay closer heed to what appears to be a player in steady offensive decline. Short-term, reasonable dollars deal as a glove-first reclamation project? I’m in. Three or more years at $10M+? No thanks.

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