Is Chase Headley’s Breakout Sustainable?

Chase Headley may have churned out the most surprising performance in baseball last season. While Headley was regarded as a decent third baseman in past seasons, he provided little power at his position. That changed drastically in 2012. Headley mashed 31 home runs despite playing half his games in a stadium that severely limits power. There were rumors that the San Diego Padres could make Headley available during the offseason, but the team vehemently denied they would entertain the possibility. With the team re-signing veterans Carlos Quentin and Huston Street, they seem to think they can compete for the division relatively soon. In order to do that, they’ll need Headley to sustain his offensive gains.

Prior to his breakout, Headley wasn’t much of an offensive threat. From 2008 to 2011, he hit .269/.342/.393 witha .326 wOBA. That’s passable at third, but hardly elite. That’s why what he managed to do last year was such a shock. Aside from the home runs, Headley’s slash line improved quite a bit, and he posted a .378 wOBA. In just one season, Headley’s wOBA jumped by.052, a staggering rate. In order to figure out whether the improvement is sustainable, we need to see if similar players have ever produced a similar jump.

On order to determine this, we can sort for players who had similar skills through the same age as Headley. In order to determine whether any of those players experienced a similar breakout to Headley, I created a custom list and looked at their performances during their age-28 season. When comparing each players wOBA, it turns out that similar players have experienced this type of breakout before, but few have improved as much as Headley.

Player Age 24-27 wOBA Age 28 wOBA Dif
Charles Johnson 0.316 0.407 0.091
Todd Hundley 0.339 0.396 0.057
Chase Headley 0.326 0.378 0.052
Larry Hisle 0.351 0.390 0.039
Richie Sexson 0.364 0.393 0.029
Andruw Jones 0.355 0.383 0.028
Eric Hinske 0.333 0.360 0.027
Ricky Ledee 0.314 0.337 0.023
Dan Pasqua 0.343 0.365 0.022
Jay Buhner 0.357 0.374 0.017
Jose Bautista 0.323 0.338 0.015
Greg Vaughn 0.342 0.353 0.011
Alex Gordon 0.349 0.357 0.008
Tony Clark 0.369 0.372 0.003
Paul Sorrento 0.340 0.343 0.003
Phil Plantier 0.332 0.335 0.003

Of the 32 players included in the second link posted above, exactly half managed to improve their wOBA during their age-28 season, which is shown in the table. As the table shows, only two other players managed a bigger wOBA improvement than Headley, Charles Johnson and Todd Hundley.

Neither Hundley or Johnson were able to sustain their offensive breakout the following season.

Player Age-28 wOBA Age-29 wOBA Dif
Chase Headley 0.378 N/A ?
Jose Bautista 0.338 0.422 0.084
Jay Buhner 0.374 0.400 0.026
Paul Sorrento 0.343 0.359 0.016
Ricky Ledee 0.337 0.343 0.006
Dan Pasqua 0.365 0.367 0.002
Andruw Jones 0.383 0.375 -0.008
Richie Sexson 0.393 0.383 -0.01
Tony Clark 0.372 0.362 -0.01
Greg Vaughn 0.353 0.320 -0.033
Eric Hinske 0.360 0.313 -0.047
Larry Hisle 0.390 0.335 -0.055
Charles Johnson 0.407 0.330 -0.077
Todd Hundley 0.396 0.246 -0.15

In fact, both players actually experienced the biggest wOBA declines the following season. In Johnson’s case, he regressed back to his career average. With Hundley, a catastrophic elbow injury derailed his season, and nearly his career. Even the players just below Headley on the first chart saw some pretty big regression on the second chart. You’ll notice that some guys that saw a decent rise in production on the first chart actually maintained or improved on their gains, like Jay Buhner, Andruw Jones and Richie Sexson, but all of those players gradually improved their wOBA, and didn’t experience a huge gain like Headley. The second chart also shows the breakout of Jose Bautista, which was sustainable, but due to a complete change in approach. That’s not necessarily something we have with Headley, outside of the newfound power.

When a player breaks out at a massive rate, like Headley, they are often not able to sustain those gains the following season. Most players that are able to improve, or sustain their performances, typically experience a less extreme improvement, like Sexson and Jones. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Headley is doomed to revert back to the guy who posted a .326 wOBA over four straight years, but it does mean that he’s probably in for some serious regression.

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Chris is a blogger for He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

14 Responses to “Is Chase Headley’s Breakout Sustainable?”

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  1. Luis Matos says:

    Well, his HR/FB rate had been under 10% for his career and jumped to 21.4 % this year. Clearly unsustainable.

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    • Stuck in a slump says:

      Clearly unsustainable, but that doesn’t mean that he wont retain some of the gains made. I’m usually not a fan of Bill James’ predictions, however, the fans seem to be in agreement with him and both projections seem reasonable. I think that predicting him to regress back to career levels is just as unreasonable as expecting him to remain at his 2012 levels.

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  2. GT says:

    So many of his stats in 2012 were similar to career averages, it’s only that 21.4 % HR/FB% that jumps out. Risk averse, shy away.

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  3. mcbrown says:

    Well, anyone who’s expecting an exact repeat is a fool – if 2012 is Headley’s true talent level then we won’t be talking about where to draft him in roto but where he ranks in the pantheon of all-time great 3B’s. It is lazy analysis to just say “regression, stay away.” The question is not “Will his performance decline?” but “How much should we expect his performance to decline?”

    To that end, let’s not forget that was always an above-average hitter away from Petco. And Petco is changing in ways that are hard to forecast but are likely to be positive for Headley.

    So no, he probably won’t hit like a first-ballot hall-of-famer again in 2012. But could he reach .280/20/15? I’d say that is a very reasonable unbiased estimate. That would make him a quite serviceable pick in the 5th round in 12 team leagues.

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    • Drew says:

      Hear hear. I found it odd there was no mention of Headley’s revitalized swing, not even when talking about Bautista’s turnaround.

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  4. Clint Robinson says:

    There is a good chance that he will be undervalued in high-quality leagues, as people will just think “regression coming, stay away,” which seems to be Cwik’s approach here.

    Both the fans and Bill James are predicting significant regression for him (e.g. the fans predict 22 HR, 90 R, 94 RBI, 15 SB, .282 AVG), but if he had put up that line last year, he still would have been a top 5 3B.

    I’m buying on Mr. Headley. I love getting a top 5 3B with the small upside chance that he’ll repeat 2012 and return first-round value.

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  5. RA Rowe says:

    Headley changed his mechanics and his hands were much quicker last season. If you look at the pitch value data, he crushed fastballs with the new swing in a way he never came close to before.

    I wrote an article on this if anybody is interested. GIFs!

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    • Stuck in a slump says:

      I read your piece, and while I agree that the premise of something changing about him that the stats wouldn’t readily show as being sustainable, I wish you had more evidence other than a one year spike in Pitchf/x or a couple of GIFs (which were seriously choppy, any way to speed those up or smooth them out?).

      I’d be shocked if Headley didn’t blast 20+ dongers next year, but I’d be just as surprised if he managed 30 again. That said, I’m keeping him in my leagues.

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      • RA Rowe says:

        As for the gifs, I wanted them to be more frame by frame. It isn’t so attractive, but gives you a chance to check hand position vs hip position.

        But as for having more evidence, I agree, but all we have is all we have. After all, he’s only been doing this for one season. I left out BABIP and HR/FB since most interested parties are checking them already, when evaluating possible performance aberrations.

        Now that you mention it however, it would probably be worth it to look at contact types. But I still fell I would end up attributing better contact to the mechanical adjustments he made. Next year we can have a richer conversation.

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    • Daniel says:

      good article

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  6. Jack Reacher says:

    Headley #1 overall. If you look at career marks, he improved his HR rate last year by 100%. When he keeps that up this year, he’ll be mashing 40% HR/FB.

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    • MustBunique says:

      Sorry an imp wast cast to play you in a more angry way than you were ever portrayed in the books.

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  7. harrys2ndson says:

    It’s not like he has come from nowhere. Headley has worked his way up through the system, almost ala Lance Berkman, struggling in the outfield as his natural positions were blocked. He has come into his own, and the addition of better hitters to the Pads line-up has only helped and will help more next year as the team grows. Bringing in the outfield fences isn’t going to hurt him either.

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  8. sboston says:

    First 4 months : 15.8% BB. SLG%.422 BA .268 HR-12 RBI-52
    Last two months: 10.0% BB. SLG% .629 BA .315 HR-19 RBI-61

    It makes me believe he was being too selective the first 2/3 of the season. He will be in a premium spot in the batting order, he also gets an extra 10 feet from Petco batting lefthanded this year. Any upward shift at Petco would do wonders for him (.455 SLG HM vs. .541 SLG RD last year). I think he has a similar year as last year, even with a reduction in the fb/hr rate.

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