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Q&A: Chase Headley

There is no place like home, but if you’re Chase Headley, Petco Park is anything but accommodating. The Padres third baseman is hitting .300/.397/.407 overall, and his home-road splits are glaring. In the not-so-friendly confines, his 2011 slash line [through June 27] is .248/.369/.336, while from 2008-2010 it was just .225/.310/.337. On the road, those numbers are an all-star caliber .348/.425/.474 and .298/.357/438 respectively. Headley talked about hitting in Petco, and his approach at the plate, when the Padres visited Boston earlier this month.


David Laurila: How do you define yourself as a hitter?

Chase Headley: I’ve actually changed quite a bit since I was called up. Originally, I would have said that I look to drive the ball a little more and hit for a little more power. When I came to Petco, I realized that isn’t necessarily the best approach to have unless you’re a big-time power guy. I went to being more of a line-drive, gap-type hitter, someone who wants to produce runs. All I care about is getting on base, scoring runs, and driving in runs. In the end that’s all that matters.

DL: Was it a gradual adjustment, or did you go there knowing you’d have to change your style?

CH: It was gradual, I would say after my first full season at Petco. I realized that I had a better opportunity to hit .– hopefully hit — .280 to .300 and hit 10 homers versus trying to hit .260 with 25 homers. It’s tough to hit home runs there.

DL: Your numbers are far better on the road. Is that primarily park factor?

CH: Yeah, I think so. I don’t think there are many guys that have hit better at Petco than they have at other places. It’s a pitchers’ ballpark, pure and simple. But as a baseball player, you want to win games and that doesn’t mean you can’t win games there. It just means that statistically your numbers won’t look quite as good as they would at some other places.

DL: Is there anything specific about Petco that makes it an unfavorable hitting environment?

CH: It’s everything. Really, all the odds are stacked against you there. It’s big; the dimensions are big. The ball doesn’t carry as well as it does in some other places. We have a softer surface than a lot of places. A lot of guys would say that they don’t see the ball as well as they do in other places. It’s definitely a pitcher’s ballpark and that’s the way it has played since it’s been open.

DL: How much of that is psychological?

CH: I don’t think any, really. You try not to let it get to you as a player, because as soon as you start to try to change things from playing at home versus on the road, that’s when you really start struggling. We try to have the same approach. We understand that at home we may have to play a bit more small ball than we do on the road, but from an individual player’s perspective, you can’t let it affect your approach. At the end of the year, you turn around and look back at your numbers and understand that you sacrificed some throughout the year, but during the year you can’t really worry about it.

DL: Where do you enjoy hitting?

CH: Oh man, there are a lot of places. Obviously, Arizona is a great place to hit; Colorado is a great place to hit. [Fenway Park] is a great place to hit. Cincinnati, Philadelphia…I’d say there are a lot more hitters’ ballparks in the game today than there are pitchers’ parks.

DL: You’ve hit a lot better in night games than day games. Can that be explained?

CH: I really don’t have an answer for that. Not really.

DL: Is it a matter of how well you see the ball?

CH: To be honest with you, I feel like I see the ball better in day games, at least when it’s overcast. When it’s overcast, you still get plenty of light, but you’re not squinting like you are a lot of times when it’s really bright outside. In some day games you almost have to squint to make sure that it’s not too bright. To be honest, I have no idea why my numbers looks that way.

DL: Are you the same hitter from both sides of the plate?

CH: No, not really. I’m a little more aggressive right-handed than I am left-handed. I tend to see the ball a little better from the left side, so I don’t mind being deep in the count as much. A lot of that has to come with getting so many more at bats from the left side than the right side. Generally, you just feel more comfortable from the side you’re getting more at bats. I actually feel like I have more power from the right side of the plate. It probably hasn’t shown up statistically as much as I’d like it to, but I definitely have a little bit more pop from that side. I’m probably a better overall hitter from the left side.

DL: Why are your numbers so much better from the right side this year?

CH: I made a couple of mechanical adjustments, just some things that allowed my hands to be freed up a little bit. After my stride, I was super wide in my stance and my hands had a long way to go to get to the ball. By altering my stance and my stride, I kind of shortened it up to give me a better chance.

DL: Was the adjustment suggested by a coach?

CH: It was basically me. I was just watching [Jose] Bautista, from Toronto hit and I was like, “Damn!” He was a guy who, until a couple years ago, didn’t really show the huge power numbers. I was watching him on video and I was like “Man, that looks pretty good.” At the time, things weren’t going very well right-handed so I was like, “What do I have to lose?” I figured that I might as well change it up and see if I can do something to help me out. So far, I’ve been successful with it.

DL: If you get traded and go to a hitter’s park, will you adjust your game?

CH: I think that anywhere you go…for example, if I came [to Boston], I wouldn’t have to change anything, because, especially from the left side, I’m the kind of guy that hits the ball the other way — the center of the field or the other way. But yeah, I think if you know you’re going to be in a ballpark for a long period of time, there are some advantages to catering your swing and your approach. That’s not something you can just flip on, or flip off, but if I got a five-year deal to play in Cincinnati, or something like that, then I might be a little more geared to hit fly balls than I am now.

DL: Do you usually try to let the ball get deep?

CH: I really let the ball get deep left-handed. That’s something I’ve always done. Right-handed, I tend to hit the ball a little further out in front of the plate. It’s just a hitting style — how I hit — and part of it is Petco. It’s big to right-center, so sometimes you click the ball and it doesn’t go out, and you’re like “Man, this isn’t doing me any good.” I changed a little bit and started to let the ball get a little deeper; I tried to be a better overall hitter. From the right side, I’ve been more successful being a little bit more aggressive out in front of the plate.

DL: You like to work the count, you never swing on 3-0, and you put fewer balls in play on 3-1 than one might expect. Can you address those points?

CH: I’ve always been a guy that’s believed in working pitchers and being aggressive on the pitches that I can handle. That means taking strikes early in the count that aren’t necessarily great pitches to hit. I’m not worried about hitting with two strikes; I really don’t care about striking out that much unless it’s in a situation where there are guys on base. With a guy on third base, I want to put the ball in play, because that should be a free RBI.

I would rather strike out on a 3-2 count than put the ball in play on the first pitch of an at bat and make an out. I just think that makes the pitcher work a little bit harder. That’s not to say you don’t want to swing early in the count sometimes, but over the course of the season, that’s how my numbers are going to work.

As far as 3-0, I don’t like swinging 3-0 unless there’s a guy in scoring position. And a lot of times we don’t swing because we have the take on, quite frankly. If it’s a 3-0 count and there is a guy on third base with less than two outs, I’d definitely like to swing in that count. On 3-1, I’m being really selective, looking for a specific pitch. If it’s not the one I‘m looking for, I’m going to let it go because I feel like I’m going to have another chance 3-2. I try to do that throughout the count, but in a hitter’s counts, I get even more selective.

DL: Despite working a lot of long counts, you do swing fairly often on first pitch. Notably, you hit well when you do.

CH: It’s kind of the same thing. I’m being really selective on a certain pitch I’m looking for, and if I get it, I’m going to be aggressive to it. I think the major-league average for swinging at the first pitch is pretty high, well over .300. A lot of times, pitchers are just trying to flip something in there to get ahead of you, and then they can get nasty with their stuff. If it’s the pitch I’m looking for, early in the count, I’m going to be aggressive. If I don’t get it, that’s when I get deeper into the count.

DL: How much do scouting reports and video play into that?

CH: Quite a bit. If I have a pretty good idea that a guy is going to throw a curveball, for example, with runners in scoring position, early in the count to try to steal a strike, I’m going to go up there and sit on that. If I get it, I’m going to be aggressive to it. I think there’s a fine line when it comes to being too analytical — you obviously still have to go out and execute — but it’s good to have an advantage by having a pretty good statistical theory that a guy is going to go to a certain pitch in a certain count.

DL: Given the same offensive numbers, you have more value as a third baseman than you do as a left fielder. Do you ever think about that?

CH: No, but I understand that. Third base…to be completely honest with you, whether you’re talking statistically, like from a fantasy perspective, or just from a baseball perspective, I’m just a better third baseman, all-around, than I am a left fielder. I’m not a very good defensive outfielder. I feel like I’m a much better third baseman than I was a left fielder. Offensively, I think third base is expected to be a little bit of a power position, but the outfield is like “You’re expected to hit home runs,” unless you play center field. I’m a little bit more comfortable with my role at third base, than I would be in left field.

I don’t feel like I have to go up there and try to fulfill an expectation. You don’t ever want to feel like that, regardless of where you’re playing. You just want to be the player that you are. But, career-wise, and obviously this is how I provide for my family, you want to be playing the position that’s best suited for you. You’re going to make a living off this game, hopefully, and you want to play where you feel like you can be the best.

DL: Any final thoughts?

CH: The first question you asked was how I define myself as a hitter, and in my opinion the most important statistics for hitters are how often you get on base, how many runs you score, and how many RBIs you have. Obviously, those are going to depend on where you play. If you play for the Red Sox, with the way that they’re scoring runs, it’s going to be a lot more than somebody who is playing in San Diego. You look at those numbers proportionally, and that’s how I define if I’m successful.