If we sat around this winter and compiled a list of players to amass at least 5 Wins Above Replacement through the end of August, I bet our list would be pretty similar to the actual WAR leaderboard. While Joey Votto, Troy Tulowitzki, and Evan Longoria all missed significant time with injuries, the inclusion of Ryan Braun, David Wright, Robinson Cano, Miguel Cabrera wouldn’t make many waves.
Mike Trout? That’s something! Jason Heyward and Andrew McCutchen? The talent undeniable. Buster Posey and Yadier Molina? Sentient catchers can amass a couple WAR almost by accident, these are two of the very best. Michael Bourn? A centerfielder in a walk year but still, wow. Chase Headley? Are you kidding me?
Yet these sits “Chase the Magnificent”, he of the 21 home runs (while playing at Petco Park!) and 5 fWAR here in August. While not quite a shock, Chase Headley is putting together a quietly terrific season for the going-nowhere Padres.
Chase Headley’s very successful 2012 season isn’t without precedent. Headley was quite good in 2010, posting just under 5 fWAR thanks to some very uncharacteristic UZR numbers. Always lost in the Petco shuffle, it is Headley’s offense that drives his value in 2012.
A career high already with 21 home runs, the Padres switch-hitting third baseman is steady enough at the hot corner, knows how to take a walk and can even steal a base or two if left unchecked. While posting nearly 13 fWAR over the last three years is great production (9 WARP, 10 rWAR), Headley is finally showing Padres fans the full extent of his tools. The imposing dimensions of Petco Park might have got the best of Headley earlier in his career but a slight shift in priorities could account for his increased offensive output in 2012.
Headley is hitting for power unlike ever before in 2012, lifting his Isolated slugging to unseen heights since his days as a college bat in the low minor leagues. Headley’s slugging percentage is well above .400 for the first time in three full seasons, a welcome change indeed.
It is easy to see one major contributing factor to Headley’s success in 2012: his home run per fly ball rate of 19.9% nearly doubles his previous career high and more than triples the rate he posted in 2011. As of the time of this writing, it represents the third-highest rate recorded by a Padres player since the move to Petco Park.
Should we just chalk this up to luck and move along, patiently awaiting the Padres to trade Headley for a king’s ransom only to see him turn back into a noodle-batted nobody? Not exactly. Headley worked with Padres hitting instructor Phil Plantier to improve his power to the pull side and improve he did.
His plate discipline numbers support a change in approach. According to Fangraphs, Headley is swinging at more pitches overall but making less contact, specifically on pitches in the zone. Headley looks to have sacrificed some contact skills in favor of more power, allowing him to tee off on those he gets in his wheelhouse.
The above heatmap from ESPN shows a marked increase in Headley’s ability to drive pitches up in the zone, something that completely deserted him in 2011 when he only mustered four home runs. Simply put: technical changes and an adjustment in mentality allow Headley to make better contact with more hittable pitches. Seems so simple yet…
Players making a commitment to hit for more power isn’t new and, so far, Headley shows he can maintain the tricky balance between reckless abandon and a passive approach. ZiPS projects a season worth 6.2 fWAR, which would place Headley’s 2012 among the three best season by a Padre since the move to Petco Park. Entering his age 29 season with two years of arbitration remaining, the Padres have a tough choice on their hands.
Headley, a Super Two player, is going to get substantial raises in each of the next two years while also representing a terrific trade chip. Do they move him after what may amount to his career season? What kind of numbers can Headley put up in a more friendly offensive environment? An expensive gamble but one Headley, new swing in hand, is showing might just be worth it.