Many of you may be wondering why New York Yankees third baseman Chase Headley is doing so well and the answer is really unsophisticated.
New York Yankees third baseman Chase Headley is one of the best offensive players in baseball. No, I am not kidding you and no, you aren’t having a dream that’s simply too good to be true.
Through 15 games played, the 32-year-old owns a .396/.500/.646 slash line with three home runs and an OPS of 1.146. Entering Thursday night, his WAR, OPS, OBP, wRC+ and runs scored ranked inside the Top-5 among qualified major league hitters.
Sure, that’s great. But those rankings simply don’t do his current surge as much justice as a quick comparison to 2016 does. On April 19, Headley recorded his 19th hit of the season — a two-run home run off Dylan Covey of the Chicago White Sox.
Last season, his 19th hit didn’t come until May 13, when he hit a home run off Chris Sale in the bottom of the second inning during a 7-1 Yankees’ loss to the same White Sox at Yankee Stadium.
That home run on Wednesday was also the third of this young season meanwhile in 2016, his third home run of the season didn’t come until May 25, when Headley hit a home run off Blue Jays’ right-hander Marco Estrada.
From Opening Day to May 11 last season, Headley went a mere 16-for-90 (.178) with no extra-base hits and a win probability added of -1.657. It’s clearly safe to say the start of 2017 is going nothing like when the switch-hitter fell out of the gate a year ago. But what changed?
The first aspect I took a look at was perhaps the pitches his whiff rate, but it really doesn’t make much sense. During the stretch in which he batted .178 to kick off 2016, Headley whiffed at 11.11 percent of offspeed pitches and 5.82 percent of hard pitches, per PITCH f/x. During his current surge, he’s whiffing at 25 percent of offspeed pitches and 6.20 percent of hard pitches.
Headley’s current strikeout rate is also 17.2 percent, which is only a little lower than his 19.7 rate from last April. So, he’s swinging and missing now at slightly (maybe a tad more) the same rate as he was in 2016. That’s borderline insane considering now he’s one of the better hitters in the league and last season the Bronx faithful wanted to chase him out of Yankee Stadium with pitchforks.
So, Headley is clearly not cutting down on the strikeouts. In fact, he has gone down on strikes more now (10) than he had at this point last year (eight).
Rest assured, there is a reason why this time around is a little different and it is because he has taken his already-superb plate discipline to a whole new level. I say “already-superb” due to the fact that since 2008, Chase Headley owns the tenth-highest walk percentage (10 percent) among major league hitters (min. 5,000 PA).
This season, his walk rate is the 13th-best in baseball (17.2 percent) but he has cut down the frequency in which he swings at pitches outside the strike zone. In 2016, Headley chased 25.8 percent of pitches outside the zone. According to FanGraphs, the average O-Swing rate stood at 30 percent, so Headley was still on his game, but he has managed to cut that rate down to 18.1 percent — the fourth-best among qualified hitters.
It’s more than affecting the walk rate, however. The ability for Headley to lay off, even more, pitches out of the zone gets him into hitter-friendly counts, which isn’t surprising by any means.
This season, he has had 29 plate appearances which ended with him ahead in the count and just 13 with the pitcher ahead. While ahead, Headley’s posting a 1.566 OPS and when the pitcher’s ahead, his OPS drops to .692.
All in all, Headley’s level of play is at an astronomical level and while you should expect it to come down to Earth eventually, this trend of improved discipline will certainly help him as he attempts to salvage the final two seasons of his four-year, $52 million contract he signed with the New York Yankees back in the offseason of 2015.