Chase Headley’s power and future with the Yankees

When the Yankees acquired Chase Headley, it looked like a perfect fit for the 30-year-old third baseman. It was a buy-low move for the Yankees, something that seems to have become the front office’s specialty during trade season. There was reason to dream on Headley’s bat, knowing what he did in 2012. That year, Chase busted out for 7.2 fWAR, much in thanks to stellar defense and a 145 wRC+. However, he had never played at that level before 2012, and his power fell drastically in the season and a half thereafter. But could Yankee Stadium restore the third baseman’s lost muscle? It seemed like a worthy gamble, especially at the reasonable cost of Yangervis Solarte and Rafael De Paula.

In 2014, Yankee Stadium’s home run factor (1.410) is second to Coors Field, while Petco Park, Headley’s former home ground, stands at a pitcher-friendly 0.836. Yankee Stadium has a slight edge in doubles, but Petco Park actually has a significant advantage in triples. This is likely because of the vastness of outfield territory to cover due to deeper dimensions in San Diego. With the difference in park factors in mind, Headley should have seen a boost in results, all else being equal.

He’s certainly been a better hitter, posting a .328 wOBA after the trade compared to .293 prior. His BABIP, BA, and BB% have made positive strides, but oddly, his power has been unaffected. His ISO in San Diego was .125, yet with the Yankees it’s .123. On a per plate appearance basis, he’s also hitting homers at the same rate as before the trade.

Headley Batted Ball Distance
Batted ball distance per Baseball Savant.

Unsurprisingly, Headley’s average batted ball distance on fly balls and line drives peaked during his monster 2012 campaign. Otherwise, he’s sat comfortably around 280 feet per fly ball. Assuming his typical flight distance remained stable after the trade, a power surge in the Bronx was foreseeable. Today, we know that his average fly ball length is even longer after the July move, yet we still haven’t seen a higher rate of doubles or home runs. What gives?

The type of contact made since the trade doesn’t mesh with what Yankee Stadium has to offer. 28.2% of Headley’s balls in play have been of the fly ball variety since the trade, vs. 34.2% career. Conversely, ground balls and line drives are up, the latter of the two only slightly. More balls being hit on the ground and on a line helps explain his batting average boost, but aren’t really helpful when it comes to ISO. Obviously, these post-trade rates are small sample sizes, but are decent barometers to explain his performance to this date.

I think this means Headley still has some upside as a Yankee if he was to remain here after this season. If his batted ball rates trend back to his career averages, he certainly could be a benefactor of playing his home games in the Bronx going forward. I doubt he’ll ever be the guy he was in 2012, but would 20 home runs in a full season here be attainable? Definitely. Along with his solid ability to get on base, Headley could be the 121 or 114 wRC+ guy he was in the seasons before and after his big 2012 year.

At this moment, I think Headley’s return to the Yankees is in doubt, with all signs pointing to Alex Rodriguez rejoining the club in 2015. What happens when A-Rod inevitably breaks down, you ask? Martin Prado can move to the hot corner while Rob Refsnyder takes over the reigns at second. Yes, A-Rod could be the full-time DH, opening a spot for Headley, but so could at least one other guy under contract in 2015 (see: Carlos Beltran). And sure, the Yankees could use all the depth they can afford at the infield corners given the brittleness of Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, but I think Headley is going to seek a stable starting job. I hope the Yankees can find a way to keep him, but I couldn’t blame him if latches on to a firm starting opportunity elsewhere.

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