Chase Headley’s slow start

Entering 2015, Chase Headley was perhaps the least of the Yankees’ concerns. And why would anyone be concerned about him? After his acquisition mid-2014, he impressed in pinstripes and received a four-year contract to stay in the Bronx. The lineup had more pressing questions, such as the viability of Alex Rodriguez or the health of Carlos Beltran. Yet, about a quarter through the regular season, Headley’s been one of the team’s worst performers at the plate (84 wRC+).

At first glance, it seems that Headley has run into a bit of bad luck. A .271 BABIP is low given Headley’s .301 mark last season. Additionally, his batted ball profile lends to the notion that the switch-hitter has been extremely unfortunate at the plate. According to Fangraphs, Headley has hit 26.9% line drives, 45.4% ground balls, and 27.8% fly balls. Not only are these rates quite favorable, but they also are in line with his results last season. So, Headley’s due for some better fortune going forward, right? Not so fast.

Some new data indicates that Headley might have actually earned his poor batting line. Fangraphs recently introduced quality of contact data, binned as “soft”, “medium”, or “hard”. This season, 21.3% of Headley’s balls in play have been labeled as soft, well above his 14.6% career rate. Hard hit balls are down too, sitting at a 28.7% clip compared to 31.6% career. I’m unsure if these are predictive, but they certainly help explain why Headley’s results have been so poor.

Further supporting Headley’s weak offensive performance is his batted ball velocity. Per Baseball Savant, the only Yankees with lower average batted ball velocities than Headley (85.33 MPH) are Didi Gregorius (84.59 MPH) and Chris Young (83.63 MPH). Getting a bit more granular, on line drives, Headley only beats Gregorius, Young, Stephen Drew, and Jose Pirela. In short, the batted ball velocity data supports what Headley’s quality of contact rates reflect.

So, what do we trust? The type of batted ball rates? The quality of contact rates? Or batted ball velocity? The first two are certainly subject to some bias as they are determined by whoever decides what bin each batted ball is entered to. However, there might be something a tad more trustworthy about quality of contact rates. For example, not all line drives are created equally: a humpback liner and a frozen rope are both classified as line drives, however, quality of contact rates can differentiate the two. As for exit velocity, the measure is still in its infancy so it’s certainly best not to use on its own. I think it’s great in conjunction with batted ball profiles or quality of contact rates, but to use it alone probably isn’t a great idea.

Returning to Headley, it certainly seems that Headley hasn’t been as unlucky as his .271 BABIP might indicate. As I mentioned, the batted ball profile looks good at first glance, but it might be a bit misleading after examining quality of contact and exit velocity. More likely than not, Headley’s earned his .295 wOBA thus far. That’s pretty disappointing.

For as bad as Chase has been, there’s no need to lose hope: ZiPS foresees a .330 wOBA the rest of the way. The projection is down from a .340 wOBA forecast in the preseason, which certainly indicates some pessimism from ZiPS, but there’s no reason to doubt Headley’s ability to be an above average bat going forward. Hopefully, the turnaround comes soon, because with Jacoby Ellsbury hitting the disabled list, the offense will need all the help it can get.

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