2016 In Review: Chase Headley

Preseason Expectations

After a mediocre 2015, any hope for Chase Headley to rediscover his incredible 2012 form was quashed. That 31 homer, 145 wRC+, and +7.5 fWAR season in San Diego simply was an unattainable aspiration for the third baseman in the Bronx, who truly is much closer to league average than stardom. Being average isn’t bad! That’s essentially what any rational person anticipated from Headley in 2016.

Expecting Headley to be an average player meant a decent but unspectacular offensive output buoyed by plus defense. The former was plausible, while the latter became somewhat concerning after a career high 23 errors in 2015. His fielding woes were perplexing, particularly because of his reputation as a defensive wizard at the hot corner. Nonetheless, there was a good amount of work put into restoring his defensive strength in preparation for 2016, leaving room for optimism on that side of the field.

ZiPS had no qualms about Headley entering the season, and projected an above average all-around performance. Plus defense and a 102 OPS+ in 141 games meant a +2.7 win projection per Dan Szymborski’s system, a forecast the Yankees certainly would have signed up for back in March.

What happened

Nobody could have surmised a worse start to a season than the one Headley had. He hit so poorly that it was as if the Yankees were purposely including a pitcher in the lineup. If someone other than Ronald Torreyes was the next best option at the hot corner, he might not have had as long of a leash as Joe Girardi offered.

Through May 8, Headley had not yet recorded an extra base hit. To that point, in 91 plate appearances, his batting line sat at .153/.263/.153 (17 wRC+). Brutal. Finally, four days later, the third baseman delivered his first extra base hit of the season:

Not the prettiest long ball, but it symbolically ended the slump. He hit another home run the next day, and kept raking for weeks to come. After his month and change slump to start the season, Headley hit .293/.360/.474 (125 wRC+) through the trade deadline. Along with good glove work, it was an All-Star caliber performance over 261 plate appearances. He’d even brought his full season wRC+ to respectability; right in line with what was anticipated before the season: 97.

Headley regressed in August, posting an 83 wRC+. His hitting was subpar, but nothing like the first month of the season. Oddly, though, Headley implicitly lost his starting job for a spurt of late August to Torreyes. This was in part due to Headley’s sore achilles. Mostly, though, it appeared that Girardi decided to ride Torreyes’ hot hand. In no way did Headley play himself out of a job, but the approximately week long period with him down on the depth chart frustrated the third baseman.

September was a difficult month at the plate for Headley as well, a virtual repeat of August as the switch-hitter posted an 82 wRC+. For the second straight month, an injury hampered Headley, this time his back which kept him out between the 17th and 21st of September.

Perhaps Headley’s achilles and back are to blame for his offensive struggles during the final two months. Nonetheless, his midseason surge allowed his full year stat line to end respectably. It wasn’t quite as good as ZiPS projected, but Headley matched his wRC+ and OPS+ of 2015: 92 and 90, respectively. A below average output indeed, but depending how you arbitrarily assign end points (i.e. monthly splits) and consider his health late in the year, it was a satisfying year offensively. Especially after how bleak things looked in early May.

All that goes without mentioning how well he rebounded defensively, with his error totals down to career norms and advanced metrics offering huge praise of Headley’s work at the hot corner. He was reliable and looked confident at this position, making it clear that the prior season was just a blip on the radar.

Fangraphs’ and Baseball Reference’s WAR metrics agreed that Headley was worth +2.6 wins in 2016. That’s a tick above average, mostly thanks to Headley’s fine work around the third base bag. It’s also right where ZiPS pegged him.

Looking ahead

The 32 year-old Headley still appears to have a few more solid seasons in him. He’s under contract for two more years at $13M a piece, a reasonable fee for his services. His 2017 and 2018 were starting to look hairy after his putrid April, but the Yankees should still have a league average third basemen on their hands by the end of the deal.

For now, there aren’t any internal candidates who could step in and be an upgrade over Headley. Ideally, by the end of Chase’s contract, prospect Miguel Andujar will be ready to take over, but that’s still a couple years away. With that in mind, I doubt Headley will be dealt this winter. Unless the Yankees surprisingly pursue Justin Turner, there are no intriguing free agents at the position that would be an obvious improvement. The trade block doesn’t appear to be ripe with available third basemen, either. And that’s fine – Headley represents a useful piece for next season’s club. The hot corner isn’t a position that the front office needs to be concerned about this offseason.

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