Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Yankees Fans, Meet Chase Headley

Yesterday the New York Yankees traded their third baseman this year, Yangervis Solarte, and minor league pitcher Rafael De Paula to the San Diego Padres for third baseman Chase HeadleySolarte was an interesting story this year, as the 26-year-old rookie posted a strong .299/.369/.466 slash line through the end of May but a paltry .154/.267/.192 thereafter. Headley wasted no time endearing himself to the Bronx faithful, with a walkoff RBI single in his first game:

What's Good About Him? Headley was a fantastic player in 2012, with a .286/.376/.498 slash line and a Gold Glove. He was first in the National League with 115 RBI, fifth in total bases with 301, seventh in runs scored with 95, eighth in home runs with 31, and ninth in on-base percentage. That he compiled his offensive numbers at Petco Park, the most extreme pitcher's park in baseball, makes them doubly impressive.

What's Not So Good About Him? Well, every year since. In 2013, his slash line was .250/.347/.400 - still above average, considering Petco Park, but not star level - and his home runs and RBI fell from 31 and 115 in 2012 to 13 and 50 in 2013. So far this year he's been simply bad: .230/.296/.353, with 7 homers and 33 RBI--lousy timing, considering that he's a free agent at the end of the season.

So What Should Yankees Fans Expect? Getting away from Petco should help. Headley's batting average at home was actually higher than on the road this year, but only two of his seven homers came at home. Yankee Stadium is a good hitter's park, so Headley's moving from a tough stadium to a much more favorable one.

A return to his 2012 season doesn't seem likely. That year, over 21% of fly balls went over the fence. Every other year of his career, it's been less than 11%. So 2012 stands out as a fluke. Also in 2012, he slugged .568 against fastballs and .583 against offspeed pitches. He's never been higher than .440 as a regular other than 2012.

So if 2012's out, how about 2013? Headley was above average that year. He's swinging and missing less often than last year, he's not swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone, and the percentage of his fly balls that are home runs is barely down. What has changed is his batting average on balls in play: From .319 last year to .286 this year. (The National League average was .297 last year and .299 this year). As I've mentioned, most players' batting average on balls in play hovers around the league average. So you can make an argument that Headley's performance this year has been due to random variation rather than declining skills.

So you put it together, and you've got a guy who had a great fluke season in 2012 followed by an OK year in 2013. He's declined in 2014, but that's in part due to bad luck, and his batting stats in general have been hurt by his home park. Now, they should be helped.

So it's reasonable for the Yankees to expect something approaching league-average production from Headley for the remainder of the year. The question is what happens after that. With good production, will Headley sign a free agent contract to stay in pinstripes? Or will they let him go, given that they have another third baseman who'll be back next year--a 38-year-old to whom they owe $61 million for 2015-2017 as well as a $6 million bonus after his sixth home run next year?

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