How Chase Headley Really Improved
Recently Corey Brock wrote what was somehow deemed an “in-depth” piece on Padres third-baseman Chase Headley. He really just cooked up a pancake about Chase as a person. He sounds like a delightful guy, but the piece could have appeared in Us Weekly if people cared as much about ballplayers as they do about whores and douche-bags, or whatever.
Many claimed Brock offered answers to the question of how Chase Headley was able to make the sudden leap from solid big leaguer to silver slugger. Brock absolutely did not do this. (Nor did he claim to, for the record.)
Brock is the brand of baseball writer that functions as the fertilizer, which the nothing farm that is MLB.com uses to maximize the amount of nothing it can pull from the otherwise fertile soil of Major League Baseball. So, true to form, the following quote is used as a stand-in for actual analysis in Brock’s piece:
“[He] dedicated himself to being more of a run producer.”
Gee, that seems a little thin, don’t you think? I’m fairly certain every third baseman has dedicated himself to being good at baseball.
Open your mouth and open your mind, Corey, for this sweet, frosty “perhaps-icle” I’ve prepared. Perhaps, just perhaps, it has something to do with actual baseball stuff. You’ll see what I mean.
The Flippy Swing
I’ve been watching Chase Headley his entire career. Chase has always had an excellent eye and elite discipline, and has always been able to sting off-speed stuff over the plate. He rarely gets fooled, and his contact skills have never been in question. But prior to 2012, Chase Headley had a problem squaring up the mistake fastball. Why?
In order to make consistent contact and to prevent Petco from swallowing high fly balls, Chase developed a swing that was low risk and low reward. My father and I have taken to calling it the “flippy” swing. Sean Burroughs invented it. The scared-to-drive-the-ball approach may have been drilled into Chase as he entered the big leagues, or perhaps like so many other Padre hitters, he just psyched himself into adopting it.
Either way, pre-2012, Headley’s hands lagged behind his hips at the beginning of his swing, which meant he was always a tic behind the heater, and wasn’t getting as much out of his lower half as he could have.
Here is a gif of 2011 Chase Headley. Notice how the hips fire and the hands drag.
You’ll still see Headley using this swing to keep his hands back on off-speed pitches, but he uses another swing when he gets a fastball he can drive. His hands fire instantly with the hips. He also added a leg kick to help crank more leverage out of his core. The added juice from the lower half adds the pop that was always present, but never utilized in his cut.
Behold: 2012 Chase Headley.
That’s how you hit a bomb 20 rows back off a 90mph heater at the letters. Later in the same game he hit a second tater from the left side on a 93mph two-seamer, out over the plate. Same quick hands. This is Chase Headley dialed up to 11. This is what he is capable of.
Proof in Numbers
We can watch and watch, but the problem is that sometimes we see what we want to see. In this case, the pitch/FX data backs me up.
Since 2009 Chase Headley’s runs above average against fastballs has been below average, and actually got worse each year until 2012. At -1.7 in 2009, it bottomed out in 2011 at -4.6. In 2012 that number leapt to +24. No other pitch saw a spike near that magnitude. The change-up came closest, going from -1.1 in 2011 to +14.1 in 2012. The league noticed, as they threw him the lowest percentage of both fastballs and change-ups of his career. All the while, he was able to maintain near his career norms in runs above average against all other pitch types.
The New Headley
José Bautista is another hitter who we have seen make minor adjustments to become a major threat. Chase Headley didn’t just want it more last season, he actually changed something about his swing mechanics, which allowed him to add another tool to his game. To say that he just tried harder is to discount both Chase’s work ethic, and the talent of the Padre hitting coaches (Phil Plantier and Alonzo Powell). But most dangerously, it provides the impression that last season was a fluke. It was not.