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September 18, 2012

Western Front

Chase Headley is Awesome

by Geoff Young

“When are we going to get a 'Chase Headley is awesome' article at BP? Or did I miss it?” These were the exact words, and this is the exact article. And I don't know if you missed it.

What you may have missed, particularly if you are in or not in San Diego, is that Headley has been on a rampage since being omitted from the National League All-Star team. As of this writing, he leads the majors—along with the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera—with 20 homers in the second half. As in, more than everyone else. As in, more than the 15 he hit over the previous two seasons combined. This helps explain why the Padres are tied with San Francisco for the third-best record in the NL since the break.

Headley's season total sits at 28, which is more than he hit over the previous three seasons combined. He leads the NL in RBI with 104, which is more than he had in 2010 and 2011. The weird thing is that, except for his homers and RBI, this looks like a typical Chase Headley season. Can you spot the monster year without those stats (and his sexy .487 SLG, which gives it away)?

Year

Age

PA

BA

OBP

2B

BB%

K%

2008

24

368

.269

.337

19

8.2

28.3

2009

25

612

.262

.342

31

10.1

21.7

2010

26

674

.264

.327

29

8.3

20.6

2011

27

439

.289

.374

28

11.9

21.0

2012

28

634

.284

.371

26

11.8

22.9

Of course you can, because I told you he's having a monster 2012, but those all look like the same guy. There's probably a point to be made here about choosing which stats to reveal and which to withhold. Perhaps some other time.

Speaking of which, I included age in the above table because that is a potential narrative. “Well, he clearly just needed time to develop and we can see that...” Age and experience are important, but it's overly simplistic to attribute all of his improvement to those factors.

To our original point, Headley is hitting in the .260-.290 range with 25-30 doubles and the usual number of walks and strikeouts. For fun, let's examine a different set of stats from those seasons:

Year

Age

PA

HR

RBI

SLG

2008

24

368

9

38

.420

2009

25

612

12

64

.392

2010

26

674

11

58

.375

2011

27

439

4

44

.399

2012

28

634

28

104

.487

That doesn't look like the same guy, does it? And oh, hey, there's the point about choosing which stats to reveal and which to withhold. We didn't have to wait long after all.

This is also a good time to remind you that Headley plays half his games at Petco Park: Destroyer of Offense, Humbler of Men. Hold that thought; we'll return to it in a moment.

* * *

So I looked at Headley's list of similar players through age 27 at Baseball-Reference. This is a technique that, while far from perfect, often makes for a good starting point. In Headley's case, it is almost completely useless. I can see Scott Cooper, but Franklin Gutierrez, Milton Bradley, Kevin Bass, and Johnny Grubb? Beyond the fact that Bradley and Grubb once played for the Padres, I'm not seeing those comps at all.

For one thing, those guys were outfielders. Which brings me to my next point: You may or may not remember that Headley “played” left field on first arriving in the big leagues. He was blocked at third base by—and I'm dead serious—Kevin Kouzmanoff. So Headley shifted to the outfield, with poor results in the field and at the plate. Without attempting to quantify how bad he was, here's the distribution of his innings in the field, expressed as percentages for easier digestion:

Years

Innings

Total

LF

3B

1B

2007-2009

2015.1

84.1%

15.8%

Trace

2010-2012

3573.0

0.0%

99.9%

Trace

This includes his eight-game cameo in 2007, when he served as a short-term replacement for the injured Kouzmanoff at third base. The following season, after a huge .330/.437/.580 campaign in an extreme pitchers' park at Double-A San Antonio, Headley was shifted to left field in an attempt to get his and Kouzmanoff's bat (I know, I'm just explaining the thought process) into the big-league lineup at the same time.

To that point in his career, Headley had played 315 games in the field in the minor leagues. All of those came at third base. In 2008, while advancing to Triple-A Portland, Headley moved to left field and played 56 games there. Then he was recalled to do the same in San Diego.

This is a long way of saying that for the first 1,001 plate appearances of his big-league career, Headley wasn't even playing the right position. So his list of comps is ridiculous, and also it is perhaps less surprising to learn that he struggled at the plate while trying to figure out how to play left field at the highest level.

To fix this, I created a list of comps through Headley's age-27 season based on different criteria. It is also somewhat ridiculous, but what the heck:

Player

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

HR

BB

K

Todd Zeile

2462

.265

.347

.402

51

276

331

D'Angelo Jimenez

2264

.267

.350

.382

33

254

356

Chase Headley

2114

.269

.343

.392

36

202

472

Entering 2012, Headley was a cross between Todd Zeile and D'Angelo Jimenez. Because that makes sense in this or any other universe.

Still, if you discount the fact that Headley bears no resemblance to either of those guys as a player and focus solely on statistical output, this isn't a horrible fit. The point is, we're looking at a marginally useful player who may (in the case of Zeile) or may not (in the case of Jimenez) go on to enjoy a long and successful career.

As I mentioned several paragraphs ago, one of the issues with Headley is his home ballpark. I ran numbers before the 2011 season, noting of Headley that “for his career, he’s Johnny Damon on the road and Alex Cora at home.” Because of this and his general stagnation at the big-league level, our comments in BP2012 were conservative:

Headley plays capable defense at third base, runs well, and is a smart player. As long as he calls San Diego home (career .229/.319/.336 there versus .303/.364/.441 on the road), the best he can hope for is to duplicate 2011's success. PECOTA doesn't like his chances to do that, but if Headley sticks with last year's approach, he should beat the projection.

These comments were written in December, a couple of months after the Padres hired Phil Plantier as their hitting coach but before Plantier worked with Headley in spring training. As Padres beat reporter for MLB.com Corey Brock observed on Twitter not long ago:

Important to note on Headley (and in general): Career paths are not linear. Tweaked mechanics to generate more pull-side loft. It happens.

Yeah, you could write a dissertation or three on the non-linearity of career paths. Steve Finley didn't really get started until he reached his 30s, but I digress. The point is that our comments about Headley made perfect sense before we knew that a) he would tweak his mechanics and b) doing so would make a difference. How many times has Will Venable, to use one example, changed his approach and gotten the same results? It's like anything else in life: Try stuff and hope it works.

Returning to Headley's home/road splits, it is easy to dream on what he might accomplish away from the cavernous Petco Park. As we discussed earlier this year, people do that with Venable all the time. Heck, they did it with Adrian Gonzalez. Remember when his already-prodigious power was supposed to improve after he left San Diego? Remember when the opposite happened?

The thing about park factors is that they make sweeping generalizations. Left-handed hitters are hurt by Petco Park, but right-handers do okay. But are we measuring the park's effect on players or vice versa? For example, among lefties, Gonzalez was penalized by his home venue more than Venable is. On the flip side, Scott Hairston and Nick Hundley “prove” that righties can handle Petco Park, while Khalil Greene and Ryan Ludwick “prove” that they cannot.

Which lefties? Which righties? Why? These are questions for another day, but they are worth asking.

For the record, here's how Headley has fared at home and on the road throughout his career (omitting his 2007 cup of coffee):

Year

Home

Road

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

2008

166

.230

.307

.358

202

.301

.361

.470

2009

280

.208

.300

.351

332

.305

.377

.426

2010

332

.237

.319

.315

342

.289

.334

.432

2011

210

.243

.348

.326

229

.330

.399

.465

2012

320

.265

.350

.434

314

.303

.392

.542

He still doesn't have a great relationship with Petco Park, but at least they're on speaking terms. And on the road, he's hitting like Prince Fielder, which is nice. Whatever the case, this marks a departure from Headley's earlier approach, as conveyed to Jonah Keri back in April:

I did make an adjustment when I first came up. It doesn't play to hit a ton of flyballs there. So I did try to flatten out the trajectory a bit.

It looks like science because numbers are involved, but it's more art. Ludwick has admitted that he let Petco get into his head, but how do we quantify this when making translations? Solve for unknown F (“Freaked out by home ballpark”). Oh and by the way, he didn't reveal this issue until well after he'd left San Diego and returned to the cozy NL Central. So not only was this an unknown, it was—to use a phrase I've come to abhor—an unknown unknown.

Put that in your equation and smoke it.

* * *

I have created comps for Headley in the past, and it's fascinating to see where his career has taken him since then. We are snapping still photographs of a process that is constantly in motion.

Back when I was writing books about the Padres, I took my first shot. From the Ducksnorts 2008 Baseball Annual, on the heels of his Double-A breakout campaign:

Headley draws praise for his intelligence and makeup. His overall offensive game calls to mind Jeff Cirillo (the good version, not the guy who played for the Padres in '04), with a bit more home-run power.

(Cirillo is a favorite “template” of mine; I've taken to comparing Jedd Gyorko to him.) When I sought statistical comps for Headley three years ago at my old blog, I came up with Ken Caminiti, Jeff Conine, Michael Cuddyer, Kevin Millar, and Lyle Overbay. As I said at the time:

I could see Headley topping out in the 20-25 HR range, but... he’s more of a doubles guy. If he tightens up his strike zone a bit, I’m envisioning a Kevin Millar/Lyle Overbay type of hitter, which is pretty valuable at third base.

Aside from the fact that Headley already has exceeded 20-25 homers this year (thus surpassing my and everyone else's reasonable expectations), neither of these comps strikes me as outrageous. I'll restate another point from that 2009 article concerning the nature and limitations of player comps:

There can be tremendous value in developing and deploying complex algorithms that take massive amounts of data and consolidate it into something manageable and useful.

It is important, however, to recognize that such algorithms provide us with a starting point, not an ending point. We use these tools to help us better understand the world around us, to begin an inquiry into something that sparks our curiosity.

I then wax poetic about the importance of exercising judgment when attempting to interpret data provided by these algorithms, present a bunch of numbers, and reach the following conclusion:

Don’t become overly attached to these comps. Yeah, a lot of work went into deriving them, but this isn’t the type of exercise you do once and then let rest. What if Headley goes Aaron Hill [whose home run total jumped from 2 in 2008 to 36 in 2009] on us next year? Then we have to feed this new information back into the system and recheck our assumptions, possibly adjusting our expectations. (For example, at various times, I have compared Adrian Gonzalez to the likes of David Dellucci, Brad Fullmer, and Chad Tracy. Last I checked, none of them ever hit 40 homers in a season.)

Ask questions. Search for answers. Wash, rinse, repeat. If you feel like you’ve got something nailed, you don’t. Go back and dig deeper. Eventually you will come to understand that you don’t know squat.

This is a good sign. It means the real fun is about to begin.

My assessment of Headley has changed a little since then, but my process hasn't. The biggest change is that I now am ignorant of more things than I used to be. Or as I like to think of it, I have more to learn.

All of which is lovely, but what about Headley's future? Where do we see him going from here? Remember that bit where we said this stuff is more art than science? Thing is, he's already surpassed anyone's reasonable expectations. Headley has hit more home runs with a month remaining in his age-28 season than he did in his age 25-27 seasons combined. That really messes with a guy's algorithm.

The honest answer is that he's definitely better than Jimenez and probably better than Zeile. He might be better than Overbay, especially when you consider the difference in defensive position (and it's no accident that I've compared Headley's teammate Yonder Alonso to Overbay; after all, Alonso's offense bears strong resemblance to that of Headley at the same age). Ditto Millar, but it's hard to say because this is the first time Headley has abused opposing pitchers since 2007 at Double-A San Antonio.

Guys typically don't go from four homers to 28 in a season after having had 2,000 career plate appearances under their belt to that point. I mean, it happens. Hill exploded in 2009. His power has been intermittent since. Going back further, Bert Campaneris did it in 1970 and Davey Johnson did it three years later. Their power turned out to be a fluke, but Headley's is harder to dismiss. He showed it in the minor leagues (okay, so did Johnson) and now, he's doing it at the highest level.

Is Headley likely to hit 25-30 homers a year now that he's done it once? It could happen, but I look back to the first table in this article and focus on those other numbers. He'll hit .270-.280, he'll hit 25-30 doubles, and he'll walk about 11 percent of the time. The homers could go anywhere. I'm sticking with the 20-25 I cited as his ceiling in my 2009 article. If he does this again next year, then I'll re-evaluate. Because then maybe something has changed about Headley that we didn't know.

But if so, how long does that change benefit him? How long does it push against the drag of age, opposing pitchers making counter-adjustments, and who knows what other factors? Gonzalez seemed to get old in a hurry, and not a lot of people saw that coming. Career paths are not linear.

Yeah, that's probably a smart thing to remember. And irritating.

20 comments have been left for this article.

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