When the Yankees signed Chase Headley to a 4-year, $52 million deal last season, it was fairly uncontroversial…especially for a Yankees contract. Headley was seen as an unspectacular player, but one that brought enough value with his bat and glove to be at least an average everyday third baseman for the team. Without any other options at the hot corner, it seemed to be a solid deal for the Yankees. Headley was steady and consistent, and had a profile that would fit well in Yankee Stadium. To the casual fan, his 2015 wasn’t an departure from the norm. He played 156 games, and didn’t seem to do much that was overly good or bad. His underlying numbers, though, are alarming. Headley had his worst season of his career by WAR since breaking into the league as a starter in 2009, and it wasn’t close.
Headley, to put it lightly, fell flat on his face, both offensively and defensively. His performance on both sides of the ball were disappointing, so it’s not surprising that he had such a poor season. Not only did Headley have the worst season of his career since 2009, when he was a rookie, but it was also his most unproductive season both offensively and defensively.
What happened in 2015
Headley’s bat has never been the strong part of his game, and at best is a bit above league-average, but it took a turn for the worse in 2015. His .259/.324/.369/.693 slash line was not only noticeably worse than his career averages, but his on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS were all below league averages (his batting average was just .005 higher). His 91 wRC+ and -6.1 Off (offensive runs above average) were also both career worst marks. A big reason for his career-low .324 OBP was a walk percentage of 7.9 percent, and his 11 HR and .110 ISO also tied his lowest ever. Headley wasn’t expected to be a stolen base threat, but his seven stolen bases in 2014 gave way to a goose egg last season. Obviously, the trend here is that everything is at or near a career worst, and that’s not an encouraging start. His offense didn’t need to be much more than average though, because of his plus glove. Which he still has, right? Right?
Well… Headley’s glove is what really sank his value. From 2010 to 2014, Headley averaged six defensive runs saved (DRS) at third base, which was well above average. In 2015, Headley had a (wait for it) career worst season on defense, headlined by a terrible -6 defensive runs saved. Headley, who was supposed to bring plus defense to the hot corner in New York, was actually six runs worse than the average third baseman. Another way to look at his struggles is through UZR, where he logged a -3 mark. Okay, so it’s not his worst season (that belongs to his -3.8 UZR in 2011) but it’s not even close to his 20.9 UZR in 2014. Errors are generally an imperfect statistic for evaluating fielders, but a mind-numbing 23 errors in 2015, which is 10 more than he’s ever had before, is definitely worth mentioning. The split between fielding and throwing errors was fairly equal, as it has been throughout his playing days.
It’s easy to see why Chase Headley’s 2015 was his worst season yet. He very likely had his worst season since 2009 both on offense and on defense. The value he was costing his team wasn’t easily apparent on the field, as his offensive struggles were masked by low expectations going into last season to begin with, and his defensive miscues weren’t terribly obvious or egregious. It doesn’t matter how quiet his struggles are, though, because they are very real.
What to expect in 2016
On offense, it’s hard to see too much of a bounce back. Yes, Headley still has the talent to return to league average at the plate, and his extensive track record supports this notion. But still, his offensive upside is terribly uninspiring. His power is unlikely to surpass the low teens, and his batting average probably will sit in the .260s. What could cause the biggest swing in value at the plate is his plate discipline. Headley will need to get on base more to be valuable, since he won’t provide much production from the power department, and a career low 7.9 walk percentage isn’t going to cut it. It’s not hard to see him improve upon this low walk rate. Headley had a .317 BABIP in 2015, so he didn’t experience any overly bad luck as a hitter. One sabermetric that shows just how much worse of a hitter Headley was in 2015 was his hard contact rate, which plummtered from 35.1 percent (in 2014) to just 27.8 percent. It was a rough year for Headley, with a drop in quality contact and plate discipline. If he can’t improve in those departments, Headley could once again be a liability at the plate.
Defense is much harder to project for Headley. His decline in value may have been due to some nagging injuries, but the worst case scenario for the Yankees is that the 31-year old has lost a step in the field due to age. Headley may come back in better shape and healthy next season, but that’s hardly a given. While physically he may have declined, his skills are unlikely to have eroded so significantly over the course of just a year. So, although a full bounce back isn’t likely, he could see some improvement. In addition, Headley has been inconsistent from year to year on defense, and there’s a chance that last season was more of a fluke, and 2016 will be an improvement. That said, there’s a lot of ifs involved in his 2016 projections, and plenty of volatility. The scary thing about Headley is that he’s not volatile in a low-floor/high-upside kind of way. Headley doesn’t really have upside at this point, but he has plenty of downside. The risk and reward just don’t balance out, making Headley’s contract and the Yankees’ future at third base a risky proposition.
(Photo: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports)