A-Head of the Pack: Chase Headley Bounces Back in a Big Way

Chase Headley has quietly caught fire this year, in what has been his best season in pinstripes.

With all of the hype that the young players have brought to the New York Yankees this season, some of the contributions of veteran players have flown under the radar. Guys like Brett Gardner, Matt Holliday, Starlin Castro, and Didi Gregorius have all made major contributions to the ballclub, despite little fanfare.

And yet through it all, there has been one constant presence in the bottom third of the Yankee lineup. This player has been a Yankee for parts of four seasons but has never been fully embraced by the Yankee fanbase, despite being no worse than league average at his worst and a decent hitter and a quality defender at his best. This player has even had to make a position change this year at age 33.

This player is none other than Chase Headley. Headley is not the type of player that is ever desperate for attention, and he is more often than not a forgotten man in the Yankee lineup. He has been a valuable member of the Yankees this season, however. He may never get his due among the fans, but Chase Headley is an underrated part of the New York Yankees.

Chase Headley has had a weird career. He was brought up by the San Diego Padres as a corner infielder and even a part time left fielder, and quickly earned more at-bats. After settling in as the full time third baseman, Headley had a career year in 2012. He became a switch-hitting sensation: he hit .286, popped a career best 31 home runs, led the NL in RBI with 115, and won his only Gold Glove for his stellar play at third.

This breakout performance would prove to be a one-year anomaly for Headley, who went back to his usual, solid performance: an average around .250, an on-base around .350, and 15 home runs. But with the Padres hitting rock bottom and the Yankees in need of a third baseman in the post-Alex Rodriguez days, a trade between the clubs was made, sending Headley to the Yankees in exchange for infielder Yangervis Solarte and pitcher Rafael De Paula.

Headley was an instant fit in New York. He hit a walk-off single in his first game as a Yankee, and would later power a walk-off home run against the Red Sox in September. He hit .262 with a .371 OBP in his brief stint as a Yankee, and played superb defense. This performance was good enough to earn him a 4-year, $52 million contract as the Yankees’ full-time third baseman.

Three years into the deal, we know what Headley brings to the table: he is a very streaky player, both in the batter’s box and in the field. He has been a notorious slow starter, which has not done him any favors with the anxious, “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” Yankee fanbase. Interestingly though, his tenure as a Yankee has followed this same, slow-starter path: Headley has improved in each of his years as a Yankee.

Headley faces immense pressure from the farm system: he has top prospects Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar breathing down his neck, and many fans clamoring to see them in the Bronx as soon as possible. Fans should open their eyes though, and look at the back of Headley’s baseball card: he is currently hitting .272, getting on base at a .355 clip, has a .747 OPS, and a 103 OPS+, all his best totals since his breakout 2012 season.

Those numbers are not flashy in any way, but they are comfortably above league average, especially for a guy who hits out of the seventh or eighth spot in the order. You can do a lot worse than Chase Headley out there, and Yankee fans are finally starting to take notice. Once the Yankees acquired Todd Frazier to play third base, Headley had to move to first base, a position he has never played at for more than a few emergency innings here or there. He took the move in stride though, and has been the club’s best hitter after the All-Star Break, a time in which Aaron Judge and Clint Frazier have started to fall back to earth.

Headley isn’t a perfect player. After struggling from the left side of the plate last season, this year he hasn’t hit much from the right side. And the year before that, Headley lost his confidence in the field. Headley is It is rare that MLB players ever have everything going right at the same time, and it is encouraging that Headley has managed to put those problems of the past behind him from year to year.

Headley still has one more year left on his contract, and his future is still as cloudy as ever. The status of Greg Bird, the first baseman of the future, is still unknown. Todd Frazier could come back on a new contract. Andujar or Torres could prove to be ready for an extended shot in the big leagues next year. Still, it would be a shock if the Yankees moved on from Headley, who is a consistent source of production that is well-liked in the clubhouse as a veteran presence around the young Yankees.

Chase Headley isn’t a big-name player, nor will he ever be. But despite a slow start here or a month-long-slump there, Headley’s numbers are still improving from year to year. For a guy who hits out of the bottom third of the lineup, I’ll sign up to a player that can get on base 35 percent of the time and has a knack for getting clutch hits. He may not be an All-Star, but Chase Headley doesn’t care. He’ll just keep on doing his thing, shutting out the naysayers and contributing to the Yankees’ hopes of getting to a 28th Championship.

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