San Diego Padres third baseman Chase Headley. Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports 9/23/2012

The Chase Headley Problem

Chase Headley, Chase Headley, Chase Headley.  The San Diego Padres have long-believed that Chase Headley would develop into a top-notch major league third baseman and, for two months in 2012, he did.  What a marvelous August and September he had that year.  Good enough to allow him to top 30 home runs for the first time.  Good enough for him to lead the NL in RBI for the year.

Everyone says that Headley had a great year.  Leading the league in RBI will do that.  But in fact, he had a great two months.

Through the first 2/3 of the season, he was on a pace to hit .268 with 18 homers and 83 RBI.  Now, those HR and RBI totals would have been career highs, and everyone would have been happy to see Chase continuing his consistent, albeit slow, progress.  But he got hotter than he’s ever been before or since in Aug/Sep, hitting 19 homers and driving in 61 runs in two months, absolutely earning his 5th-place MVP finish.  That’s superstar production.  But make no mistake.  He has had zero other months close to that in his 6-year career.  That August, he had 10 homers and 31 RBI.  In September, he had 9 and 30.  His best HR total in any other month of his career is 5.  His best RBI total, 17.

19 HR and 61 RBI in two months, extrapolated to 162 games, is a 57-homer, 183 RBI pace.  Those numbers bring to mind names like Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg.  Even Babe Ruth never drove in 183 runs in a season.

For those players, these were the best seasons in their Hall of Fame careers.  For Chase Headley, this streak was a complete aberration.

At the time, we hoped that it was not an aberration.  We hoped that he had set a new level for himself, that the years of patience while he was hitting .265 with 10 homers and 60 RBI, while the Padres moved third base prospects like Jedd Gyorko and Logan Forsythe to other positions, had paid off.  We looked for him to be the new face of the Padres in 2013, to fill the offensive leadership role that had been conspicuously empty since the departure of Adrian Gonzalez, the Silver Slugger.

And we were not alone.  Talking heads (and fingers) around the country now spoke of Headley among the elite third basemen in the game.  This was the perception of Chase Headley at this time last year.

Aug 25, 2013; San Diego Padres third baseman Chase Headley (7) slams his helmet as he is escorted off the field by catcher Nick Hundley (right) after a called strike three.

Aug 25, 2013; San Diego Padres third baseman Chase Headley (7) slams his helmet as he is escorted off the field by catcher Nick Hundley (right) after a called strike three. Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

And then came 2013.   The team’s new slugger started the year on the DL, with a fractured thumb.  How did he fare once he returned?  That’s the problem.  He did not hit like the slugger we hoped for.  After a promising early 13-game hit streak had us believing that 2012 wasn’t a fluke, the production vanished.  By the Fourth of July, he was hitting .218 with 6 homers and 26 RBI.   The rest of his season was up-and-down, with a fair July, a terrible August (0 hr and 2 RBI in 84 AB), and a good September.  He had some knee issues throughout the year, and that certainly may have affected his hitting.  He finished at .250 with 13 homers and 50 RBI.  Injuries or not, these are not elite numbers.  They’re below average numbers.

But perhaps his strong finish in September has people optimistic again.  I read an article this week that stated that in 2013 Headley had an “average first half” (I’m sorry, that’s just wrong), and that he was back to his old self in the second half.  As the tone of this article was positive, I can only imagine that by “his old self,” the writer was referring to his Aug/Sep 2012 numbers.

This is the Chase Headley problem.  The perception is that Chase Headley is the player he was for two months the year before last, instead of the player he’s been for the other 30 months of his career.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like Chase Headley.  He goes about his business quietly, works hard on his defense and his hitting, and seems to have a good perspective about his progress over time.  But let’s be realistic.  How do you actually picture Chase Headley when you think about him as a hitter?  This is how I pictured him prior to that 2-month aberration:   Batting lefty, Chase is taking off his batting gloves after making the third out, striking out with men on base to end another almost-rally.

I really want him to turn into a consistent .290, 20 HR, 90 RBI guy.  I still think he has potential to do that.  But I also believe that that’s his ceiling.  I absolutely do not expect him to ever put up 31 homers or 115 RBI again.

What we have here is a nice player who puts up average hitting numbers and plays a decent third base.  And who, for two months, hit like an all-time great.

This is the Chase Headley problem.

 

 

Tags: Chase Headley San Diego Padres

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