Morning Coffee with Mark Whelan: Neither Star not Goat: A Chase Headley Retrospective


In the 140-character world that is Twitter, it appears that there were two schools of thought on Chase Headley. One, that he was another Padres superstar who got traded for less than he was worth, and that the Padres blew it by trading him. (I’m guessing those are the people who don’t really follow baseball very closely.) And two, that he stunk, that he had clogged up the Padres lineup for far too long, and the Padres botched it when they failed to trade him after his career year in 2012.

They’re both wrong.

Chase Headley was a victim of circumstance. He is a good baseball player, nothing more, nothing less. His career BA of .266 is slightly above the league average. His WAR tended to be in the 2.5 – 3.0 range most years, pretty average for a major league starter. How about OPS? The Father of Sabermetrics, Bill James, breaks this stat into categories, with seven ranges of OPS that are considered on a scale from Great to Atrocious. The middle range, “Average”, covers the range from .700 to .766. Headley’s career OPS? .756.

Chase Headley was neither star nor goat. He was an average hitter in a below average offense. And as such, he was expected to carry a larger load than an average hitter should have to. He frequently found himself hitting third or fourth in San Diego’s lineup. And he performed like an average hitter instead of a hitter who should be in the heart of the lineup. He struck out with men on base too much for a man expected to be a run-producer. He failed to get runners home from third base with less than two outs too often. He frequently batted in game-deciding situations, and got the results you’d expect from an average hitter.

Chase Headley is a smart guy; he was the valedictorian of his high school class. He is not an attention-seeker; he is soft-spoken in interviews. He is a team-first guy. And he is well aware of the expectations surrounding him. And you can see the frustration when he fails to meet them. And yet he has been in this situation for much of his career. So he did what he could.

He worked hard at his craft, and made steady improvements for the first six years of his career, culminating in a career year in 2012.

2012. The best and worst thing that ever happened to Chase Headley. You know the numbers. 31 homers, 115 RBI, 5th in the NL in the MVP race. Numbers that were completely out of the expected range of production. And while that was great, it caused Padres fans and front office alike to instantly change their expectations of him. He was no longer good-fielding, improving hitter with double-digit power and perhaps the potential to hit in the .290-.300 range. He was Padres Man. He was the Face of the Team. His jersey was the one in the front window at the merchandise stores at Petco Park. He was the number 3 hitter. He was the run-producer.

People thought of him as the New Chase Headley. What they seemed to ignore was that for the first four months of 2012, Headley was the same player he’d always been. And that he got hot – very very hot – for two months at the end of the season. Instead of treating it like an extended hot streak, it was treated like a new level for the player. Six years of information superseded by two months of abnormal production. Headley was mentioned among the elite third basemen in baseball by talking heads and typing fingers around the nation.

And that set the stage for the disappointment that has followed ever since. Injuries led to below-average production last year. And 2014, a season in which the entire Padres offense has defied logic with its pitiful performance, with Headley as no exception, became the end of the line. The business of baseball finally outweighed the team’s considerable patience in waiting for Headley to become the player they always hoped he’d be, and was, for two months. Headley has been paid like an elite third baseman for several years, with below-average third baseman production. He has priced himself out of the market. In order for the Padres to keep him next year, they would have had to pay him $15 million. They’d be reluctant to do that even if guaranteed another 2012.

And so the San Diego chapter of Chase Headley’s career comes to a close. Traded for another average third baseman and an A-ball pitcher. And the Padres threw in a million dollars to even out the trade. The Padres should never have to give money to the Yankees – ever. But that’s how it goes.

Perhaps Headley can find better success with a team like the Yankees, where he will never be expected to be the star of the team, the number 3 hitter, or the face of the organization. He can hit sixth or seventh, where an average hitter should hit. He can play a solid third base. He can be a contributor instead of a leader. He is free of the financial restrictions of the Padres, and can now be valued based on the market for third baseman of his caliber.

He is free to be himself. A good baseball player. Nothing more. Nothing less.