Where Art Thou, Chase?

In his last two games Chase Headley is 3 for 9 with 2 walks and 1 strikeout, a marked improvement over the previous few weeks. But two decent games does not signify a slump, busted.

A Padres Public reader asked the following last weekend:

This is a great question, Clayton, and I think it’s one that we’ve all been trying to wrap our minds around this last month. Geoff had a few other things on his plate so he offered the topic to the team – since I had already been digging through the numbers I grabbed it – hope you don’t mind.

Let’s begin with a few observations:

  • In 2013, Chase Headley does NOT look like he did in 2012. Duh!
  • It looks like there’s a lot of swing and miss to Chase’s game this year.
  • Chase looks to be susceptible to breaking balls inside, and more specifically, down and in. Whooosh!

I’m sure we could add to this list but it’s where I’ll begin.

What about 2012?

I didn’t get the Padres on television last season but that does not mean I didn’t develop an impression of Chase Headley. Based on a combination of radio, MLB At Bat, and Twitter I’ve concluded the following about 2012:

  • Chase appeared to be a more aggressive hitter. He still took his walks but if a pitcher gave him his pitch to start an at-bat he would hammer it.
  • Chase was at his best after the trade deadline passed and he no longer had to hear the rumors of being shipped off to a new club.

Questions to Consider

  • Is Chase Headley swinging and missing more or less this season? What kind of discipline is he showing at the plate?
  • Are pitchers pitching him differently in 2013? What adjustments are pitchers making to the Padres third baseman who tore up the league over the last third of 2012?
  • When Chase hits the ball what does it look like relative to years past?
  • How much of this is just bad luck?

So after doing some research this week, wouldn’t ya know, Corey Brock posted a great article on this very topic: Slumping Headley seeks more patience at the plate.

Perfect. Let’s take a look at Corey’s findings first.

Corey discovered that Chase is seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance than he saw last year and that he’s also swinging and missing with greater frequency than he did in 2012. What did Chase have to say about it?

“It’s a combination of things. First and foremost, I’ve got to swing at better pitches,” Headley said. “I’m getting myself out. I’m making him [opposing pitcher] thrown one quality strike. And there has been a little bad luck mixed in there, too.”

Corey also noted that Headley’s contact rate dropped from 74% in 2012 to 71.6% this season. Doesn’t sound good does it? What If I told you that his contact rate in 2011 was far higher than in 2012 when he had a career year? The data that Cory used came from Baseball Info Solutions which can be viewed at Fan Graphs. I’ve simplified their chart so we can focus on just a few items. I’m also going to focus on the years 2011-2013 because this probably best represents who Chase Headley is as a baseball player. Having said that, keep the following in mind: 2011 was shortened due to injury, 2012 was a career year, 2013 is only a third of the way completed. The comparisons are imperfect.

Plate Discipline and the Ol’ Swing-and-a-Miss!

Plate Discipline

YEAR
Contact % -All balls thrown
Contact % -Balls in Strike Zone
Contact% -Balls out Strike Zone
2011 80 89 63.7
2012 74.8 85.5 55.8
2013 71.5 83.3 52.7

A far more striking difference between contact percentage on balls thrown between 2011 and 2012 yet Chase had a career year despite the drop-off. Chase’s batting average actually dropped 3 points from 2011 to 2012 and his K percentage also rose slightly (21% to 22.5%). Perhaps we can attribute this to the sacrifice necessary to hit for more power?

What we also see though is that when Chase is thrown a pitch in the strike zone his contact percentage has dropped each year. That’s not good. Is it possible that Chase is feeling the pressure to live up to the notion that he is the face of the franchise and he’s taking bigger swings to accrue HR totals that will justify such praise? Will Smith continues to receive roles in summer blockbusters . . . anything is possible!

What about the luck factor? Chase said that he thought some of his struggles could be attributed to bad luck. On average, balls (BABIP – Fan Graphs) in play tend to fall in for hits 30% of the time. According to the numbers, Chase’s BABIP has gone from .368 (’11) to .337 (’12) to .288 (’13). I think we could say that Chase has experienced a little less luck than he’s grown accustomed to in recent years.

This should change. Sometime. Right?

Is Chase Being Pitched Differently this Season?

Pitch Type

Year
Fastball
Cutter
Change-Up
2011 57.3% 4.6% 16.1%
2012 53.6% 4.8% 13.0%
2013 53.8% 5.8% 15.3%

I’ve left out a few pitches because there weren’t big shifts in the percentage of times they were thrown. But if we look at these three pitches we see shifts in the pitchers’ approach. Chase is seeing the same percentage of fastballs this year as he did in 2012 but pitchers appear to have taken notice of the damage Chase can do to a baseball. This season he’s seeing a greater percentage of cutters and a lot more change-ups. Think this might disrupt a batter’s timing just a bit? The change-ups are particularly interesting. If you click the link above you’ll see that the percentage of change-ups Chase has seen across his career pretty much mirrors what he’s seeing this season but for some reason pitchers threw the change with a lot less frequency last year. I don’t know what this means in terms of the the pitcher but it would seem to suggest that the pitchers are working hard to put him off balance this season, and successfully so, I might add.

Where Dat Ball Go?

What happens when Chase puts the ball in play (his K% is nearly the same as last year)? What does it look like?

Batted Ball

YEAR
Line Drive % (LD/BIP)
Ground Ball % (GB/BIP)
Fly Ball % (FB/BIP)
2011 21.9 45.8 32.3 %
2012 19.5 48.5 32.1 %
2013 20.8 45.4 33.8 %

Chase is hitting fewer ground balls in 2013 by 3 percent, which is sizable. That 3 percent has been dispersed across his line drives and fly balls. Why is he hitting more fly balls though? Is he pressing, trying to muscle up on the ball? The numbers that aren’t included in our chart are even more telling and this relates to what the ball does once it is in the air. Let’s look at Chase’s home runs as a percentage of total fly balls hit (HR/FB):

2011: 4.3%

2012: 21.4%

2013: 11.4%

Conclusion: Yikes!

The 2013 version of Chase Headley is not even close to the 2012 version of Chase Headley and the 2013 version of Chase Headley is also not even close to the 2011 version of Chase Headley. That was a very existential sentence, but an important sentence nonetheless as we desire to know precisely who Chase Headley is. Or is not.

Coming Full Circle

Let’s go back to the idea of early count results touched upon by Corey Brock in his article. Bud Black said this of Chase’s approach at the plate:

“I think more than anything, he’s probably a little overaggressive early in the count,” Black said. “The uncharacteristic early-count swings on pitches out of the zone.

What defines early in the count? Probably 0-0, 1-0, 2-0. It couldn’t be the inverse of those counts because it would be foolish to sit back and wait while in a pitcher’s count. Initially, the research that interested me related to what Chase did on the first pitch of an at-bat so I parsed through the data at Baseball Reference to see how Chase is performing in that count (Feel free to go examine it further and bring back your findings in 1-0 and 2-0 counts. Heck, knock your socks off and check the 2-1 counts too).

1st Pitch Swinging

YEAR
First Pitch
% of Plate Appearances
BA
OBP
SLG
2011 46 10% .341 .356 .545
2012 93 13% .344 .333 .633
2013 21 10% .250 .286 .250

*FYI: The “% of Plate Appearances” is a column that I created to show frequency.

Chase is actually swinging at the first pitch 3 percent less than he did in 2012.

Take another look at 2012. By this point in his career, Chase Headley had developed a reputation as a very patient hitter, the type of hitter who liked to see pitches and was more than willing to take a strike. And then he flipped the script, swinging at the first pitch 3 percent more of the times he batted in 2012.  And it worked! If Chase got his pitch he went for it and was rewarded with a .633 slugging percentage. It is no longer 2012 though. The results just haven’t been there in the 0-0 count.

Conclusions

What can we conclude from all of these numbers? I think we could say that Chase has been a bit unlucky when he hits the ball in play. It also seems reasonable to suggest that he’s been pressing, trying to do more than he should with certain pitches, perhaps in an attempt to justify the contract offer that Ron Fowler floated last month. But it also appears clear that pitchers have made an adjustment relative to 2012. Now it’s Chase’s turn to adjust.

***

Thanks to Geoff Young for providing me with some cool charts.

I contribute to Padres Public on Thursday mornings and when I’m feeling particularly inspired. I can also be found on twitter at @AvengingJM where I comment on ___________ , 7 days a week.

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  • His first pitch slash line drop this year is significant. Is there a free site out there tracking what pitch type he’s swinging at, by count?

    I thought he got a lot of first pitch fastballs last season, which he hammered. I wonder if pitchers have gotten away from that which has driven the drop.

    • Hmmm. I’m not sure, Mike. Maybe . . . we could start tracking it?

      • We could going forward. Reconstructing the first 60 games might prove difficult.

  • I also have to wonder if perhaps he has not fully healed from his injury? Or perhaps losing that time at the end of ST/beginning of the season has disrupted his timing at all.

    This is fantastic stuff. I’m glad I didn’t try to tackle this topic.

    • John Virissimo

      Easy topic to answer. 2012 was a fluke year with 2 great months in a great 2nd half of season all done after Grandal arrived. (PEDS)

      • I don’t think it’s as easy as you suggest, John. His current numbers (in some areas) are below what he was doing in 2011. It’s also still early in the season.

        How exactly did Grandal’s PED use propel Chase to a career year?

      • John Virissimo

        I didn’t mean easy as in research, but easy as in why. Grandal came up in June about the same time Headley took off. I’m not saying but just puting 2 and 2 together, peds may have contributed. Chase has never been a RBI or HR guy bcuz of lack of power,but last year after June that all changed.Looking to gain an edge leading up to a contract is plenty of incentive.

      • Geoff Hancock

        Chase can’t control the amount of RBI chances he is given. As for the power, it felt more like a player who was finally achieving the potential that scouts had seen for years. I think pitchers adjusting to him seems a far more likely culprit. While Chase was on fire in the 2nd half of 2012, I think that’s closely to reality than the current incarnation of Chase.

      • My interpretation of your comment was that you thought Chase became good because a quality hitter (Grandal) was added to the line-up. So we’re clear, you think Grandal was supplying him with HGH and that led his increased offense?

    • I had some additional research that was going to focus on the wrist as a possible area of concern based on how he’s handling certain types of pitchers. Maybe a part 2.

  • KC

    After 2011, when Chase developed a reputation as a hitter who liked to work the count, perhaps pitchers in 2012 were willing to throw more fastballs earlier in the count, figuring he was more likely to take those pitches. When he showed he could mash those, the pitchers adjusted in 2013 and are giving him fewer fastballs early in the AB. Now Chase has to adjust.

  • John Virissimo

    Chase has had a high strikeout rate his whole career, in fact he damn near averages 1 strikeout per game played but yet only has 1 RBI for every 2 strikeouts. That is not productive for a #3 hitter. He is in over his head batting in the 3 hole, he’s more of a #5 hitter or a #2 if he gets back to shorting his swing.

  • KenintheBox

    Don’t know the stat comparison over 3 seasons, but of late, it sure seems like his conversion rate with RISP or runner on 3B with less than 2 outs is down. Feels like fewer hits and productive outs this season.