If there was one thing you could count on, and almost look forward to heading into a Yankees game, it was the defense of Chase Headley. He’s a sure-handed, strong-armed third baseman who normally can cover the hot corner with the best of them. His strength in the field was a big reason the Yankees re-signed him as part of their effort to secure an airtight infield defense. That mission, for more reasons than just Headley, is currently in question (see Didi Gregorius). Headley’s defense has been shaky as of late—and, maddeningly, there isn’t much of an obvious explanation.
Headley is up to nine errors on the season. They break down to six throwing errors and three fielding errors. This includes a costly error on Wednesday, when Headley extended an inning with a fielding faux pas. Two walks by pitcher Adam Warren and a single would turn the error into a run, and an eventual Yankees loss. In the same game Mark Teixeira bailed out Headley from another error. Headley’s cross-diamond throw found the dirt far before it got to the bag, but was by Teixeira for the out and the save from disaster.
Headley never has struggled this bad defensively in his career. In no other season has he ever had more than 13 errors, though he now already finds himself at nine in late-May. Through 2011, 2012 and 2013 Headley never committed more than 11 errors in a single season. Throughout the entirety of his career, the splits between fielding and throwing errors are almost symmetrical. Headley has committed 33 total fielding errors and 35 when throwing. His 2010 campaign included 13 errors, but even then he only tallied four throwing errors. This season’s six throwing errors and his newfound shakiness of the arm is very concerning, especially for a third baseman.
Last season Headley compiled a UZR of 20.9, the best in his career by far. Through 339 innings this season Headley is in the red, at a -2.9 UZR. Last season Headley also made 42 plays outside of his normal–or expected–zone. This season he has only made eight, and is on pace for only 24, nearly half of his previous total. Of course, defensive metrics are shaky (like Headley’s defense—I won’t charge you for that joke), though they are worth noting when that much contrast exists.
The tough thing to settle with all of this is that there isn’t much obvious reason for the struggles. Just from watching the game it seems that many of Headley’s throwing errors have been self-induced. His internal clock seems off, rushing him when it seems he has more time than his arm thinks it does. I am no doctor, and certainly not a clock mechanic, but it would seem that Yankees infield coach agrees. New third base coach Joe Espada recently spent time with Headley in order to figure out what was happening when the third baseman threw to first. He determined that Headley's upper and lower body sometimes get out of sync with each other, which can cause erratic throws of all kinds. Now that they've identified the issue, hopefully they can find a way to fix things.
Fielding is a very mental repetition. Once you have thoughts of messing up in your head, you’re more likely to do just that—especially when over-thinking a throw. The fielding errors are likely just tough hops or minuscule mistakes. We can even rationalize the lack of range on the higher internal emphasis of making the simple, routine plays. Now that the truth is known, hopefully things can be worked out before he hurts the Yankees any more than he already has.
No matter how much we like Headley, we must still be hard on him. We’ve all been critical of Didi Gregorius’ defense when it has quivered. Carlos Beltran never gets a free pass—and never should. Stephen Drew can’t escape the criticisms just as much as he can’t hit a baseball. Consistency is necessary for objectivity, and Headley must now (or just did) face his criticisms.