Thanks to Didi Gregorius getting off to a slow start in 2015, Chase Headley's struggles went under the radar. After being signed to a four-year, $52 million deal, Headley accrued just 1.5 fWAR. Considering the going rate for one win in the free agent market, 1.5 fWAR isn't exactly a disaster. Still, the Yankees would love to have an All-Star caliber third baseman, especially knowing Headley is capable of performing at or near that level.
Headley put up a .259/.324/.369 slash line, good for a wRC+ of 91. Despite a below-average swinging strike rate, Headley finished with a slightly above average K% of 21%. According to Pitch F/X numbers, 48.6% of the pitches he saw were in the strike zone, above the league average of 47.8%.
For the season, Headley put up a .259/.324/.369 slash line, good for a wRC+ of 91, and despite a below-average swinging strike rate, he finished with a slightly above average 21 K%. 2015 marked the first full season in which Headley had an above average Zone%, when 48.6% of the pitches he saw were in the strike zone, above the league average of 47.8%. This suggests that pitchers chose to be more aggressive against him. Headley has always done the most damage against fastballs and off-speed pitches, while struggling against breaking balls. His contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone has always been below average, which makes sense given his struggles with curveballs and sliders. This might also explain how he struck out so much in spite of his low overall whiff rate.
Headley also looked at more strikes than ever before in 2015, according to Baseball Savant. He struck out looking 39 times and took a strike on the first pitch of 234 plate appearances, both career highs. He also hit the ball to the pull side 44.3% of the time, the lowest mark he has ever put up over a full season. His hard-hit rate also down in 2015, at just 27.8%, after floating around 35% over his last three seasons. Finally, despite moving to the hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, Headley's home run to flyball ratio was a below-average 8.1%.
Speculating about a hitter's approach is always tough to do, but it is possible that Headley was too passive at the plate last season. Pitchers attacked the strike zone more than usual, and Headley experienced a drop in production. It would make sense that Headley, used to his usually cautious approach, took more strikes and found himself in more pitcher-friendly counts, allowing pitchers to break out the slider or curveball to keep him at bay.
If pitchers continue to pound the strike zone against Headley, it could work to his advantage. In 2014, Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs noticed that Brett Gardner's increased power was due to him taking less pitches and punishing pitchers for leaving fastballs in the zone, pulling them over the short porch in Yankee Stadium. As a natural pull hitter, a similar strategy might work for Headley. Furthermore, if he shows a willingness to swing at pitches early in the count, it might force pitchers to pitch around him more, which has always worked in his favor. After being traded to the Yankees in 2014, just 45.5% of the pitches Headley saw were in the strike zone. A bit of aggressiveness at the plate might just remind pitchers who they were so scared of over the last few seasons.
Data is courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant.