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Mechanical adjustments and Chase Headley’s hidden upside

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Could proper timing help the Yankees third baseman at the plate?

Seattle Mariners v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The end of January is an odd time on the baseball calendar. The hot stove is still flickering, but deals are few and far between. Some teams continue to tinker with rosters while others run out the clock on the offseason. Players arrive to camp in less than a month. Spring training, complete with live baseball activities, is on the horizon.

This is also the time of year when players begin to report that they’re in the best shape of their lives. They’ve adopted a new workout regimen or diet that will make this season the big one. There are mechanical adjustments and tweaks in game plans. Anything is possible before spring training.

Chase Headley kicked off the tradition for the Yankees this week. According to Byran Hoch, the veteran third baseman has already been working with hitting coach Alan Cockrell. “Hopefully I'll be mechanically a little bit better and that will lead to better results in April,” he told Hoch.

This implies that a mechanical flaw was responsible for his poor early-season performance. It also suggests a substantive change yielded his improved results from May onward. If that’s the case, he can theoretically avoid the pitfalls in 2017. Is this just typical pre-spring training chatter or something more?

In order to determine how Headley improved from last April, it makes sense to first revisit the numbers. It’s easy to understate how bad he actually was.

Chase Headley 2016 Batting Stats

Dates AVG OBP SLG HR BB% K% ISO wRC+
Dates AVG OBP SLG HR BB% K% ISO wRC+
4/1/16 - 4/30/16 .156 .267 .156 0 13.3% 20.0% .000 23
5/1/16 - 10/1/16 .255 .338 .418 14 9.0% 22.7% .152 103

That is one atrocious month. He rebounded nicely the rest of the way, but his early season performance was pitiful. Headley blamed mechanics for his struggles, and he might be on to something.

Here’s a screenshot of a single he hit against the Red Sox in April.

Compare this to a single he hit against the Royals in August.

In both of these instances, the ball has traveled to the inside corner of the plate. In April, Headley’s front foot is firmly planted. In August, however, he’s still driving his leg forward. A leg kick is a timing mechanism, and it appears that April Headley was finishing his too early. August Headley let the ball travel more before planting his leg.

The mechanical flaw theory passes the eye test, but how does it hold up against data? In order to determine this, I turned to Baseball Savant to compare launch angles. These measure where the ball leaves the bat, a pretty good indicator of timing. In general, the wider the angle, the better the outcome.

Below is Headley’s April launch angle profile.

Now compare that to his profile for the rest of the season.

That’s much wider, which suggests that Headley made an adjustment. His April showing wasn’t the result of poor luck, but of a mechanical flaw. In a way, this is good news. He identified the problem and corrected it.

When considering the 2017 Yankees, Headley is usually an afterthought. He does have upside, however. A full season of consistent offense would be a boost to the team. If he keeps working on finding the right timing mechanism, it’s likely that his entire batting profile will improve.

There’s no reason to expect Headley to repeat his 2011 statistics. The Yankees don’t need to him to do that. Instead, a full season of quality offense will be a boost. One can argue that last April sunk the Yankees’ season. Headley’s performance directly contributed to New York’s miserable showing. If he brings improved mechanics to spring training and carries them into the season, then the Yankees will be all the better.

Data courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.