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What to make of Chase Headley’s hot start

Is there truth to the narrative that he found a way to beat the shift?

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The early baseball season makes for some entertaining stories. Writers pitch ideas based on limited game action. Outcomes occur in incredibly small sample sizes, which makes attempts at generalization impossible. At the same time, you have to play the hand you’re dealt. Even if the cards feature Chase Headley’s face on them.

Headley has gotten off to an impressive start in the first series of the season. He has picked up seven hits, including a double and a home run, across twelve plate appearances. Many commentators have raised the point that Headley has taken aim against the shift. Several of his hits have been to the opposite field, including this much talked about bunt against Chris Archer:

Does this mean that Headley is a different hitter in 2017? Has he found the key to beating the shift, as the narrative suggests? The answer, in short, is no. First, let’s dispel the notion that Headley is a dead-pull hitter. He’s not. In fact, he routinely hits to all fields. His 2012 - 2016 batted ball spray chart, courtesy of FanGraphs, indicates as much.

His recent maps look similar on an individual level. It’s not like he started pulling the ball more frequently. His 2016 plot looks fairly similar to its collective counterpart.

Headley caught our attention with that bunt. It represented an exaggerated visualization of going the other way. That’s not uncommon for him, however. He hits to all fields regularly. We’re simply talking about something Headley has done for years.

There are two reasons that explain the prevalence of this discussion. First, Headley’s start stands in direct contrast to his woeful batting last April. He legitimately ranked among the worst hitters in baseball during the early stages of last season. He hit .156/.267/.156 across his first 75 plate appearances. That adds up to a paltry 23 wRC+. As Kenny Ducey noted, he hit quite well for the rest of the way. Yet the narrative that Headley couldn’t hit stuck, and is now bolstering the impression that he’s off to a hot start.

The other explanation for the new Headley narrative stems from the fact that the Yankees’ primary offensive forces haven’t hit yet. Gary Sanchez is 1 - 14 on the season. Greg Bird has drawn a pair of walks and collected a hit, but has yet to show the power he flexed in spring training. Matt Holliday, the team’s new designated hitter, is also off to a slow start. When the middle of the order bats start to come around, the recent Headley talk will fade into the background. He will resume his position as a role player in no time.

April ranks among the most interesting months on the baseball calendar. It’s also one of the most puzzling, as sample sizes run small, and one can’t be sure as to how a player is actually performing. As far as Headley is concerned, there might be some signal amidst the noise. He’s always been a quietly productive hitter, one who takes advantage of the entire field. His recent shift beating isn’t new, as some might suggest. Instead, it’s a fairly accurate representation of his batting profile.

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.