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Chase Headley’s on-base skills are crucial for the Yankees

The Yankees corner infielder has been an on-base machine, and he’s helping a sputtering lineup.

Cincinnati Reds v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

I once had a coach who said that the measure of a team’s success isn’t if they stuck to Plan A, but how well they adapted to Plans B and C. At first base this season, the Yankees have managed to run the entire alphabet. After losing Greg Bird early in the year, the club ran out the likes of Chris Carter, Austin Romine, and Garrett Cooper. Even Bryan Mitchell worked an inning at the position, albeit under unusual circumstances.

Interestingly enough, the Yankees’ most productive first baseman this season has been Chase Headley. After manning the hot corner for most of the year, Headley took to first base following the Todd Frazier trade. Despite generating heat for a prolonged slump in May, Headley has admirably shorn up the position. In fact, he’s quietly helped keep the Yankees afloat in the division race.

To fully appreciate Headley’s contributions, it makes sense to first look at how badly he struggled in May. Across 90 plate appearances from May 2nd - 31st, he hit just .165/.211/.235 with no home runs. That combined to form a paltry 14 wRC+. While the rest of the team fired on all cylinders offensively, Headley turned into a blackhole. He became an automatic out. Things got so bad that the Yankees expressed interest in trading for a third baseman to replacement him.

Thankfully Headley turned the corner shortly after the calendar flipped to June. In 267 plate appearances since June 1st, he’s managed an impressive .309/.390/.439 batting line. Pair that with four home runs and you have a well above average 123 wRC+. This dramatic improvement begs the question of what changed. What adjustments did Headley make to transform himself from a replacement level batter to an on-base machine? Two answers come to mind: simple regression and improved bat-to-ball skills.

When a player sees a spike in on-base percentage, it’s easy to look to his walk rates as an explanation. During his awful May, Headley walked at just a 4.4% clip. That’s well below his career average of 10%. Since June 1st, however, he’s back to taking his typical number of free passes. Headley’s worked a 10.9% walk rate in that time, just above his career norms. At its most basic level, this represents regression to the mean. Headley’s improved because wasn’t that bad to begin with. It was just a slump.

On the other hand, Headley has done a much better job at making quality contact of late. One of the best ways to examine a batter’s performance is to compare hard contact rates with groundball percentages. When a hitter is locked in, he crushes the ball and avoids those soft outs on the ground. That’s been Headley since June 1st.

Credit: FanGraphs

After cratering in May, Headley has rebounded nicely. He’s notably done a better job of squaring the ball up. Those numbers have gone down in recent games, but they still sit well above his May levels. The harder a batter hits a ball, the more likely he secures a hit and reaches base. That’s been the Headley story since June 1st.

In many ways, this production has gone unnoticed. Headley has received some credit, occasionally from the YES Network booth and sometimes on social media. Yet largely he’s gone undiscussed. In many ways he’s been among the Yankees’ most consistent batters, and deserves the recognition. His skyrocketing on-base percentage makes him quite valuable in the lineup. The Bombers are hanging around in the pennant race, and that’s partly because of Headley. He’s been right in the mix of the Yankees’ offense for three months now.