When the Yankees traded for Chase Headley at the deadline last season, they thought they acquired a skilled defender with some pop, potential that had been diminished by playing in San Diego's Petco Park. And for two months, that's exactly what they had - Headley flashed some serious leather at the hot corner, along with producing a .262/.371/.398 slash line, good for a 121 wRC+. While it didn't happen to be enough to nudge the Yankees into the playoffs, they certainly got just about all they could hope for out of their brief helping of Headley.
After his successful stint in the Bronx, New York brought him back on a four-year, $52 million deal this offseason. For much of the year, he's failed to live up to this contract. He struggled with his glove and his throwing early, and for the first three months of the season, Headley had hit just .246/.300/.369, producing 16% less offensively than the average major leaguer. In July, though, Headley has come on furiously at the plate, hitting .377/.413/.507 to post a ridiculous 156 wRC+. Along with the continued raking of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, Headley has been a big reason why the Yankees are 16-5 in the month of July.
However, taking a deeper dive into Headley's numbers reveals he's actually been worse in many statistical categories this month. He's been quite aggressive recently, swinging at more pitches outside the zone (while swinging at fewer over the plate), which has resulted in him making less contact overall. It's also resulted in worse contact, as he's hitting fewer balls hard this month than previously in the season. And it's not like he's just being more aggressive and been jumping on pitches he likes early in the count - he's been as patient as he has all year, seeing almost exactly the same amount of pitches per at bat in July as early in the year. He's just missing more of them. He's also popping the ball up with greater frequency this month as well (31.6% in July compared to just 26.0% in the beginning of the year), and these aren't translating to more homers, as his home run per fly ball rate has actually decreased this month. So, why is he suddenly looking like one of the best third basemen at the plate?
Some of it is most certainly luck. His .446 BABIP this month is obviously unsustainable (the league average is .297, and his was right around here, at .291, in the beginning of the season). He just happens to be hitting the ball where people aren't in July. Some of those fly balls that were outs earlier in the year have dropped in this month, and so his numbers have gone up. However, it's not all luck - Headley has made some improvements, and the high-BABIP month now has him at .324 for the season, much closer to his career BABIP of .330. He's also hit more line drives recently (33.3% compared to 27.3%), which is what he needs to do, because he's not an elite power hitter. Turning some pop ups into solid line drives will make Headley the most efficient hitter he can be. Also, he's been striking out less this month, so while he may be swinging and missing more, he's at least improved at being a two-strike hitter.
No, Chase Headley hasn't become Josh Donaldson all of a sudden, and yes, his success this month owes to some luck. However, his increase in line drives should give Yankee fans hope that he can be an above-average hitter the rest of the way. While his BABIP will come down, it shouldn't be as low as it was in the first half of the season, meaning Headley will continue to be a serviceable and solid bat in the Yankee lineup, and quite beneficial for the playoff push. Specifically, he'll be just about what the Yankees expected when they signed him–a good, but not great, baseball player.