Headley chasing bright future in bigs
Outfielder's maiden tilt finds mixed results, focus on improving
SAN DIEGO -- Chase Headley wasn't expecting any of this.
No, we're not talking about playing in fabled Major League cathedrals like Yankee Stadium, or traveling to cities where someone carries your bags or the hefty raise afforded to rookies who make the jump from the Minor Leagues.
Headley might be 24 years old and lacking experience, but he has certainly not been overwhelmed by anything superfluous surrounding his current job as the Padres' left fielder since being promoted from Triple-A Portland on June 17.
"He has got a good head and good baseball awareness about him," Padres manager Bud Black said of Headley's baseball acumen.
What has been a change for Headley, a dramatic change at that considering his offensive pedigree, has been his offensive struggles at times since joining the Padres in June, as his average hovered around .250 for the better part of two months.
Headley has since seen a recent spike, as his four-hit performance Friday in Washington lifted his average to .269. But his rookie season has been a yo-yo exercise in patience and perseverance.
"Once you make an adjustment," Headley said, "they're going to change it up on you."
Yes, Headley understands there's a difference between Minor League pitching and what he is seeing at the Major League level, and there's a tangible learning curve paved with potholes that all rookies must overcome.
That doesn't mean Headley has to like it, though. Or even accept it, which he hasn't, and which is why he's seldom found sitting in front of his locker before games and why he's working on a new set of blisters, taking batting practice instead in the nearest batting cage.
Headley, who has a career .301 batting average in the Minor Leagues and a .400 on-base percentage fueled by a patient eye to boot, isn't content with the batting average he's dutifully lugged from ballpark to ballpark.
"There are probably a number of things that have gone into it," Headley said. "I have definitely swung at some pitches that I would either like to have back that I've missed on, [or] I have swung at some pitches that were balls. I haven't seen the ball as well. I think I might be a little worn down."
|"I am confident I'll get where I want to be. There are always some things you want to do better at. I feel like I have some work to do. If I don't take care of business, this could be a short-lived thing. I'm not taking it for granted."|
|-- Chase Headley|
He's certainly gotten plenty of chances to do so, as he's been a mainstay in left field since being promoted from Portland. He already has 327 at-bats since his promotion, during which he's recorded nine home runs and 36 RBIs.
Headley, a second-round pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, is regarded as the top prospect in a Minor League system that has yielded few Major League-ready players in recent years. In fact, pitcher Jake Peavy, shortstop Khalil Greene and outfielder Paul McAnulty were the only homegrown players on the Opening Day roster.
Headley, who made the conversion from third base to left field during Spring Training, has certainly done enough good things since he was promoted to give the Padres a sense of hope that he'll be part of their plans for the foreseeable future.
And while Headley hasn't been the walk machine he was in the Minor Leagues, and he has struck out more than he and the Padres would have liked, he's shown the ability to control the strike zone, work counts with a mature approach to hitting and drive the ball with power from both sides of the plate.
"He's all business, man. He knows what he can do," said Padres catcher Nick Hundley, a teammate of Headley's since 2005. "He's a great player in terms of knowing his skills. He's fun to watch. He gives you a good at-bat every time around."
Which is something the Padres have always liked about Headley, and a big reason why they are encouraged by his performance this season.
"If you look at his Minor League career, it's always taken him a while," Padres general manager Kevin Towers said. "A month to two months into it, his numbers pick up. His numbers have been pretty consistent during his college career and his Minor League career. I think that's what's so attractive."
Headley's ability to be flexible hasn't hurt, either.
The Texas League Player of the Year in 2007, Headley was asked during the offseason to give the outfield a shot, since the team already had a young third baseman with Kevin Kouzmanoff. Headley obliged, battling the morning sun at PETCO Park in a workout in January so the team could see if a position switch was even feasible.
It was, and even though there were a handful of rough patches -- understandable to be sure -- during Spring Training, Headley showed he could handle the position and, with no surprise to anyone, showed he could handle the offensive workload, hitting .349 with four home runs and 14 RBIs.
But, in the end, the Padres decided Headley needed more seasoning, a chance to play the outfield for nine innings, in different cities, on different surfaces. They decided Triple-A Portland was the best place to do that, not San Diego.
Headley didn't exactly make the Padres look foolish for their decision not to keep him on their Opening Day roster, as he hit just .242 in April with the Beavers. He would rebound to hit .357 in May, and he finished his time with the Beavers with a .305 batting average, 13 home runs and 40 RBIs in 65 games.
"I made some adjustments at the plate," Headley said. "In Triple-A, there [is] a lot more experience; guys know what they're doing a little bit more. I was seeing more offspeed [pitches] than I was before. It took me a little bit to make the adjustment to that, but once I figured out my approach, I got back to where I needed to be."
And while Headley wasn't happy about the decision to begin the season anywhere other than San Diego, he now feels that time was well served and that going through his early season trials made him a better player.
"Who knows what would have happened if I were here to start the year," Headley said. "Any time you're playing, you can use that time to make yourself better. I looked at it as a chance to get better every day. I think I was able to do that. ... I'm doing the same thing here. I don't think you can ever be satisfied. I think I used it to the best I could."
Headley was recalled when the Padres were in New York to play the Yankees in June. He got his first start on June 17, filling in at third base after Kouzmanoff had some back tightness. He had two hits and, one day later, hit his first Major League home run.
Headley had six home runs in his first 22 games, and his average had spiked to .280 after hitting a home run against the Braves on July 13. But he struggled shortly after the All-Star break, as his average fell to .235. But he picked it up again in early August, hitting home runs in consecutive games against the Mets. He's also started to take more walks, which was his calling card in the Minor Leagues.
"Walks go in spurts," Headley said. "You will get three or four in a couple-days' period, then you won't get one for a week. You're not going to walk as much here, guys throw more strikes. And being a rookie, I think they're going to challenge me a bit more in the strike zone, at least early in the count.
"They're not going to let me walk my way on base."
Headley's defense in left field has mostly been a non-issue, which can only be seen as a good thing. Bad plays, bad reads and bad throws get you noticed. Headley, according to his manager, has more than held his own. He's even thrown out a runner at the plate.
"The outfield play, for a guy who has only played it for four months ... it has been a nice surprise," Black said. "There's been a consistency there on defense that's a tribute to him. His defense has not been a negative by any means."
As for his future in left field, Headley is willing to stick with it as long as the Padres tell him to, though he's said he wouldn't mind ending up back at third base at some point, which is his natural position.
"Personally, I'll always be more an able third baseman than an outfielder because of my skills," Headley said. "I'm not the fastest guy in the world. I'm quicker than I'm fast. In the infield, it's one or two steps, a quick movement. We'll just see what happens. I'm not giving up on it or letting myself get too far away from it."
That's something, perhaps, to kick around in the offseason, though Headley will have a lot on his plate, as he's getting married Nov. 15. But for now, Headley's thoughts are of a singular focus -- getting better.
"I am confident I'll get where I want to be," Headley said. "There are always some things you want to do better at. I feel like I have some work to do. If I don't take care of business, this could be a short-lived thing. I'm not taking it for granted."
His manager has noticed.
"I think he pressed a little bit early, the first 80 to 100 at-bats," Black said. "Now, I think we're seeing a more comfortable guy in a Major League setting. That's showing up in most of his at-bats."
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.