Early Season Trends Worth Monitoring – NL Edition

Last week I set out to examine some early-season trends and what they may mean for the season ahead. Incidentally, the list was entirely comprised of players on the junior circuit, so today, let’s examine a couple trends that are taking place in the NL, and if we feel they’re worth monitoring. As usual, the “blah blah small sample size blah blah” still applies, though feel free to mention it in the comments if it tickles your fancy.

Chase Headley – .263/.420/.553 (.418 wOBA)

In addition to a ridiculous 22.0 percent walk rate, tucked neatly inside these figures is that Headley is still firmly a road warrior. In fact, take a peek at these insane home/road splits:

Home wOBA Road wOBA
2009 .298 .356
2010 .294 .335
2011 .293 .376
2012 .350 .530
Career .300 .357

Headley’s been a full time big leaguer since 2009, but this year it’s almost as though he’s suggesting someone get him out of Petco fast, and that he’s really capable of so much more. But on a more serious note, with Headley eligible for free agency following next season, and with third base depth on the low side — league-wide 3B are only ahead of 2B, SS, and LF on OPS totem pole — is there potential for a win-win-win deal that’s good for the Padres, Headley, and whomever acquires him? Especially with Jedd Gyorko — off to a slow start in Double-A, but already has a half season of success in San Antonio — likely ready sometime early next season?

What may make a deal hard to finagle is the fact that the Padres have pretty much the best farm system around, and shortstop excluded, is pretty well stocked/balanced at every position with top-tier talent. Additionally, if you’re Headley awaiting your first big free agency payday, do you push for a deal to give yourself a year or more of time in a better offensive environment?

Jason Heyward – .375/.444/.656 (.488 wOBA)

The revitalization of 22-year-old Heyward has been swift and strong; he’s already one-third the way to replicating the WAR from his disappointing 2011 campaign. And while the man I predicted would be the NL MVP last year has made some strides 10 games into the 2012 season, it may not be where you’d think. Oftentimes a big change in a player’s results will come from an improved approach — as you’ll see with Mr. Young below — but for Heyward, he’s simply stopped hitting the ball on the ground so darn much. For Heyward, who’s 1.6 GB/FB last year was actually lower than his rookie campaign, this biggest part of his re-birth has been reintroducing line drives to his batted-ball mix, along with slashing the incredibly high 21.8 percent IFFB rate he carried last year. Let’s contextualize for just a second, as this is what happened on batted balls across the major leagues:

2011 MLB Batting Average On-Base Slugging BABIP
Grounders .237 .237 .256 .237
Fly Balls .218 .212 .575 .137
Line Drives .723 .719 .972 .714

Considering the fact that popups have virtually no BABIP and no slash-line, it’s not hard to combine that with the league’s rates to see why 2011 was so disappointing for the young lefty. It’s pretty unlikely that Heyward’s GB/FB will remain at or near 0.67 — and that’s for the best, anyway — but with improved line drive rates and popup and HR/FB rates right where they were his rookie campaign, it looks as though he’ll avoid becoming the new Casey Kotchman. That alone is cause for celebration.

Chris Young – .405/.500/.892 (.584 wOBA)

Young’s start is full of all kinds of gooey SSS goodness, but the slick-fielding centerfielder has thus far turned a very important corner 10 games into his 2012 campaign. Young’s always been pretty adept at drawing the free pass — 10.1 percent career mark entering play today — but he’s managed to improve on that front, now walking in just under 14 percent of his plate appearances. But that’s not the most impressive improvement the fleet-afoot 28-year old has made this year.

Young’s K rate right now stands at an impressive 11.4 percent. And while that’s not a whiff rate that’ll make Joe Mauer or Placido Polanco blush, Young has managed to nearly HALVE his 2011 rate, which was a career best for a guy who’s played in nearly 800 big league games. The last time Young posted a whiff rate in that same vein was in his time in Reno back in 2006, where he exploded for a .276/.363/.532 triple-slash (.392 wOBA). Equally impressive is that Young’s diminished whiff rate is coming at a time where he’s seeing way fewer fastballs than his career mark, with the slack being picked up by two swing-and-miss type offerings in sliders and changeups. This suggests to me that Young has refined his approach, and while his .370 BABIP won’t continue (hopefully his 9.4 percent line drive rate won’t either), he should continue to be a force as long as those line drives settle back into his typical 17-18 percent rate.

In addition to Rotographs, Warne writes about the Minnesota Twins for The Athletic and is a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Warne, or feel free to email him to do podcasts or for any old reason at brandon.r.warne@gmail-dot-com

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Bob in SF
Bob in SF

As a Braves fan I feel immediate involuntary puckering when Jason Heyward is mentioned in the same sentence as Casey Kotchman.