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Fangraphs Friday: Padres' Chase Headley Is 2nd in fWAR

Proof that Padres do exist.
Proof that Padres do exist.

Early in every season you're going to see some weird names on the leaderboards and oftentimes those "weird names" will eventually fall back to where you expected them, but not always. Sometimes using something like WAR can help you determine whether or not a person's unexpected power output or high average is a mirage or a true indication of the player getting better.

The name that immediately popped up today was Chase Headley. The only thing that stands between Headley and being the "most valuable" player in baseball after ~20 games is Matt Kemp. That's pretty high praise. (Though Kemp, who is out-hitting prime Barry Bonds right now, is at 2.2 WAR which is 0.7 WAR ahead of Headley or anyone else.)

Headley sits at 1.5 fWAR which is tied with Josh Hamilton for 2nd in baseball and 0.3 WAR ahead of fourth place guys like Ian Kinsler and Corey Hart. Fantasy stars like Kemp, Hamilton, and Kinsler you would expect to see there, but how did Headley work his way to the top? Especially when you consider that comparing superficial numbers, Headley has "only" four home runs and is only hitting .275?

Immediately, Headley gets a bump because he A.) plays third base and B.) plays it well. He has a defensive upgrade that outfielders don't have and also has played lights out in the early-going. Still, is it enough of a difference to offset the major difference between their triple slash lines?

Kemp: .449/.513/.942

Hamilton: .390/.430/.740

Headley: .275/.407/.536

Well, yes and no. The defense is what keeps Headley afloat with those two but he has also shown immense advancement at the plate and is having the best hitting season of his career with a walk rate that if sustained, would make him a very valuable contributor, especially for being a Padre, especially for being a third baseman.

Headley is walking 18.6% of the time which is the eighth best mark in baseball. However, when you compare his other numbers to the rest of the guys in the top 15 of that stat, you'll see where Headley excels: His .261 ISO is the best mark in the top 15, his .275 average is better than all but two players ranked ahead of him, he has added two stolen bases, and has been very good on the basepaths.

In the early going of the season, Headley has been every bit as good at the plate as Evan Longeria has.

More on how he does it and if he can sustain it after the jump.

Last season, Headley was almost useless in fantasy: four home runs, 44 RBI, 13 SB in 113 games. That should have dropped him near the bottom of possibilities in your draft this year, but he's like a new player. His 23.3% K rate is right in line with his career numbers but his .261 ISO is nearly double his career high from any season in which he played more than 100 games.

His .326 BABIP? Actually, kind of low. Meaning, he is hitting what he should be hitting.

His 25% HR/FB ratio is ridiculous and he has a career 7.6% rate, so the number should come down but by how much? Is it out of the realm of possibility to see him post a 15% HR/FB?

As for the walks: Headley is swinging at 20.7% of pitches outside of the zone, a career-low. He's swinging only 39.5% of the time, also a career low. His contact rates are in line with his career numbers but he's drawing more walks because he's swinging less and making better decisions at the plate.

Everybody knows that Petco is one of the worst parks for hitters in baseball, so have the Padres played a lot of road games that could lead to these skewed numbers? San Diego has played 14 of it's 20 games at home. And the park numbers aren't changing: Headley is the only hitter on the team with over 50 plate appearances that has an OPS+ over 100 and it's not even that close.

However, it's still important to note that Headley at home is still a hitter at Petco:

Road: .391/.444/.957

Home: .217/.390/.326

Still, anyone that can hit for a .716 OPS at Petco would be getting a good head start. There is no way that Chase will hit .391 on the road all year with a home run in every other game but is there a middle ground that can keep Headley as a very good hitter at third base?

I think so. Look at how good the walk rate has been at home. Headley could be using every tool he has at his advantage at home (don't try to hit where you can't hit, just get on base) and then swinging for the fences on the road. Of course, he won't always be playing in Coors (2 HR in 3 games) but he will sometimes be playing at Coors.

Headley is not as good as Evan Longoria, Josh Hamilton, or Matt Kemp, but this hitting version of Headley is significantly better than any previous version. And that's worth a roster spot in any league.

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