When the Yankees acquired Todd Frazier last month, it meant moving Chase Headley from third base to first. When Greg Bird, the first baseman currently tearing it up in his minor league rehabilitation assignment, is ready to return to a lineup that sorely needs his bat, where will Headley move to next — the bench?
If Headley is concerned about the question, he is masking it well.
“I’ve gotten to the point where I just worry about what’s happening today,” Headley said. “That’s served me the best. I want to play well. I want to play well for the team, No. 1, and I want to play well for me.
“Everybody wants to have success, but looking at stuff that’s cloudy around you doesn’t do anything for me. It just makes doing your job that much tougher.”
Operating in the shadows of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and just about every other Yankee, Headley has quietly been one of the team’s steadiest players for much of the last three months.
It was not much different on Wednesday, when he finally joined the Yankees’ hit parade here with a late solo homer as the Yankees blasted the Detroit Tigers for the second night in a row, 10-2.
Didi Gregorius and Sanchez also hit homers, Ronald Torreyes tied a career high with four hits, and Luis Severino threw a workmanlike six and two-thirds innings for the Yankees, who remained four and a half games behind Boston in the American League East.
Headley’s home run, his eighth of the season, was a just reward for the first baseman, who had been the only Yankee without a hit in this series. He had, however, hit four line drives that were caught by outfielders, including one that Kevin Romine snagged with a shoestring catch and another sacrifice fly earlier Wednesday.
Manager Joe Girardi, enjoying a rare blowout win on Tuesday, sidled up to Headley after he had lined out directly to Tigers left fielder Justin Upton and needled him. “I usually consider you a pretty smart player,” Girardi said, “but you’ve been pretty dumb tonight the way you’ve been hitting the baseball.”
Girardi reported that Headley had smiled.
Which almost qualifies as news when it comes to Headley, who has one season remaining on his four-year, $52 million contract. While thoughtful and armed with a wry sense of humor, he sometimes carries a grim air about him — as if he is carrying a boulder on his shoulder when he steps into the batter’s box.
Headley, 33, said he has gotten better at navigating the highs and lows of the game as he has aged. He internalizes disappointments less frequently.
“You understand how things work,” he said. “You don’t take things personal. You just take things for what they are and take the emotion out of it as much as you can. If I’m not playing today and somebody else is playing, is it going to help me to be mad at Joe or the guy that’s playing? No. That’s silly. When you get a little better at that, it just takes the edge off in some of those situations and lets you perform the best you can.”
Little seems to have bothered Headley this summer. He emerged from a dreadful May to become a reliable bat in a lineup that has had few of them. Entering Wednesday, Headley was hitting .316 with an .857 on-base-plus-slugging percentage since June 6, numbers that have been bettered only by Judge and Sanchez over that span.
And Headley’s move to first base has not only given the Yankees production at the position but also some needed stability. They had used eight other players at first before Headley moved there on July 20. While the transition has appeared seamless, Headley cautioned that he had not yet been exposed to all the types of plays for which a first baseman must be responsible, such as bunt defense and starting double plays.
Still, it has been a less taxing move than when he first came to the big leagues and was asked by the San Diego Padres to learn left field. The outfield assignment was challenging, Headley said, because his mind often drifted to hitting during idle moments.
“I’d be out there — man, where’s my swing at? What am I trying to do at the plate?” Headley said. “In the infield there’s always something you’re thinking about. Where do I need to be on a cut and relay? Can this guy bunt? Who’s on the mound — can he move?”
If his mind is busy in the field, it is clear in the batter’s box.
Headley, a switch-hitter, said he was staying on his legs more at the plate, resisting the urge to rise up out of his crouch as he swings the bat. And his right-handed swing has begun to awaken after having the Yankees’ batting practice pitchers — who are all right-handed — move toward first when they are in the cage to better mimic left-handed pitchers. The home run Wednesday was his second right-handed since 2015.
When Headley returned to the dugout after the homer, Girardi’s opinion of him had improved compared with a night earlier “I said, ‘You’re a little smarter,’” Girardi recalled after the game.
And as much as Girardi loathes hypotheticals — “It’s a waste of my time,” he said — he did acknowledge what seemed obvious about Headley’s situation when Bird returns from the minors, something that could come as soon as Friday when the Yankees return home to play Seattle.
“If everyone stays healthy, if you’re producing, you’re going to play,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”