MLB Notebook: Headley on base consistently

By Roger Schlueter |12/17/12 9:30 AM ET

On Oct. 2, the Padres -- in their penultimate game of the season -- faced off against the Brewers, with third baseman Chase Headley holding down the third spot in the batting order. After fanning on a 3-2 count in the first, Headley led off the top of the fourth and singled on a ground ball to right.
In most cases, a base hit under these circumstances -- a leadoff single in the early innings of an end-of-the-year game between two teams who had been eliminated from the postseason -- would not carry much significance. But on this evening, with this single, Headley could lay claim to having reached base safely in more games during one season than any other player in Padres history. All things considered, perhaps it's not the most dynamic accomplishment of this past season, but as a means of bringing focus to Headley's breakout year at the plate, it works just fine.
Headley would finish that game with two hits in four at-bats, and he would go on to reach base four more times (with a double, a triple and two walks) in the season's final game. The final numbers for the 28-year-old in 2012 included a 144 OPS+ (fourth in the National League), 301 total bases (fifth), 31 home runs (tied for eighth), 86 walks (third), 263 times on base (third), and league-leading totals in RBIs (115) and number of games reaching safely via a hit, walk or hit-by-pitch (146). This last number -- 146 -- was more than just a new standard for the Padres (Tony Gwynn had held the previous high mark, with 144 games in 1987); it also stands tied for the sixth highest for any NL player since 1962 (the first year the NL used a 162-game schedule).

As a reward for his stellar work with the bat in 2012, Headley won an NL Silver Slugger Award and finished fifth in NL MVP voting, all after not making the All-Star team -- an exclusion supported by Headley's first-half numbers. Before the break, Headley had posted a .780 on-base plus slugging percentage with 29 extra-base hits (20 doubles, a triple and eight homers) and 42 RBIs -- marks that were eclipsed by a number of NL third basemen. But Headley was carving out a path when it came to reaching base safely, checking that box on the to-do list in 78 of the Padres' 87 games. And in the second half of the season, while Headley continued to reach base in an uncommon number of contests (68 of the Padres' 75 games), his other numbers blossomed. After the All-Star break, Headley led the NL with 23 home runs and 73 RBIs, and he assembled the fourth-highest OPS (.978) among NL players with at least 200 plate appearances. In the NL since the 2000 season, only Sammy Sosa in 2001 and Ryan Howard in '06 and '09 had second halves in which each of those baseline numbers were reached.
Returning to Headley and his reaching-base brethren, it's interesting to note the presence of Joe Torre and his phenomenal season in 1971. For starters, Torre and Headley are the only pair of third basemen so high up on the NL list. Secondly, Torre's season -- the only one between 1962 and '95 in the NL to have seen a player reach safely in at least 146 games -- stands out for its distance (in years) from the rest of the top performances. But for those fairly well versed in the array of great offensive seasons in the expansion era, this element serves as more of a spice added to an already delicious stew.
Between 1961 and '70, Torre played in 1,355 games, serving as the starting catcher in 875 of those contests. And while he had some magnificent offensive seasons during this stretch (including a 36-homer, .943 OPS year in 1966), Torre approaches legendary status with his '71 campaign, when he was a full-time third baseman. Leading the league in hits (230), RBIs (137), batting (.363) and total bases (352), Torre was named the NL MVP and posted a 171 OPS+, which still stands tied for the eighth highest in NL history for a player with at least 75 percent of his games at third (his batting average is also the eighth highest, his 230 hits are the third most and his 352 total bases are tied for the fifth most). In terms of reaching base, his total times on base (through a hit, walk or hit-by-pitch) -- 297 -- is the fifth highest for any NL third sacker since the league began play in 1876.

Interestingly, Torre didn't string together any exceptionally long streak of games in which he reached safely, with his high for the year -- 26 -- tying for the 10th highest in the Majors. The same was true for Headley in 2012, with his longest streak -- 28 straight games -- tying for the seventh longest of the season. The longest single-season streak of reaching safely is owned by Ted Williams, who reached in 84 straight games in 1949. In all, Williams -- playing in the era of the 154-game schedule -- reached safely in 149 contests that season.
Flipping the view, in 1971, Torre never endured back-to-back games of not reaching safely, while Headley did have a single two-game streak, which happened to occur in the Padres' first two games of the season. In some other instances, Torre and Headley look a little bit different. For example, Torre's batting average on balls in play (BABAP) was .378, while Headley's was .337; and in terms of walking to reach base, Torre's walk percentage was 8.9, just a stitch above the league's mark of 8.2, while Headley's 2012 percentage (12.3) stood well ahead of the league average of 8.0 percent.
In today's baseball universe, there are numerous (and some would say too many) ways to slice up and magnify a player's season: splits to cover an extraordinary amount of situations and matchups, percentages, averages, ratios. In this system, chances are that Headley's 146 games of reaching base safely will quickly be forgotten, usurped by more traditional means of evaluating and contextualizing. Still, this particular approach does help to add color and depth to his breakout season -- one in which he showed an exceptional ability to come out on top in the daily battle for gaining a base.