Headley eyes strong follow-up to breakout year

Padres third baseman slugged career-high 31 homers, NL-best 115 RBIs in '12

By Corey Brock /01/04/13 4:15 PM ET

FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- The question has been asked of him and by him. It's followed Chase Headley around all winter, much like his 5-year-old Westie, Memphis, does around the house, stopping only to bark the precise moment the doorbell rings.
How did this happen?
The question comes up again on a cool Tennessee afternoon in December, as Headley is standing in the kitchen of his nearly new, 7,400-square-foot home that sits here among the hills, 45 or so minutes from the twang of Honky Tonk Row in downtown Nashville.
How did this happen?
Don't get the wrong idea. Headley isn't being pressed, or even pressing himself, for answers as to how he pieced together one of the finest seasons in San Diego Padres franchise history, one that seemingly came out of nowhere, one he and others have been waiting for since his big league debut in 2007.
The 28-year-old third baseman has certainly had a lot to digest this winter, a respite from a season that saw him win his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards, the results of a blissful run where he hit 31 home runs, had a National League-leading 115 RBIs and also tamed his home ballpark, no small feat in itself.
On this day, though, and for the better part of the last few months, the only question that Headley has struggled to get an answer to doesn't pertain to his performance at all. Instead, it's this:
How did his 16-month-old son, Colt, acquire such sweet dance moves?
"He didn't get that from me, I know that," Headley said, watching Colt sway to a Vince Gill song that his dad has kindly dialed up on a nearby television.
What started as a simple shoulder shrug has evolved into a shuffling of the feet and twisting of the hips. Turn on the music and Colt dances. Play a mellow song and he'll move slowly. A fast song? Better watch out, as you'll get the whole package.
"He's definitely got more rhythm than Chase and I combined," said Headley's wife, Casey.
While Dad, apparently, has two left feet, don't feel too sorry for him. Headley has been blessed with soft hands, a discerning eye and burgeoning power that led him to a breakout season, the kind of impressive performance he knew he had in him -- even if some doubted it.
"It was a special year, no doubt about it," Headley said. "It was nice to have it happen because I always thought it could happen because I had done it in the Minor Leagues. I knew that it was in there. I knew that I could do more than I had done. But until you actually do it, it doesn't feel the same."
How did this happen?
While there is no denying that Headley's 31 home runs qualify as an outlier on his professional resume -- his previous high for home runs was 12 in 2009 -- those in the game who saw him as an amateur player aren't entirely surprised by his well-rounded 2012 season.
Take Padres general manager Josh Byrnes, who was an assistant general manager with the Red Sox in 2005, the year the Padres used a second-round Draft pick to select Headley. Headley might have even ended up with the Red Sox if Byrnes had his way.
"That year, the year we took [Jacoby] Ellsbury, [Clay] Buchholz and [Jed] Lowrie, we had a lot of early picks. And he [Headley] was a guy we had a lot of debate about," Byrnes said. "I went out of the way with Chase, sat down and talked with him, to get a feel for him."
From a performance and makeup standpoint, Byrnes was smitten.
"I was impressed," he said.
Then there was then-Padres GM Kevin Towers, who now holds the same post with the D-backs. Following a run of early Draft picks that didn't pan out, Towers desperately wanted to hit with his early picks in 2005. His staff, which included special assistant Grady Fuson, identified Headley as their guy.
"Chase was sort of the poster child for what we wanted," Towers said. "He had great pitch recognition, a sweet spot for contact on his bat and he was a switch-hitter. We might have overdrafted him just a little ... but then again, he possessed all of the skills we wanted."
Last winter, Towers tried to trade for Headley. He was rebuffed by Byrnes, who was probably glad he didn't move Headley then or before the Trade Deadline last summer, though he received plenty of hits on his third baseman -- who essentially played his way out of trade talk with his performance, one that led to NL Player of the Month honors in August and September.
How did this happen?
"I think that Chase is a classic example of what most Major League players experience, going through a learning curve," Padres manager Bud Black said. "With most guys, it takes awhile to find out what they can become as a Major League player and how to get there. Not many players are able to jump on the scene like [Angels phenom] Mike Trout."
While the roots for Headley's success in 2012 might have been planted as an amateur player, they were cultivated prior to last season.
Following a disappointing 2011, Headley, who still bristles at the thought of the four home runs he hit that season, dedicated himself to being more of a run producer. Last winter, the Padres' first-year hitting coach, Phil Plantier, flew to Tennessee.
"Chase was the one who set his plan. He set some goals, things he wanted to get better at while still maintaining the things he was good at," Plantier said. "He had moments where he was able to drive balls like he was capable of. But he had never really put it together at the big league level."
Headley had a .267/.368/.413 line for the first half with eight home runs and 42 RBIs. In the second half, he soared. In August, he hit .306 with 10 home runs and 31 RBIs. A month later, he hit .324 with nine homers and 30 RBIs. People took notice, as he eventually finished fifth in the NL MVP vote.
"When it started rolling for me at the end of last year, I was going up there expecting I was going to get it done," Headley said.
How did it happen?
To be sure, there were plenty of big moments for Headley in 2012, though there was one specific at-bat that stands out most. It came during a game against the D-backs on Sept. 7. A switch-hitter, Headley hit a three-run home run in the third inning from the right side.
In the eighth inning, after the D-backs came back from a five-run deficit to tie the game, Headley came to the plate with none on. Hitting from the left side, he faced reliever David Hernandez.
"I had the intent of going up there to do some damage," Headley said. "That was my whole intent. And earlier in the count, I came out of my shoes trying to hit a home run and hit a foul ball. I got a good pitch but didn't put a good swing on it."
A that point, and with the count 3-1, Headley stepped out of the box to gather his thoughts.
"I was thinking I had to trust what I've done and that my swing will produce the result you want if you put a good swing on this ball," he said. "I had a pretty good idea he was going to throw me a fastball away."
Hernandez did, and Headley responded by driving the ball over the fence in left-center field, home run No. 26 on the season. The Padres went on to win, 6-5.
"I did exactly what I wanted to do. I played through my head what I wanted to do and I did it and I hit a home run that ended up being the game-winner," Headley said. "I came up to the at-bat with an idea of what I wanted to do, I made an adjustment because I did something I didn't want to do [the foul ball] and then I made an adjustment and did it. It was awesome."
That satisfaction was shared by Plantier, who still beams at the mere mention of Headley's big season.
"It's fun to watch a guy figure it all out and piece it together," Plantier said. "I don't see any reason why this isn't going to be normal production for the rest of his career. Hitters evolve ... good and bad. Chase is doing things in a way right now where I think he'll be able to sustain a version of this for a lot of years.
"This is not a fluke. It's very real."
Here at home in Franklin, Headley isn't consumed by his past performance. He'd much rather talk about one of his other great passions: bow hunting. He gets away from baseball and everything else as often as he can in the winter at his nearly 80-acre farm in Western Kentucky. His target -- the white-tailed deer -- doesn't come with red stitches.
"We've got a freezer full of deer if you want it," Casey Headley offers a visitor.
Soon enough, Headley will head to Arizona to get ready for another Spring Training with the Padres. He will go there the same man he's always been, with a firm focus on the things that are important to him -- family, religion and proving himself again. The shiny trophies he's acquired won't warp his sense of self. Headley realizes the bar of expectation has been raised significantly. He embraces that challenge.
"I expect a lot out of myself. And I do think that the norm of my career will be much closer to last season than the years before that," Headley said. "I feel like I'm closer to being that type of player ... having that success I had last year, gives me a lot of confidence going forward."
Headley then sits back in a chair, stealing a glance out a window behind him.
"I care about what I want to do. I want to be the best I can be."