- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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PEORIA, Ariz. -- Nothing against the world-class zoo, the beluga whales at SeaWorld and the magical ocean views from the La Jolla cliffs, but Padres third baseman Chase Headley likes to take a break from San Diego in the winter and head to a place that's a little more out of the mainstream.
Headley, his wife, Casey, and their 18-month-old son, Colt, spend their winters in Franklin, Tenn. -- a picturesque Nashville suburb where he can be a regular guy rather than a celebrity or the "face of the franchise."
It's not his only winter getaway. Over the past few years, Headley has gradually been buying up chunks of a 450-acre farm in Kentucky, where a typical day might find him shooting clay pigeons, mending fences or communing with nature. Some of Headley's most productive moments come while he's sitting in a tree stand for three hours with a bow and arrow, playing the waiting game with an unsuspecting buck.
"I think a lot when I’m in a tree stand," Headley says.
I've always been a guy who sees a lot of pitches and works counts, and I'm still going to be that guy to a certain extent. But I learned last year that my job is not to go up there and see pitches. My job is to produce runs, drive guys in and do damage.
”-- Chase Headley
Amid the solitude and the vegetation, Headley had a lot of warm memories for company over the winter. He captured his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in 2012, and made noise with a second-half offensive surge that vaulted him to fifth place in the NL MVP voting. The Padres are bringing in the Petco Park fences this year in an effort to generate more offense at home, but Headley can personally testify that spacious dimensions aren't fatal to a hitter's stat line and self-esteem.
Headley's 31 homers, .498 slugging percentage and league-best 115 RBIs last season generated lots of buzz in the game and uncertainty about his future. The Padres refrained from trading Headley despite an abundance of rumors, and they’ll pay him $8.57 million this year. Headley will be eligible for free agency after the 2014 season, and he is sure to be a hot commodity as a switch-hitting, defensively capable, leader-by-example type who has thrived in a pitcher's park.
While Headley dissects his game and sees constant opportunity for improvement, his teammates are convinced they have a budding star and born leader in their midst.
"I have total respect for how he carries himself on and off the field," says Padres outfielder Mark Kotsay, a 17-year veteran. "Certain guys have the ability to lead by example. Some guys lead by constantly communicating. And then there are the quiet ones who when they talk, you listen, because you realize it’s meaningful. You realize there’s a point to be made. He did a nice job last year with handling that."
The Padres thought Headley was capable of big things when they selected him out of the University of Tennessee in the second round of the 2005 draft and signed him for a $560,000 bonus. Headley hit 20 homers in 121 games for San Antonio in the Double-A Texas League in 2007. But in his first four big league seasons, he was more of an all-fields, gap-to-gap guy than a basher.
As he approached his 28th birthday last spring, Headley decided it was time to re-brand himself. He outlined his goals and aspirations in a discussion with new Padres hitting coach Phil Plantier after the 2011 season.
"Phil called and said, 'Hey, what do you see as your strengths and weaknesses? What are the things you want to improve upon?'" Headley recalls. "I told him, 'I want to get back to being a guy who can drive the ball.' The year before, I had worked so much on hitting the ball the other way, I almost lost the feel for being able to take the correct path and backspin the ball to right field."
Mark McGwire and other power hitters talk about this routinely -- the importance of applying backspin to balls to attain maximum carry. Headley also wanted to focus on being more aggressive at the plate. In 2011, he ranked 13th in the majors with 4.15 pitches per plate appearance. He arrived last year with a personal mandate to seize the initiative rather than let pitchers craft the storyline.
"I wanted to go up and dictate the at-bat and be the aggressor every time I came to the plate," Headley says. "I've always been a guy who sees a lot of pitches and works counts, and I'm still going to be that guy to a certain extent. But I learned last year that my job is not to go up there and see pitches. My job is to produce runs, drive guys in and do damage. I started to embrace that in the second half. I think that’s something I need to do from start to finish this year."
From a mechanical standpoint, Headley talks about the importance of taking a better "path" to the ball and keeping the bat in the zone as long as possible rather than pulling off at the conclusion of his swing. It took awhile, but when the home runs started flowing, opposing pitchers couldn't turn off the spigot.
Headley ranked second to Detroit's Miguel Cabrera with 23 home runs after the All-Star break. He finished with 20 homers from the left side and 11 from the right, 13 at home and 18 on the road, and joined Adrian Gonzalez as the only San Diego players to surpass 30 in a season since Petco's inception in 2004.
Now that Headley has found his groove, he is resolute in his desire to prove the power wasn't an aberration. He takes part in one-handed soft toss drills, a no-stride drill and other daily routines with Plantier to ingrain muscle memory and try to keep his swing in sync. By letting it rip on pitches a fraction of an inch off the black rather than eyeballing everything to death, he hopes to put more balls in play and cut down on his 157 strikeouts.
The year before, I had worked so much on hitting the ball the other way, I almost lost the feel for being able to take the correct path and backspin the ball to right field.
”-- Chase Headley
History says it will be a challenge for Headley to maintain his late 2012 surge. In January, Chris Cwik of RotoGraphs looked at players who enjoyed similar power breakouts and concluded that Headley is in for some "serious regression."
The San Diego teammates who watched Headley lay waste to NL pitching in August and September are a little more optimistic.
"I came up with Chase and I saw him in 2007 when he was hitting home runs all over the park every day," says Padres outfielder Will Venable. "Everybody is always talking about Petco Park, but he obviously wasn't affected too poorly by it. He made the rest of us look bad."
The trade rumors are likely to persist as Headley moves closer to free agency after the 2014 season, but he downplays questions about potential contract extensions or address changes. Befitting his down-home style, Headley didn't exactly go hog wild with his new $8.57 million windfall. He sprang for a new tractor for the farm in Kentucky, and uses it to plant alfalfa and other food plots for the turkey and deer roaming the grounds. Around town, Headley drives a 2007 Ford F-150 truck. He's the quintessential no-frills guy.
"He’s a high-character, great integrity, smart player," says Padres manager Bud Black. "Those are all the ingredients you look for in a winning player. It takes awhile for some guys to get there, but I think that he’s there, and it will continue."
Will Headley stay in San Diego, take another step in his transformation and keep hitting baseballs until they're going, going, gone, or price himself out of the market as so many players before him have done? The answers to those questions will require lots of thought on everybody's part. The Padres might be wise to buy a few tree stands of their own.