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Headley hoping to keep powering Padres

Photo: /AP

Chase Headley erupted for 31 home runs in 2012 after hitting just four the season before..

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Talk about Chase Headley's 2012 season with either the protagonist himself or his hitting coach, and their answers inevitably will be littered with the buzzword "damage." Headley, after all, is the Padres' middle-of-the-order third baseman, and in that role he should want to, have to and be able to hit for power.

That plan to inflict damage on a baseball and an opponent drove Headley's approach last year, aided by a refinement to his switch-hitting swing paths to produce more backspin on the ball. Headley has always been a patient hitter, who in the previous year concentrated too much on swatting pitches to the opposite field. In learning to be more aggressive early in the count and adjusting the mechanics of his swing, he saw a power explosion from four home runs in 2011 to 31 in 2012, the most by any National League third baseman.

"My job is to drive in runs and to do damage, not to see pitches," Headley said in camp last week. "The year before I worked so hard on hitting the ball the other way that I was pretty good at that, but then I'd get a pitch that I could handle and I couldn't take the right swing to it. I was getting a pitch that I could drive, and I'd topspin it because I was pulling off the ball a little bit on the pitch in.

"I had four home runs the year before and had three opposite-field home runs. I just couldn't pull the ball in the air. It was about getting back to a swing that would allow me to put the ball in the air to the pull side."

Headley, who is under San Diego's control for two more seasons, had almost identical batting averages (.286 in '12 vs. .289 in '11) and on-base percentages (.376 vs. .374) but a slugging percentage that was 99 points higher (.498 vs. .399), with only a small decline in pitches per plate appearance to 4.04 from 4.14.

Like his team, which had the best record of any non-playoff team in the NL after June 30, Headley finished the season in impressive fashion, with 10 home runs and 31 RBIs in August and nine homers and 30 RBIs in September. No player since Albert Pujols in 2006 had enjoyed back-to-back months with at least nine home runs and 30 RBIs. For the year Headley led the NL with 115 RBIs.

"To be able to sustain that kind of damage over that period of time is impressive," hitting coach Phil Plantier said. "Chase is very intelligent. He does his homework. He understands who his opponent is. I think he did a really good job of applying that information into what he wanted to do during the at bat. Because of that, he dictated sequences more and was a threat from the first pitch."

The Padres had desperately needed a power threat since trading Adrian Gonzalez prior to the 2011 season, which is a particular challenge in pitcher-friendly Petco Park. That year, only Ryan Ludwick, with 11, reached double digits in homers, as San Diego became the first team to fail to reach 100 home runs in a non-strike-shortened season since 1992. In 2012, Headley's 31 were nearly double the output of any other Padre (Carlos Quentin hit 16) and accounted for 26 percent of the club's 121 homers.

In establishing himself as a power hitter -- winning a Silver Slugger and finishing fifth in the NL MVP balloting along the way (not to mention a Gold Glove for his fielding) -- Headley bucked two recent trends: declining production from third baseman and increasing scarcity of switch hitters with 30-homer power.

Third base has long been considered a preeminent power position and from 2004 to 2008 it was a well above-average of production, as rated by OPS+, which is on-base plus slugging that has been adjusted for league and ballpark. Third basemen as a whole had an OPS+ between 106 and 109 each of those years -- 100 is average -- but it fell to 101 in '09, 103 in '10 and then dropped to 96 in 2011, the first time it had been below-average since 2003.

Headley's breakout year, a full season of the Cardinals' David Freese and, most importantly, the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera moving across the diamond -- joining established incumbents such as Adrian Beltre, Chipper Jones, Aramis Ramirez, David Wright and Ryan Zimmerman -- restored third base to its offensive perch with a 108 OPS+.

Similarly, there are fewer premium switch hitters with power than there was five, six years ago when Jones, Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman and Mark Teixeira were all in their primes. They are the only four switch-hitters with multiple seasons of at least 30 home runs in the last decade. Only Beltran and Headley reached that number in 2012.

As Headley now attempts to join their selective cohort, he'll have to stave off the natural regression that often accompanies an extreme breakout year, though perhaps it will be offset somewhat by the shortening of the imposing dimensions at Petco Park. Much of Headley's second half bonanza happened with Quentin batting behind him in the lineup, so keeping the latter slugger healthy all year would help too.

How likely is an encore? Baseball Prospectus proclaimed in its preseason guide, "Headley is in his prime and is one of the best third basemen in baseball," yet their PECOTA modeling system projected a decline to a .268/.343/418 with 15 home runs and 70 RBIs. The 28-year-old Headley is counting on experience to continue propelling him forward.

"I think you look at what you did well last year and what, preparation-wise, helped you to do that," Headley said. "An advantage I have this year is that we really locked in on some drills and some specific focuses to work on in the cage and work on in B.P."

In other words, Headley expects to do more damage.

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