Breaking Down Chase Utley

No, I don't want to physically injure the NL MVP frontrunner. Let's take a closer look at what he's doing this season.

Utley is currently sporting a ridiculous 1.227 OPS, by far the best of his career (he hit .976 last year) The home runs are the most obvious improvement: he's already hit more than half as many as he did in the five months he played last season. He's on pace to hit 68 for the year, which would be 3rd best of all time.

Not only is he hitting more home runs, he's hitting more extra-base hits overall. It's not just doubles turning into homers. He's on pace for 52 doubles, which is behind the crazy pace he hit them at last year, but still would have been enough to lead the league.

But what's behind the power surge? His other stats don't look exceptional. His batting average is significantly up, but it has steadily improved every season. His strikeut rate is slightly down and walk rate is a bit up (the latter largely owing to being IBBed a few times due to Howard's struggles), but both are also in line with career trends.

What is unexpected is that his groundball rate is sharply down while his line drive and flyball rates are both up:



Also, per the Hardball Times, his HR/FB rate is by far the best of his career, at 23.4% (vs. a career rate of ~13%). This isn't an unusual HR/FB rate compared to other sluggers, however -- Barry Bonds bettered Chase's ratio in 3 of his last 4 seasons, and Ryan Howard has hit more home runs per fly ball in every year but this one.

What isn't off the charts, surprisingly enough, is Chase's average on balls in play. It's at .348, which is well above average, but not remarkable nor unsustainable. It's actually down from last season, when his BABIP was .362.

What does all this mean? I don't know, except that it seems extremely unlikely that he'll be able to keep up this pace. Utley doesn't have the physique usually associated with this kind of slugging, although the fact that his HR/FB rate isn't extraordinary is a good sign. The single biggest key to his success thus far would seem to be his GB/FB/LD rates. If he can keep smashing liners and flies all year even if some of his other numbers regress, he may well cruise to the MVP award.

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