Back in the spring I wrote a fan post Chase Utley's Best Five and After in which I contrasted Utley's best body of work with the three injury-riddled years prior to this one. The piece ended with a forecast, addressing the question, "What should we look for -- and hope for -- to tell us that offensively Utley has regained most of his game, and gotten more clearly back on track for Cooperstown?" Here's some parsing of that text (with some liberties taken with the original ordering) with an eye to how things played out. What was needed? What was forthcoming? Howdydo?
1. The Slash-Line. While it's unlikely that we see the Chase Utley of the Best Five again, if he returned to the slash line of 2010 in 2013, we and the Phillies would have reason to feel good. Bill James' somewhat bullish projection pretty much does that, predicting a .274/.372/.463 slash line in 122 games, compared to the .275/.370/.445 line put up in 115 games of an injury-impacted 2010. James forecasts . . . a somewhat lower wOBA (.350 vs .370 in 2010). I think his slash line is going to prove pretty accurate. . . .
Utley's final slash line for 2013 was .284/.348/.475. There's a bit to be unhappy about there, but a whole lot more to celebrate. Start with the fact that Utley's batting average and slugging percentage easily outpaced not only James' projections, but those of all the other major forecasters--not to mention his own 2010.
Pretty clearly Utley showed us more with both his batsmanship and his mojo than I or anyone else expected. I'd suspected that .280 was not beyond him, but .284 has to be an average that all Phillies' fans can feel good about. The .475 slugging average is well beyond projections, and well beyond even the 2010 season, suggesting that while a full spring training and a stable set of legs can do wonders for power numbers, a healthy set of hands (recall how that 2010 thumb injury scotched his power after the return from the DL) are just as important. The 2013 ISO (.191) blew by 2010-2012 with ease (.169, .166, .173, respectively), and only James' (.189) among the projections came anywhere close to actuality. Average ISO from 2005 to 2009 was .234, so we're no longer in that area code, but where we are, I'd say, is just fine.
The garter snake in this garden was on-base percentage. Although an OBP of .348 is nothing to be ashamed of, Chase undershot all projections, some of them by a lot. The culprits are easy enough to search out. For whatever reason, Utley stayed out of the way of the baseball at a very un-Utleyan pace in 2013. He was hit by pitches only 5 times (vs 12 times in 2012 and 14 times in 2011) despite registering significantly more PA's than in recent years. I know, it's hard to feel bad about that. His walk rate also dropped to 8.5% from 11.9% the previous year. In the grand scheme of things this isn't necessarily a bad development. Utley's walk rates have been variable over his career, but 8.5% is in the vicinity of his most common BB% during his prime. And wOBA, a measure of his total on-base value, was, at .356, his highest since 2010.
2. Using the Whole Field. Start with a good mix of homerun and extra base power to right field and center field. 22 home runs would look nice.
Here is the rate of Utley's plate appearances between homeruns and doubles and triples from 2010-2014
In my earlier piece I called attention to 2012's marked improvement over 2011 in homerun power, but at the expense of extra-base hits that didn't leave the park. 2013 saw improvement in both areas over 2010, plus a 2B-3B rate comparable to 2011's and a HR rate better than 2012's. Although Utley came up 4 homeruns short of my wish list, he did it in fewer plate appearances than predicted. Adjusting the rate of a homerun every 29.5 at bats to my predicted 590 PA's, his homerun total would have been 21, which is about as close to 22 as you can get without being 22. 29.5 PA's is still well off the 18.4 PA's that Utley averaged in 2008, for instance, and suggests that around 30 may be the new benchmark for homerun frequency.
Part of the reason for improvement lies in the center field part of the prescription. The following CBP spray chart (courtesy of katron.org) shows why.
At CBP, Utley's homeruns still decidedly came to right field, but shots to the wall liberally peppered left-, right-, and dead-center. Among his homeruns in all parks, 6 of his 18 were to center field. His slugging average to center field was a whopping .671, 24 points higher than to right field. Compare this to a .524 slg. in 2012, and .431 in 2011. For a guy who seemed to want to pull everything in 2011, that's a good sign.
One thing we did not see this year is power to dead left field. This was Utley's worst year by far in that regard. Although he hit no homeruns to left field in 2012 (he hit 2 in 2011), his 2012 Slg. to left was .429; in 2013 it was an anemic .253. Batting average generally to left was only .216. Just not a good year for left-field hitting, with or without power.
3. Effective Aggression. Something beyond the .265 yearly average BABIP for those same years must happen, as well. A little luck wouldn't hurt, but something at least around his 2010 figure (.288) will show that the quality of his contact has improved. A line drive rate on his career average of 21% would be a good sign. Be aggressive, Chase.
Good news. Utley's 2013 BABIP of .305 was dead on his career average. As noted in my earlier piece, Utley's BABIP was never below .300 until 2010 -- since which it had not reattained that mark. The return is reflected in contact %, which, at 83.1%, is likewise back to the career norm. Both confirm the eye test that has told many of us that Chase is once again making contact with a more effective swing. The line drive rate (19.5%), interestingly, is down a tick from 2012 (21.4%), but that decline is perhaps offset by a decline in groundball rate (38%) from the two previous years, when it was in the 40's.
The fact that Utley struck out swinging more in 2013 might strike someone at first glance as bad news. A possible sign of diminished aggression, the swinging k% had stuck in the four percentiles the previous two seasons. In 2013 it was 7%, which is a tad higher than his career 6.4% rate, but which shows, I think, that he is swinging harder and with more confidence and determination than in recent years.
4. Left-Handed Pitching. Add much better success against lefthand pitching, though not necessarily 2010 type success. Utley's days of .400+ wOBA vs LHP are probably behind him, whether the explanation lies in how he is being pitched, how he is swinging, what he is seeing, or some combination thereof. But something well beyond his 2011-2012 performance is necessary and plausible.
Are you a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty fan? Chase Utley, he of the .281 batting average and .388 wOBA against left-handers from 2005-2009, has been considerably less than scintillating in recent years. Nonetheless, 2013 showed some genuine progress over the awful 2011 and only slightly better 2012 seasons. This was particularly evident as the season wore on. In April and May, Utley's line against LHP was .163/.234/.302. Not good. From June 1 through the remainder of the season, that line was .278/.358/.481, and that includes a dismal August. Not bad, not bad at all. The notorious contrarian JoeCatz argued that Utley had fattened his stats against pitchers not named Niese, Gonzalez, and Minor, but those guys are hard on left-handed batters generally. Utley handled other such pitchers (Krol and Maholm, for instance) well. Niese particularly, who holds LHB's to a .237 average but with an unimpressive 3.95 xFIP, looks as if he may just be a personal Utley bugaboo, something every hitter has.
A seemingly studied attempt by Utley to take some outside pitches from both LHP and RHP the other way was noticeable to some of us in the latter part of the season. Success against right-handers was more usual than against left-handers. This 2013 CBP spray chart against southpaws shows a decent distribution of hits to all fields, with to-the-wall power in left-center, but not in dead left.
A .256 BABIP, by comparison to preceding years, shows improved contact, and a .430 Slg a more-than-marginally improved power. And imagine, a wRC+ north of the 100 mark!
5. In the Line-Up. Like pretty nearly everyone else, James is betting on time lost to injury and days off. Given Charlie Manuel's history and Utley's commitment to playing, I don't see a ton of days off unless the Phillies are well out of the playoff chase. Injury (well, reinjury is what everyone is really thinking) is not very predictable, so I'm going to forecast 140 games played and 590 or so PAs. I foresee a generally healthy Chase Utley.
In my earlier piece I uttered these fatal words:
Despite the popular assumption that Utley's full-out style of play is directly responsible for his physical problems, his career has been more or less devoid of the kinds of injuries directly related to all-out effort.
Well, there has to be a first-time for everything, and this season the "strain injury" finally reared its head. Utley missed 29 games between May 21 and June 21, and that's a damned shame. My prediction of 590 plate appearances turned out to be 531. The good news is that this was still significantly more PA's than in any of the preceding three years. My supposition that Utley would tend to wear down as the season went on never really materialized, and although he probably should have gotten a couple more days off, Charlie and Ryno did sit him as a starter seven times, six of those times against left-hand pitchers. He appeared in every game when not on the DL. If there was any sign at all that his knees were going to be a continuing problem going forward, I didn't see it. Those knees looked just fine to me, and Chase continued to run the bases in that way that delights us all.
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Chase Utley finished the season at 3.9 fWAR. That placed him #6 among all major league second basemen in WAR, despite having missed a full month of the season. He is older by two years than the next oldest of the five players in front of him. His days as a 7.8 fWAR player (his average from 2005 through 2009) are -- let's face it -- over, but he is still The Man, as far as I'm concerned. In this sorry spectacle of a misbegotten season, Chase's performance was a ray of sunshine. Not the only one, but a most welcome one.
So howdydo, Chase. Good to have you back.