USA TODAY Sports
A year ago this month, Schmenkman ushered in spring training by making the case for Chase Utley's place in the Pantheon of second basemen. At the outset of a new year's spring training, I'm going to narrow the focus to the offensive output during the five-year period from 2005 to 2009 when the Phillies' best player was unquestionably the finest second-baseman in the game and set it next to the injury-riddled period that has followed. During those outstanding five years, the man Bill James recently described as "the best percentage player in baseball" averaged a .301/.388 /.535 slash line. Among position players, only Albert Pujols averaged more yearly fWAR (8.64). Utley's average of 7.8 fWAR during that period (+/- one year) far outstripped that of any of the other quality second baseman, including Robinson Cano (2.5), Brandon Phillips (3.6), and Ian Kinsler (3.3). In the decades immediately preceding, neither Craig Biggio nor Jeff Kent, both potential Hall of Fame second basemen, could match that figure during any five-year period of their career. Ryne Sandberg (6.2), Rod Carew (7.2) and Roberto Alomar (5.4) averaged less in their best five years. Only Joe Morgan (10.1) averaged more. The years since 2009 have been less kind, bringing with them a yearly average slash line of .263/365/.433. Well, players age, and age at different rates, right? We all wish Utley could have started his Major League career a couple of years sooner.
No account of Utley's stellar career now or in the future, however, will be able to ignore his unfortunate series of injuries and the impact they have had on his output. Five major injuries have punctuated his eight years as a full-time player. In July, 2007 he suffered a broken hand after being hit by a John Lannan pitch. In the 2008-09 offseason he underwent surgery for a lateral tear of the hip labrum. In June, 2010 he tore a thumb ligament sliding into second base. In the 2010-2011 offseason he suffered from patellar tendonitis and chondromalacia in one knee. In the 2011-2012 offseason he suffered chondromalacia in the other. All but the last were right side injuries. 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. Missed games owing to pulled hamstrings, strained calf muscles, turned ankles, torn or inflamed achillies or plantar tendons, sore shoulders, aching backs and the like have been conspicuous by their absence. The traumatic injuries to the hand are the same any player might randomly suffer. It's the injuries of the last three years that have prompted me to wall off the 2010-2012 period from the five years that preceded it, although the argument can certainly be made that 2010 in many regards belongs with the earlier years. While 2010 was off career numbers in some regards, the loss of 164 plate appearances from Utley's average the preceding five years had a clear impact on his counting stats. Utley was dead on track for a HOF career at the end of the 2009 season, a season he crowned with a six-homer playoff . Today, making it is an iffier proposition.
The contrast between Utley's two bodies of work is immediately noticeable when five and three year averages of some key stats are matched up.
Individual years within the groupings have outliers, to be sure. And not everything has fallen off. Interesting to note are a marginally better walk rate and a significantly better strikeout rate. Is the latter a result of veteran craft or a less aggressive approach at the plate? Hard to say.
So apart from plate appearances, which have obviously suffered from time lost to injury, what has changed for the worst and what might the changes point to?
Home runs, ISO, and wOBA in the 2010-2012 window have been well off Utley's previous norms. Home runs are, of course, a counting stat, and Utley has lost a significant number of at bats to injury in all three seasons, but a yearly average 35.1 PA/HR rate is well off the 23.3 rate of the previous five years. The fall-off the last two years has been much noted. But 2010 can, to some extent, be added to the mix as well. By contrast to his 2007 broken hand that caused only an insignificant fall-off in power, the thumb injury in late June of 2010 produced a noticeable hit to power. Utley experienced a June power drought prior to the thumb injury (1 HR, .368 SLG) and an abysmal August coming out of it (0 HR, .245 SLG) before recovering in September (5 HR, .491 SLG), then having a pedestrian postseason (1 HR, .333 SLG). By contrast, coming off his 2007 hand injury he hit .444/.524./.667 in a brief August run, followed by .301/.377/.496 in September.
This CBP spray chart (courtesy of katron.org.) illustrates nicely the "warning track power" that seemed to characterize much of Utley's abbreviated 2011 season. Left field is still somewhat fertile ground for extra-base hits to the wall, but the power alleys are empty. Straight away is a dead zone of routine fly balls. Home runs occurred only once every 32.9 PA's, but 2B/3B hits (mostly to right field) every 13.4 PA's are exactly on his rate during the 2008 championship season. A corresponding chart for 2012 (click charts to enlarge) suggests that Utley hit with considerably better power in his even more abbreviated 2012 season, although the power faded somewhat in the latter part of the season. There were more balls out of the park (HR every 27.4 PA's) with a few wall rattlers. What's missing are the right field alley shots from 2011, with a 2B/3B hit now every 17.7 PA's.
Legend: Hits grade from light to dark blue by bases, outs grade from yellow-orange to deep red for ground outs, fly outs, line outs, and pop outs, respectively.
This chart for 2008 (with allowances for many more PA's) shows classic Utley extra-base power in all categories. A home run every 18.4 PA's, a 2B/3B hit every 13.4 PA's and power to both center and right field.
Every hitter's swing relies to one extent or another on leg strength. The universal explanation for Utley's fall-off the last two years has been that lack of leg strength going into both seasons as a result of off-season inactivity created an "unstable base." Some maintain, despite his solid 2009 season, that the hip injury has taken a toll. This clip from 2009 shows a classic Utley swing.
Utley is not a notable back-legger or long-strider. He generates a lot of his power from a pronounced torquing at the hips following a small leg kick. This swing is not absolutely typical in that (it's hard to tell from the angle) the pitch looks a bit down and in, forcing him to hold his weight back. The front knee and hip are absorbing the brunt of the torque, the hop at the end reflecting the fact that the planted right food can't pronate. If there were an unconscious tendency to back off a bit on such a swing after enduring major knee woes, particularly right knee woes as in 2011, it wouldn't be surprising. An abundance of swings like that would do nobody's right hip and knee much good.
As with most players, Utley's career splits against same-hand and opposite-hand pitching show a clear disparity.
2005, his first full year, was a particular struggle, as he hit only .219 agains lefthanders. In both home runs and batting average he has fared less well against LHP, averaging a home run every 28.2 PAs (LHP) vs 21.7 (RHP) and a batting average .26 points lower over an eight-year course . However, wOBA (.375L/.379R) and wRC+ (127L/130R) have remained very close, indicating that his overall offensive efficiency has compensated for those disparities. Utley's strikeout rate against LHP has also outstripped his rate against RHP in all years under consideration, save 2009, whereas his walk rate against both pitching has been variable and on the whole a wash.
However, the last two years against lefthanders have been brutally bad, moreso even than the table above suggests because 2010 was unaccountably Utley's best year ever. His 2010 SLG was a heady .476 against LHP with four more home runs in fewer than half the at bats, and his batting average was .28 points higher. (The fact that neither average approached the .300 level took a bit of the blush off that rose.) Lefties were almost exclusively responsible for the poor performance in the injury-bracketing June and August, but the same was the case with the September recovery, so 2010 still amply illustrates the outlier phenomenon. 2011 and 2012 were a southpaw trainwreck. For Chase Utley to be hitting below the Mendoza line against any kind of pitching is hard to grasp, but almost a full hundred-point discrepancy (.187L/.285R)! The margin was better in 2012 -- but not by much (.215L/.283R).
A fall-off of power against LHP was another feature of Utley's 2011-2012 seasons. This CBP spray chart for 2012 vs LHP shows a notable paucity of productive power (.355 SLG). Except for three dingers to right field, there's not much successful hitting going on to the deep parts of the ballpark. Compare this to the chart for 2009 vs lefties (keeping in mind that 2009 featured considerably more at bats), whom Utley slugged to the tune of a .545 average.
If a uniform explanation for the problem with lefthanders had anything to do with ball-strike recognition, you can't tell it from walks and strikeouts. 2010 and 2012 were good years for both, better than career norms against LHP as well as RHP. 2011 had a somewhat different look and was notable in two regards: significantly fewer walks and more strikeouts per PA, the second around the career norm against lefthanders, but highlighting how seldom Utley struck out when facing righthanders.
|PA per BB/K||BB%/LHP||BB%/RHP||K%/LHP||K%/RHP|
One of the sadder images of the 2011 season was the Chase Utley Head Down After Contact pose after putting a less than dynamic charge into the ball, as if Utley knew the instant he made contact that he just hadn't put solid wood on it. He wouldn't bother to look up to follow the flight of the ball as he exited the batter's box.
An odd feature of this Utley stat line since 2010 is the discrepancy between the contact made and the result of the contact.
|Season||Contact%||BABIP||SwK%||Contact% Outside Zone||% Pitches in Zone|
On the one hand, Utley made contact with the ball at a better rate in all three years than in any previous year and registered fewer swinging strikes than in any previous year. Both suggest that at least aspects of his plate discipline were intact. Yet his BABIP during those same years was also lower than in any previous year (when it was never below .300), suggesting that he was either seeing different pitching than previously, had altered bat speed or plane, or was simply unlucky. The last is always possible and the second is hard to quantify. Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley (click to view) argued prior to the 2011 season that lefties had begun pitching Utley a little farther out in each year from 2008 to 2010 and demonstrated his point with heat maps. Prior to the 2012 season, Mark Simon, an ESPN Stats and Information writer, in a piece entitled "What's next for Chase Utley?", provided (click to view) some fascinating heat map options covering the 2011 season for various combinations of batting average, slug, swing, and miss on all or selected pitch types. (The options can't be linked directly but require a click on the Click here to create your own Utley heat maps link.) They show a lack of success against LHP in and out of the strike zone, against RHP more out of the zone, both down and in and down and away. According to Fangraphs, in each of the last three years Utley has seen fewer pitches in the zone than in the past and has likewise swung and made contact with more pitches outside the zone than in any past season. The diminished success upon contact, therefore, could owe something to a variety of factors: fewer quality pitches to swing at, diminished aggression, or some lack of selectivity.
"Stoke" here is meant to describe whatever it is about a batter's swing that determines where in a horizontal or vertical plane he is hitting the ball. To a certain extent these things can be affected by deliberate choices on the batters part and what he has to work with in the way of pitches. The rest is a function of his mechanics. The last three years have seen some notable trends in Utley's hitting stroke.
Since 2010, Utley has become noticeably more of a groundball hitter. During his best five years, Utley's yearly GB average was 35.36%. In all 3 of the years that followed, his groundball rate has been in the 40 percentile range, somewhere it has never been before. Also noticeable is a batting average on flyballs far below his career average of .258, twice being under the Mendoza line and averaging .201. In two of those three years, his flyball rate was at a career low sub-40%, although 2011 and 2012 featured the curiosity of contrasting flyball and line drive rates. In 2011 Utley's line drive rate was a depressing 12.78%, far below any he had registered before. 2012 was a bounceback year (21.3%), pretty much in line with career norms. His fly ball rate, a career lowest and far below career norms, looks better when infield flyballs are subtracted.
|Season||Ground Ball %||Line Drive %||Fly Ball %||Fly Ball - IFFB %|
Not too long ago, a poster singled Utley out as notable for altering his stroke to take tough pitches to left field. That's a questionable view. Utley has never been a notable opposite field hitter, and it wouldn't be doing violence to the truth to say he is pretty much a pull hitter by preference. The 2008 spray chart previously displayed shows an outfield distribution of batted balls by a hitter who does hit to left field--but not with a whole lot of success. Almost all hits are from center to right field. The bee swarm on the infield dirt between first and second base gives a very clear idea which way ground balls travel. Utley's batting average to left field the last 3 years (around .250 on average) has reflected his career average, which in any case has varied from year to year. However, the right field pull tendency has been more pronounced in two of those three years. 2008 was an outlier year for hitting to LF (a career low 15.8% of the time), but other than that, 2010 and 2012 have been the only ones under 20%. 2010, the best of his last three seasons, is remarkable for the absence of long hits to left field -- and to center field as well (below left). Against southpaws, the emptiness is even more stark.
Numbers say that these have been three costly years. But even a diminished Chase Utley has been a valuable player. 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 few more home runs (19 vs 16 in 2010) and a somewhat lower wOBA (.350 vs .370 in 2010). I think his slash line is going to prove pretty accurate (with Utley ahead of it for most of the season and with some fade toward the end), but I'm more bullish on games played and plate appearances. 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 who is motivated to show that he is still an elite second baseman going forward, whether as a Phillie or on another team.
Beyond good health, 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? That's pretty much implicit in what the numbers say about the last three years. Start with a good mix of home run and extra base power to right field and center field. 22 home runs would look nice. 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. 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. Be aggressive, Chase. A line drive rate on his career average of 21% would be a good omen. If Utley were to try to take a few more tough outside pitches the other way, it could be seen as a sign of adjustment to the realities of how he is being pitched and what he's capable of doing with those pitches. And if Charlie Manuel chose some games against tough lefthand starters to give him a needed day off, that would be even better. But regardless, optimism is mandatory.
Note: Apologies for any browser issues on side-by-side graphics. They aren't easy to do in the editor.