Putting aside last night's career-first three-double game for Chase Utley, you'd be forgiven a bit if it was hard for you to remember just how good Utley can be at the plate.
Even though it seems like forever ago, he actually was putting together quite an amazing season through the Phillies' first 43 games. From the start of the season through May 23, in 184 plate appearances, Utley had a great .307/.429/.587 triple-slash line, good for a 1.016 OPS. His counting stats of 10 home runs, 23 RBI, and 34 runs scored were also flashy, and it was easy to assume that he was going to have another incredible season proving that he was among the top second basemen in baseball history.
But then everything changed starting with the Phillies' 44th game on May 25. You might think that Utley's problems began with his hand injury on June 28, but that would ignore just how poorly he was hitting the month before that. From May 25 through June 28, Utley had 132 plate appearances and a .237/.318/.307 triple-slash line, good for a .625 OPS. That's a huge drop-off from the 1.016 OPS for his first 184 plate appearances.
Utley then spent over 6 weeks on the DL. He returned August 17 and picked up right where he left off. Since his return, he's had a .241/.362/.328 line for a .690 OPS. (Thanks to last night, Utley's post-DL OPS jumped over .100 points, as going into last night he had a .208/.344/.245 line for an awful .589 OPS.)
Putting that all together, Utley has had two completely different seasons:
There are a couple of things that could be going on here. One option is that, as I've written about in years past, Utley is a hitter who goes on these Jekyll/Hyde runs. This could be just another one of his radical swings as a hitter. However, another option is that Utley was hurt long before he hurt his hand in late June. Right before the end of his hot streak, Utley missed two games on May 17 and 18 for "flulike symptoms." Could that two-day break have been something other than the flu? Could it have been the start of the rumored knee injury that Davey Lopes talked to Baseball Prospectus about in mid-June? The timing of Utley's absence along with the start of his cold streak works almost perfectly.
The thing with Utley is that we'll never know. His stoic public persona (with the exception of his declaration of "World Fucking Champions!") will never give away the goods about what has happened to him this season. Yes, we all know he had a hand injury that kept him out, but the team had to give information about that as Utley went on the DL. Anything else is a mystery.
What we do know, however, is that as Utley goes, the team goes. The other hitters have had hot and cold streaks throughout the year, but the team's production is tied to Utley. In the 43 games Utley was looking like an MVP candidate, the team averaged 5.28 runs per game. Since then, with Utley slumping, injured, on the DL, or some combination of the three, the team has averaged a full run less per game, at 4.26.
If last night's game is any indication of health or a breakout for Utley, the Phillies are going to reap the rewards. If not, well, it's going to be a tough September.