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Chase Utley and the Impossible-to-Quantify

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A trade, a slide, an all-time great Phillie, and the blazing hatred of a few million Mets fans

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

I’m guessing at least a few posters here are aware of, and follow, @dick_nixon on Twitter. As someone fascinated by history and public affairs as much as baseball, I’m hugely fond of this account, which I consider less parody than possession: the guy (who outed himself as playwright Justin Sherin in a Vox.com feature last week) absolutely nails Nixon’s affect and mindset, at least as I understand it from dozens of books and archival research.

As you’d expect, @dick_nixon primarily writes about politics. But his second subject is sports, particularly baseball. The 102 year-old New Jersey resident mostly favors the local teams, including the Mets (and Phillies, whom I’m pretty sure are Sherin’s home team), but honors his California roots through close attention to the Dodgers. So it’s not surprising that the NLDS is high up on his radar. He’s been opining on Chase Utley’s infamous slide, and as you might guess from Tricky Dick, he doesn’t have a problem with it. But it was something else he said about Utley yesterday that really caught my attention:

Ever since we started TGP more than ten years ago, we’ve generally made a point of staying away from narrative-driven explanations for why things happen in baseball. But the more I thought about this, the more I struggled to dismiss it. At the point when the Dodgers traded for Utley, they were two games up in the NL West. Their starting second baseman, Howie Kendrick, was injured but would be coming back before the end of the year. Utley had been injured too, of course, and while he was in the midst of a hot streak for the Phils, his full-season work was pretty ugly.

So the move was probably about the postseason. Meaning that the Dodgers brain trust of team president Andrew Friedman and GM Farhan Zaidi, two guys with platinum-class sabermetric credentials, were thinking late-game matchups and/or some variant of clubhouse presence/"Good Face." Had it been Ruben Amaro on the acquiring end, the mocking laughter would have echoed across the Internet.

But put aside the surrounding noise, and think about what Utley actually did in the seventh inning Saturday night. He came up with a man on first and one out against a tiring Noah Syndergaard, over 100 pitches in his first playoff start. He gave the runner space to steal second off Syndergaard, who’s slow to the plate. He singled to put men at the corners. On the next play, a potential double play, he took out the relay man to make sure the tying run scored.

Now the subjective part: I also think the play absolutely changed the tenor of that game. (Maybe not as much as the umps foolishly calling Chase safe—he never touched second base, and I don’t get why the "neighborhood play" wouldn’t have applied anyway—but still.) The Dodgers scored three more runs in the inning, and went on to win a game they absolutely needed.

It looks like Utley will play tonight while his appeal is under consideration. Interestingly, through his mostly dismal first couple months of 2015 with the Phillies, his one great game was a two-homer outburst against Mets ace Matt Harvey, who’s starting tonight and has strongly hinted retaliation is on the table. @dick_nixon, who might or might not remember that game, has been calling for Don Mattingly to start Chase and ram it down the Mets’ throats.

I don’t pretend to know what’s real in all of this. The next two or three games might tell whether or not Utley’s play unnerved the young Mets enough to derail their first October trip in nine years. Or maybe the Dodgers’ bigger payroll and better overall talent will just prove decisive. Or the Mets, a much better team at Citi Field, might just brush the last game aside and roll into the NLCS. But it’s interesting to me that Chase Utley, the one Phillie of my lifetime whom the quants and the story guys loved with equal fervor, is at the middle of it all again, in as pure a hero/villain role as you could ask.