A good rule of thumb with baseball is that a player's hot or cold streak in the beginning of the season is usually not worth getting worked up over. The fact that it's the beginning of the season and there are no other stats for the year to moderate the start amplifies the hot or cold streak.
Think of it this way - if a player hits .400/.550/.750 over the course of the first 15 games, that will be the glitzy stat line that appears next to his name. But, if he does it over the course of games 86 to 100, his overall stat line is going to be much more mundane.
So it's always worth wondering, when a player has a hot or cold start, if the player has done this before at some point in his career. Not that it means anything particularly predictive to know this information, but as a fan, it is certainly comforting to know if a player has had terrible streaks and yet overcome them to still be productive.
Which is what I've been wondering about Chase Utley's start to this season. We all know that he's been terrible in his first 21 games. His triple slash line looks like a misprint - .114/.198/.200 for an OPS of .398. Even worse, his wOBA is .167 and his wRC+ is a ridiculous 1 (for those not too familiar with this stat, it's one of those where 100 is league average).
Take out his 2 home run game against Matt Harvey and it's even worse - .075/.156/.075 for an OPS of .230 (and a roughly calculated (thanks schmenkman!) wOBA of .098 and wRC+ of -47). These are numbers we normally associate with pitchers at the plate - bad ones. These are not numbers we associate with a potential future Hall of Famer.
Has this ever happened before to Chase? Amidst his otherwise stellar career, has he had any funk this deep before?
The clear answer sifting through his game logs for 21 game stretches is absolutely not. Chase Utley has never had anything close to this kind of a funk. Putting aside the overlap from the end of last season (more on that in a bit), here are Utley's worst three 21-game stretches before this one, with the current one at the end for comparison:
May 25, 2010 to June 17, 2010: .158/.270/.184 for a .454 OPS
August 26, 2011 to September 22, 2011: .175/.250/.275 for a .525 OPS
August 18, 2014 to September 11, 2014: .182/.244/.247 for a .491 OPS
April 6, 2015 to April 29, 2015: .114/.198/.200 for a .398 OPS
In other words, Utley has never had this level of failure before. He's come somewhat close, but what he's doing now is in a different league.
But is there reason for optimism? That Utley can break out of this? Here, I think we can say yes, though it has to be qualified. The qualification is that Utley has been struggling for a while now. If you go back to last year, from August 17 through yesterday, Utley has had a really terrible triple-slash line - .172/.245/.256 for a .501 OPS. That's 58 games of Michael-Martinez-esque production from him. The funk he's in currently is worse, but he's been having troubles now for two and a half months of baseball.
Still, the reason to hope that this is not the new normal for Utley is that his batting average on balls in play is off-the-charts low. The lowest BABIP Utley has ever had for a season is .261 in 2011. So far this year, he's at .102. That figure is the worst of any major league player who has enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. It's simply an unsustainable number.
With a few more line drives falling for hits, ground balls finding holes, and fly balls finding gaps or getting to the wall, the hope here is that Chase should be back to some semblance of his old self.