You may have heard that Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are off to slow starts here in 2015.
Yes, that is Chase Utley batting a horrific .114/.198/.200 through the first month of the season, and his struggles have carried over to the defensive side of his game as well. Utley has already committed three errors on the season and has cost his team -1 Defensive Run Saved, resulting in an fWAR of -0.9.
Among 187 qualified Major League hitters so far this year, his .114 batting average is dead last. It is, without a doubt, the worst month of Utley's big league career. His wRC+ of 1 is 186th in baseball, better only than Matt Joyce. And as Fangraph's Craig Edwards noted, Utley hasn't exactly been tearing the cover off the ball.
Utley has not hit as many line drives as he has in the past with just a 17% rate so far this season compared to a career 21% rate and 25% last season. Most of the line drives have turned into ground balls. We do not yet know the full implication of the newer batted ball velocity information that we are receiving this season, but we do know that Utley has not hit the ball particularly hard in the early going. Chase Utley’s average batted ball velocity is 87.6 miles per hour, per Baseball Savant, ranking 121st out of 187 players with at least 30 at bats with data.
And yes that is Ryan Howard batting .194/.247/.417 with four homers and 10 RBIs so far this year, walking in just 5.1% of his plate appearances while striking out 25.6% of the time. He's worth -0.1 fWAR so far, continuing a trend that began after his Achilles injury on the last play of the 2011 playoffs.
Chase Utley is 36. Ryan Howard is 35. Both are nearing the twilight of their careers, and it's certainly understandable if Phillies fans are wondering if both players should be thinking about retirement.
Heading into this season, it appeared as if Howard was closer to retirement than his long-time infield mate Utley. Last year, Howard was worth -0.3 fWAR and has been getting worse every season. Utley, however, played well last year, putting up a 4.5 fWAR, his highest total since 2010.
Now, let me state for the record that this is NOT a piece that is saying both players should retire. In fact, this piece is the exact OPPOSITE of that sentiment.
The decision to retire is a personal one. Each individual handles it differently, and nowhere is that more evident than in how the greatest hitter and greatest pitcher in Phillies history decided to step away from the game.
In 1989, Mike Schmidt was coming off a season in which he only played 108 games and put up a career-low fWAR of 2.0. He was 39 years old, and through 42 games was hitting .203/.297/.372 with six home runs in 172 PAs. One afternoon in San Francisco, he let a ground ball go through his legs to load the bases in a game against the Giants. The very next hitter, Will Clark, hit a grand slam.
Schmidt would say later, it was at that moment, he decided to retire. The following day, this happened.
Steve Carlton, on the other hand, went the other way.
In 1986, Carlton was 41 years old and coming off a 1-8 season in which he made just 16 starts, but still had a 3.33 ERA. However, in 16 starts for the Phils that year, he had an ERA of 6.18, and the team released him in June.
It would have seemed a natural time for Carlton to step away from the game at that point, but he didn't. Instead, he latched onto the San Francisco Giants, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins until 1988, when he finished his career at 43 years old with an ERA of 16.76 in 9.2 innings for the Twins.
One player got out quickly. The other hung on for what seemed to be too long.
There simply is no road map to do this.
For the record, I think it's unlikely Utley is done. His BABIP of .102 is the lowest in all of baseball, which means he's suffered from a little bit of bad luck this month as well. There is more confidence he will recover from his early-season funk than there is Howard will once again be an above-replacement-level player again.
Still, even if this is the end for both, only they can decide when it's time to go. And I wouldn't bet on either player riding off into the sunset anytime soon.