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Utley Given Mental Break: Can It Help?

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We've been wringing our hands over Chase Utley's hitting. Now he is getting most of the week off to clear his head. Should we expect him to rebound on the other end? Only if he can fix his timing.

At this point, I'm sure Utley would throw the bat at the ball all the time if it would get him a base hit on ball in play.
At this point, I'm sure Utley would throw the bat at the ball all the time if it would get him a base hit on ball in play.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Chase Utley has been given some time to rest and take a mental break. He had last night's game off, will have tonight's game off, and the team has an off-day on Thursday. The Phillies did not officially call it a mental break, but Sandberg agreed with a reporter that it could be called that. In an unusually humane conversation about a player on his team, Sandberg sympathized with Utley's bad luck and even dismissed that Utley is having any mechanical problems because he's still hitting line drives. Let's talk about this.

Surely, you know why Utley is getting time off. He has struggled intensely for the first month of the season. If you don't know that, then welcome back from your exploration of LV 426. I hope you only brought back rare and valuable minerals and not an organic killing machine that will decimate the Earth's human population.

You might be skeptical that a mental break can make much of a difference. After all, Utley's struggles and his age and his injury history suggest that he's fallen into a steep decline. But I think we should be more optimistic, which is not to say optimistic full-stop. I want here to present some of the details of his struggles and offer a hypothesis to explain them. I am not certain whether Utley will rebound to an above replacement level player. But I think I can at least convince you to hold judgment in abeyance.

I'll start with Utley's well discussed accumulated output in his first month. Utley is slashing .103/.182/.207 with a .082 BABIP*. He's hit 3 HRs, but when the ball doesn't leave the yard, it almost always lands in a glove. In the beginning of April, Utley's failures on balls in play seemed like bad luck. By the middle of April, the failures started to cause a stir. Now, they seem like a trend. Many who write about the Phillies and many who discuss the Phillies on the internet have been searching for evidence that could distinguish whether Utley, who was just last season an above league average hitter and hit well in spring training, has suffered a sudden, massive decline or is experiencing an extremely rare curse by Base Ba'al. I don't think I've found that evidence; however, I think if we look at his batted ball splits by type, hardness of contact, and direction, we'll see that Utley is currently too far ahead of the pitches he's hitting. Furthermore, if we study how pitchers are attacking him this season, we'll see that pitchers are challenging Utley with fastballs and Utley has become a bit less selective about which ones he swings at. To sum up these two general results into an even more general surmise: Utley's timing is off.

This post will be a bit long; so, please, bear with me. I was spurred to this research when I stumbled onto Brooks Baseball's player card for Utley and it read, "he has an exceptionally poor eye" for fastballs in 2015. That doesn't sound like the Utley we've been watching for a decade. So, what's going on?

Throat-clearing about BABIP

As Bill Baer reminded us in a recent post about Utley*, we should not reason from hitter BABIP as we would pitcher BABIP. (Indeed, I would argue we shouldn't reason from pitcher BABIP as we do, but that is for another post.) When a pitcher has a wonky BABIP—one much higher or lower than the .290-.300 range—we immediately infer that the pitcher's results on balls in play are bound to regress toward that mean range. We do this because we know that pitchers have very little control over their batted-ball outcomes and that most pitchers cluster around the above range. Hitters, however, have much more control over their outcomes on batted balls. Or, to put that more precisely, hitters' outcomes on batted balls flow from their talents and skills. A hitter who hits the ball on the ground will have higher BABIPs than a hitter who hits a lot of fly balls because fly balls in play turn into outs more frequently than ground balls do. Similarly, speedy hitters will have higher BABIPs than slower hitters. And so on. We don't rightly know all of what constitutes a hitter's BABIP skill, but it is clearly a skill differentiable among MLB hitters.

Of course, that BABIP is a hitting skill does not entail that hitters do not have somewhat large swings in their BABIPs from year to year. They can and do. And these swings are to some extent a matter of random chance (although we don't know to what extent). Nevertheless, hitters' BABIPs oscillate above and below a BABIP that is specific to the hitter. Sabermetricians often use the concept ‘True Talent' (TT)* to refer to what a player would produce if chance were removed from the process. So, we can say that a hitter's BABIP is a product of the hitter's TT interacting with chance.*

What does this mean for Utley and his struggles? Well, it means that we cannot simply write-off his extremely low BABIP for two reasons. First, hitter BABIP does not regress to the mean the way (some think) pitcher BABIP does. Second, it is possible that Utley's extremely low BABIP is caused by a sudden erosion of skill that leaves him below the BABIP threshold for MLB hitters. This is why we have to search for a cause of Utley's struggles.

Batted Ball Types

I'll start with some territory that has already been covered in many places: batted-ball types. In order to present a complete picture, I have to rehash this information, but lots have already commented on the changes in Utley's splits this season so far. Here's the relevant data:

LD%

GB%

FB%

2013

19.5

38.0

42.5

2014

24.6

39.3

36.1

2015

16.0

48.0

36.0

Career

20.6

38.0

41.3

As you can see, since 2104 Utley has exchanged line drives for groundballs. Because line drives tend to turn into hits much more frequently than groundballs do, fewer line drives will tend to mean a lower BABIP. Moreover, Utley has had a very low BABIP on his line drives. He's hitting .333 on liners as compared to a .675 league average. So, we might think that this lack of liners and lack of success when he hits them helps explain Utley's struggles. However, Utley's batting line would still be rather bad even if he were succeeding on them at a league average rate (~.600 OPS). Even if we think Utley is suffering bad luck on balls in play, that would not explain away his struggles. We shouldn't stop the analysis at Utley's BABIP on liners.

Nor should we end the analysis with Utley's dip in line drives. First, the 8% drop between 2014 and 2015 a loss of about 40 fewer liners over the course of a full season or about 20 hits, assuming those liners become grounders and a league average BABIP on both kinds of batted ball. 20 hits over a season is not the difference between a .270 hitter and a .100 hitter. Second, the correlation between LD% and hitting success is loose. Compare Utley's 2011 and 2012. In those years he BABIPed .261 and .269 respectively. His LD% in those years were 12.7% and 21.4%. That's approximately the same change in rate as between 2014 and 2015. It would be a mistake to think that LD% could adequately explain what has happened to Utley, even if his BABIP on liners this season were more in line with league average.

So, if batted ball types don't provide insight where else might we turn? Well, batted-ball type analysis has always been a cypher for how hard a batter is striking the ball. As a member of the public, we haven't had access to hard-hit data and had to substitute other data for it. But now Fangraphs has added BIS hard-hit data to its pages. Let's take a look at that to see what we can glean.

Hardness of Contact

The hard-hit data is striking. According to it, Utley is making significantly weaker contact this season than he has at any point previously in his career. Here's the data

Soft%

Medium%

Hard%

2013

14.7

51.0

34.3

2014

13.1

56.5

30.4

2015

15.8

68.4

15.8

Career

14.0

50.8

35.2

Utley is hitting the ball hard at half the rate he did last season and less than half the rate for his career. Despite being in decline Utley as recently as 2013 maintained hard-hit splits at essentially his career rates. And last season Utley was still close to his career averages. But this season Utley has exchanged a large chunk of hard-hit balls for medium hit balls. This shift in hardness of contact seems to be a smoking gun.

But this data is not without hazards. First, I don't know at what rate on average each bucket turns into a hit. Without that information it is difficult to estimate the impact that this shift in hardness of contact has had on Utley's results. Second, bucketing has its own dangers. Contact at the margins of neighboring buckets will be very similar in their outcomes. So, this data might overemphasize how much force Utley has lost on his batted balls.

Nevertheless, given what we've watched over the first month of the season it is not surprising that Utley is striking the ball less powerfully and that this is probably part of the story of his struggles. His lack of success on balls in play is to some extent caused by weaker contact. But while this is probably a proximate cause it is hardly an explanation. It sill leaves open whether the weaker contact is caused by a loss of bat-speed, random chance, or something else. I don't think I can answer that question definitively. But in what follows I'll suggest that the next link in the explanatory chain is that Utley's timing is off.

Direction of BIPs

You might expect that if Utley's bat-speed were in sudden and sharp decline, we would see a couple things. One: Utley would be striking out at a higher rate. Two: he would be having trouble pulling the ball. It turns out neither is the case. Utley's Ks per 100 PAs is right around his career average, although up from last season. In fact, his swinging strike rate is as low as it has ever been. And, of even greater interest, Utley is hitting more balls up the middle and to the pull side than normal. In other words, Utley is not struggling to get around on pitches. Quite the opposite, he's getting around on more pitches than ever before. Here's the directional data:

Pull%

Center%

Opposite%

2013

42.8

35.1

22.1

2014

43.9

35.1

21.1

2015

47.4

40.8

11.8

Career

45.6

33.1

21.3

As you can see, Utley is using the opposite field much less than he has throughout his career. Many of the balls he used to hit the other way are now going up the middle, while some are going to the pull side. The problem hardly seems to be that Utley is behind on pitches.

If we combine this directional data with the shift in Utley's batted ball types, we can infer that Utley angle of contact this season is much different than it has been in the past. He's both on top of the ball more and making contact earlier in the zone. Furthermore, we might suspect that on pitches on the outer-third of the plate, the ones that are easiest to drive to the opposite side, Utley is getting out in front and driving into the ground. Imagine the bat traveling through the zone and making contact on an outside pitch. If the bat is angled toward the opposite field, the ball will tend to be further down from the end of the bat and, thereby, closer to the sweet spot. As the bat is pulled across the plate, the ball will travel toward the end of the bat, weakening the contact and, because the bat is not flat but angled upward slightly, taking the ball from the flattest possible face of the bat to the curved underside of the barrel. The difference is of course very small. But the effect on how the ball comes off the bat can be large.

Even on balls in the middle of the plate and inside, if Utley is ahead of those pitches, he will make weaker contact, toward the end of the bat, and likely drive them into the ground. As this spray chart shows Utley is pulling a lot of ground balls to the right side of the infield, which would result in a lot of outs against a normal defense and Utley usually faces a shift.

Utley Spray 2015

So let's hypothesize that Utley is generally out in front of pitches. This is a timing issue. He's starting his swing a bit too soon and unable to keep the sweet spot of the bat on the ball as much as he used to. But why is his timing off? Is it just a hitch in his swing? Is it overcompensation for lost bat-speed? Has he simply failed to adjust to an adjustment by pitchers against him? I can't answer these questions with much certainty. I can, however, show that pitchers have made an adjustment against Utley and that Utley has yet to adjust back.

Fastballs

Remember way back at the beginning of this post, I noted that Brooks Baseball claims that Utley has had an exceptionally bad eye on fastballs this season. He swings at fastballs in the zone at a rate rather close to the rate at which he swings at fastballs out of the zone, relative to the league average. For Utley alone, however, the change is not that drastic. He has attacked fastballs off the plate throughout his career and done so strategically. So, while his strikezone discrimination on fastballs this season is low even for him it is not as bad as the comparison to league average makes it sound. [Warning: I am going to reason from small samples because that's all we have. The following heatmaps from 2015 should not be taken to be useful to project the future but they do describe what has happened so far.]

Nevertheless, his fastball discrimination has gotten worse, which itself is further evidence that Utley's timing is off. If he is starting his swing too early, then he has to commit to swinging too early to hold back on fastballs he'd rather not swing at. But that is not the whole story. Pitchers are both throwing more hard stuff to Utley and locating that hard stuff more to the outside of the plate.

Over his career Utley has seen around 65% hard stuff both overall and during April. This season he's seeing over 70% hard stuff, which is also well above the league average for hard stuff, which is right around 65%. Pitchers are clearly more willing to attack him with hard stuff than they have been in the past.

More specifically, pitchers are pounding Utley down and away more than ever. Compare hard stuff locations over his career to the locations this season.

Utley Hardstuff Career

Utley Hardstuff 2015

Now, Utley has done a good job laying off that hard stuff, refusing to turn it over into groundballs into the shift. But as these heatmaps show, he's going after more hard stuff up and away.

Utley Swing Hard Career

Utley Swing Hard 2015

If Utley's timing is off and he's attacking pitches up and away, pulling them or knocking them up the middle rather than taking them to the opposite field, it's no surprise that he's making weaker contact and hitting more balls on the ground. The question is we are still left with is, why? Why is Utley going after those pitches and why is his timing off? And will a mental break help cure his ills?

Wishy-washy Conclusion

My hypothesis is that Utley has a timing problem. He is making weaker contact and hitting fewer line drives because he is out ahead of pitches he used to stay back on and drive. I think that all the evidence taken together makes this hypothesis at least a significant part of the best explanation of Utley's struggles this season. However, I don't think we can exclude bad luck, given just how bad his struggles have been, nor that the shift has had an effect on his outcomes. And we cannot be sure whether his timing issue is caused by a loss of bat-speed, a mechanical alteration to his swing, injury, something else, all of it, none of it.

Despite the sea of ignorance I just laid out, I think we can at least conclude that we should not be convinced that Utley is "done," just as we shouldn't conclude that Utley is bound to bounce back. This week's mental break might allow Utley to fix his timing and pull himself out of this pit of outs. According to those with access, Utley is studying film and working on his form, as he always has. If the cause of the timing issue is simply mechanical or a matter of adjusting to a new way he's being pitched, then there is reason for optimism that Utley can turn things around this season. But I cannot responsibly affirm the antecedent in that condition, no matter how much I want to.

*BABIP stands for batting average on balls in play, which excludes plate appearances that end in a strikeout, walk, a homerun, or a sacrifice bunt. It measures how frequently a batter records a hit when the defense has a chance to make a play on the ball and the batter has not intentionally made the play easier for the defense.

**I have lots of worries about the usefulness of this concept. But it helps with this first approximation of how BABIP works. It would take a long, concentrated post to work through the tensions of the TT concept.

***As an example of a tension, you might object here that BABIP is a product of TT interacting with chance AND ENVIRONMENT, i.e., other players, stadia, etc.. But if TT is a useful concept then it must already be environment-relative because almost everything we could know about TT is produced within the environment of MLB. Very few baseball skills are measurable outside of a baseball diamond.

****This post overlaps with that post, but I hope I can push the analysis a bit further than Bill did, which means likely I'm being a bit more irresponsible than he.