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Tactical Assault: Appreciating Chase Utley's Swing

The brevity and extreme efficiency of Chase Utley's swing stands in contrast to the smooth, loopy gracefulness of Ryan Howard's. That uniqueness of Utley's swing is worth appreciating.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

During the Phillies heyday of the late aughts and early tens of the 21st century, they were known for their offensive formidability. They won their 2008 World Series on the strength of one of the best offenses in baseball. Their pitching rotation, beyond Cole Hamels, consisted of Brett Myers, Joe Blanton, and Jamie Moyer. Suffice it to say that pitching was not what carried the Phillies. The perception of those Phillies teams has become a bit obscured since that era of greatness closed with the four-aces rotation, but the offense was 4th in baseball and 1st in the NL in runs scored from 2007-2011.

Much of that offense was produced by two players--Ryan Howard and Chase Utley--who didn't differ much in the quality of their offensive contributions during that time but differed greatly in the aesthetic of that production. Ryan Howard was more or less a typical power hitter. His swing was loopy and majestic, but also almost shockingly powerful in how far it could cause a baseball to travel. Anyone remotely acquainted with baseball could identify Howard as a dinger machine just by watching him stand in the batters's box and take a swing.

Chase Utley is a bit of a different story. His swing is more of a tactical, targeted attack. Like a lion crouching in the tall grass, Utley unleashes his quick, devastating violence on the baseball at precisely the optimal moment; not a tick before or a tick after. Take this home run from the 2009 World Series against the Yankees:

An Utley home run--or any hit for that matter--more resembles my attempts at using a fly swatter than it does the graceful, ideal swing of, say, Ken Griffey, Jr. In the above GIF, A.J. Burnett throws what looks to be a meatball right down the middle of the plate, yet, for what seems like too long a time, Chase Utley just stands there. Then, suddenly, there it is. His bat is in the zone crushing that pitch we know should be launched.

And that's it. There's no flourish, no dramatic bat-flip or viewing of the ball. Utley's swing comes out of nowhere and just as soon disappears.

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze speculates that true thought cannot occur independent of some preceding violence done to one's psyche or world-view. Similarly, Chase Utley's swing speculates that no baseball can be hit without a prior sudden assault on its being. Utley's home runs were a sudden rush not only with regard to the brevity of the swing action, but also with his patented sprint around the bases.

At first, before you get acclimated to it as a fan, an Utley dinger leaves you wanting more. With Ryan Howard, you watch the him pause and look at the work he has done; you watch the ball arc unfathomably high; you watch him carry his large frame around the bases at the sort of leisurely pace that naturally follows a home run. Ryan Howard gives you a chance to savor the home run experience.

Chase Utley doesn't give you that, but that doesn't make his homers any less of a thrill. If Ryan Howard dingers mirror the experience of drinking a Corona on the porch on a warm day, Chase Utley's feel like a shot of bourbon in the middle of a night out. Sure, it takes less time to consume, but you know that going in. The adrenaline rush of a home run off the bat of Chase Utley is unmatched by that of any other player I have encountered.

Unfortunately, due to a combination of injury and age, we haven't been able to witness as many Chase Utley home runs of late. After a terribly slow start to 2015 and being placed on the disabled list with an ankle injury, it was fair to wonder whether we would get to see another classic Chase Utley swing.

Luckily, he came off the disabled list earlier this month in vintage form and provided us with one last home run Saturday night. On the first pitch he saw in his second at-bat against Jimmy Nelson, Chase Utley pounced on a fastball and sent it on a line drive that just cleared the right field wall.

I'm not sure a single person in Miller Park or watching on TV thought that ball was going to end up over the outfield fence, but that's where it landed. It wasn't an incredible display of power, but then again, Utley homers rarely are. What it was, though, was the same short and violent swat that has propelled 233 home runs out of ballparks during Chase Utley's Phillies tenure.

Utley's urgent assaults on baseballs were more at home in the culture of Philadelphia more than they will be in southern California, a land where their World Champions lack a middle name. So, goodbye, Chase Utley. I, for one, am glad that your stay here was longer than your home run trot. Don't let the West Coast slow you down.