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Chase Utley: Public Enemy Number One

Posted By Bill Baer On October 26, 2010 @ 7:00 am In MLB,Philadelphia Phillies,Sabermetrics | 58 Comments

For a long time, Chase Utley has been beloved in Philadelphia. Although he’s not much of a talker, he’s had quite a few iconic moments as a Phillie for what he’s said and done, baseball talent aside. Remember the 2008 All-Star Game where he was booed by New York fans? Or his great speech in Citizens Bank Park during the team’s victory parade? Utley may have been Harry Kalas’ favorite player this side of Michael Jack Schmidt, onceĀ exclaimingChase Utley, you are the man!” when he scored on an infield single. How about Utley’s historically great defensive play to nail Jason Bartlett at home plate in Game 5 of the ’08 World Series? Or his flipping the ball back with understated attitude, causing the benches to clear, after Jonathan Sanchez hit him with a pitch in Game Six of the NLCS?

Let Mac from the TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia sum up the love for Utley:

Unfortunately, the Phillies lost the NLCS to the Giants in six games, thanks in part to Utley’s .182/.333/.227 triple-slash line and multiple defensive miscues. Combine that with a career-low offensive output in the regular season which included a thumb injury that caused him to spend 49 days on the disabled list, the love for Utley is starting to dissipate.

The recency effect and Utley’s understated personality are causing people to forget about his elite production both offensively and defensively. Earlier this year, I made the case that Utley is, by far, the best defensive second baseman in baseball. Even factoring in his poor defensive showing in the post-season, I stand by that.

The various Sabermetric defensive stats tend to disagree with each other much more frequently than their offensive counterparts, but the one thing they do agree on is that Utley is an elite defender. Over the last three seasons, no one has a higher UZR/150 than Utley. He is second to Mark Ellis in Revised Zone Rating (RZR) .862 to .842, has made the most Out Of Zone plays (OOZ) with 137, and racked up the most Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), nearly doubling the second-highest total of Ellis, 60 to 33.

Offensively, over the past three seasons, Utley has the highest wOBA at .391, 18 points ahead of runner-up Dustin Pedroia. He has the third-highest speed score at 6.0, trailing Ian Kinsler and Brian Roberts.

Despite Utley’s place atop baseball as the best second baseman and arguably the second-most valuable player at any position, he is being bandied about in trade rumors. His down year in 2010 is being used as evidence of decline, the small sample of at-bats and defensive opportunities in the post-season as reason for the Phillies to shake things up, change the culture, and get back to the organization’s winning ways.

Leading the charge is radio host Mike Missanelli of 97.5 The Fanatic. You may remember Missanelli from his shouting match with Keith Law when the two were debating the merits of the large Ryan Howard contract extension. While I’m confident that he was trying to drive up the station’s listenership based on his previous actions and his reputation, his words do have a ripple effect in the baseball community. Some people actually view him as an authority in baseball analysis and will take his thoughts seriously.

I want to stifle the “trade Utley” crowd before it ever becomes a crowd. I’m overreacting to one madman, but I’ve seen the way irrational sentiment can sweep through Philadelphia and it is not pretty. It is ludicrous to consider trading Utley for a multitude of reasons, just as it was ludicrous to hand Howard a $125 million contract extension. As mentioned above, Utley is a rare breed of player, arguably the second-most valuable player in baseball. If Utley’s gone, who replaces him? Do you move Placido Polanco to second and sign a free agent third baseman like Adrian Beltre?

The Phillies have Utley under contract for three more years at $15 million apiece, decidedly below market value. Polanco will be in town for two more seasons and possibly a third if the Phillies are content with his level of production at the time. How much would it take to sign Beltre? Multiple years, and considering the type of season he had with the Boston Red Sox in 2010, the Phillies should probably expect to shell out upwards of $30 million. And that’s assuming that the Phillies can sign Beltre — they’ll have competition for the third baseman’s services, of course.

Additionally, the Phillies would be buying high on Beltre and selling low on Utley, two things that should be avoided in any walk of life. It would make more sense to trade Utley after, say, his 2008 season when he had a .915 OPS and had won a World Series. While Utley’s actual value may not have been drastically different, the perception of his value would have been. How much value would the Phillies be able to get out of Utley following a career-worst offensive season in which he was injured and ineffective in the post-season? And from whom could they get that value? While any team should jump at the chance to acquire Utley, the remaining $45 million on his contract is a burden on some teams, thus reducing his trade value even further. Other teams already have second basemen, and other teams consider themselves too out-of-the-picture to jump in the conversation.

Are the Phillies going to trade Utley? No. Absolutely not. But this wasn’t a response to the possibility of the trade, but to the environment that allows these ridiculous rumors to propagate. Philadelphia has run some athletes out of town and scared off potential free agent signings (Yankees fans may prevent a Cliff Lee signing, by the way). During the depression circa 1995-2002, that was somewhat understandable. On the heels of four consecutive NL East titles and one world championship, there is no need to be so irrational and reactionary.

The Phillies, and Chase, are fine.


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