Chase Utley and Accountability

Chase Utley has been the subject of many discussions lately, including two posts here and a Marcus Hayes tangent in an online live chat for the Philadelphia Daily News. Among Hayes’ many criticisms of Utley, he called the second baseman “seldom accountable” and then “condescending and rarely accountable”, adding that he “hides from criticism”.

It wasn’t something that I felt worthy of even a snarky remark, as I felt it was simply an irate journalist trying to sully the good name of an athlete who wasn’t making his job easy. And that was probably the case and it is the case a lot of the time.

However, David Hale wrote a fair assessment of Utley’s accountability to the media and to the fans. I urge you to read it.

What stood out to me:

During my 14 weeks on the beat, I covered about 60 games. I would estimate that Utley made himself available to the media after about five of those games. When he does talk, he says nothing. He is vague and unresponsive to even direct, legitimate questions. He doesn’t necessarily lie, but he certainly glosses over significant parts of the truth at times.

[…]

We asked Charlie throughout the postseason about Utley’s health, and Manuel’s only response was, “He tells me he’s healthy.” Not that Utley would ever say anything different.

And this is where Utley’s lack of accountability with the fans hurts him. He came back from a serious injury to his hand, one that directly impacted his swing, two weeks early. He never quite looked right at the plate after that. But he also would never let on that his hand was still hurting or that he was having trouble recovering and getting his timing and strength back.

While none of the above should surprise you, it should help you understand the writers more when they bring this stuff up.

Still, is it relevant or newsworthy? It was Utley’s quiet demeanor and play-through-everything mindset that endeared him to fans and the writers in the first place. It seems awfully convenient that, following a disappointing showing in the post-season (and a disappointing regular season), that these qualities are now detriments. Why, when the Phillies won it all in 2008, did the writers never complain about Utley not talking? When Utley hit five home runs in last year’s World Series against the New York Yankees, how come no one questioned his accountability then? Even during his injury-riddled 2010 regular season, no one spoke ill of Utley.

But once the Phillies were out of the playoffs, Utley became a huge problem.

People need a scapegoat for losing. The writers went to Ryan Howard first, for having no post-season RBI and for taking that called strike three to end the NLCS, but stopped upon realizing he was one of the better performers in the post-season. Placido Polanco? The expectations aren’t high enough. Shane Victorino? Same thing. Carlos Ruiz? Fan favorite and he was never supposed to be relied on for offense anyway. And he called Roy Halladay‘s no-hitter. Raul Ibanez is old and overpaid and everybody realizes it. Jayson Werth was awesome. Bench guys were irrelevant.

By process of elimination, Utley was made the scapegoat. His lackluster post-season wasn’t enough to send him to the gallows, though, so that’s where all of these extraneous details come into play. Utley becomes the tragic hero so the Phillies’ 2010 eulogy has an interesting hook, and so that writers have intriguing stories to help sell newspapers, increase listener- and viewership, and attract page views. The flaying of Chase Utley has little to do with his individual performance and personality traits, and a lot to do with his team’s overall finish. Had the Phillies won it all, Utley’s muted personality would instead have been described as “quiet leadership” or that he was “leading by example”.

In science, it is considered bad form to make a conclusion, then go back and do research and run tests to bolster that conclusion. It should be considered — and I would argue is — considered bad form in writing to have two different storylines mapped out for the same result.

Shane Victorino’s Platoon Splits

In his five years as an everyday player for the Phillies, Shane Victorino has been an enigma. Despite some questionable plate discipline, he’s been a productive hitter. Despite some circuitous routes to fly balls, he’s played above-average defense in the outfield. Despite a career 45-point platoon split (in wOBA), he’s a switch-hitter. Despite being universally hated by fans of baseball’s other 29 teams, he is well-liked by Phillies fans.

Try and figure out Victorino and you’ll be left scratching your head.

There is, however, one group of people that have figured him out. As mentioned, Victorino has a drastic platoon split. Against right-handed pitching over the course of his career, he hit for a .323 wOBA, which is about average. Against left-handers, his career wOBA jumps to .367. By comparison, Ryan Howard finished the 2010 season with a .367 wOBA while Placido Polanco sat at .323. Against LH, Victorino hits like Howard; against RH, he is as impotent as Polanco.

A graphical look at Victorino’s performance by year:

Using the Baseball Analytics database, I found out why there is such a large gap in performance. The heat maps tell the story.

Against left-handers, Victorino has no problem hitting hard and soft stuff alike.

vs. LHP, hard stuff

vs. LHP, soft stuff

When Victorino faces right-handers, however, his performance drops significantly when facing softer stuff.

vs. RHP, hard stuff

vs. RHP, soft stuff

Victorino’s wOBA against soft stuff drops from the 90th percentile against left-handers to the sixth percentile against right-handers. While a lot of it is likely due to his left-handed hitting simply being weaker, right-handed pitchers also did a better job of keeping the ball low and away — a weak spot for almost all hitters.

vs. LHP, soft pitch frequency

vs. RHP, soft pitch frequency

This trend will not cease in 2011. The amount of fastballs Victorino saw dropped each season since 2007, from 67 percent to 64, 62, and finally 57 percent this past season. It would behoove Charlie Manuel to consider batting Victorino lower in the batting order against right-handed starting pitching, and perhaps bat him lead-off against left-handed starters. Victorino’s 45-point wOBA platoon split is significant, and over the course of nearly 3,000 plate appearances, it is certainly reliable information. This is information opposing teams have used and will continue to use. Barring Victorino magically learning how to hit a right-handed breaking ball, Manuel should adjust accordingly.

Phillies 2011 Job Openings

With nearly $144 million already on the books for the 2011 season, the Phillies’ off-season figures to be boring. 17 players are under contract with two others headed to their first years in arbitration (Kyle Kendrick and Ben Francisco).

A look at the “definites” currently on the 2011 roster:

Starters (8):

C: Carlos Ruiz
1B: Ryan Howard
2B: Chase Utley
3B: Placido Polanco
SS: Jimmy Rollins
LF: Raul Ibanez
CF: Shane Victorino
RF: Domonic Brown

Bench (3):

C: Brian Schneider
1B/OF: Ross Gload
OF: Ben Francisco

Starting Rotation (4):

SP: Roy Halladay
SP: Roy Oswalt
SP: Cole Hamels
SP: Joe Blanton

Bullpen (4):

CL: Brad Lidge
SU: Ryan Madson
RP: Antonio Bastardo
RP: Danys Baez

The Phillies need a bench player capable of playing the middle infield. With Greg Dobbs headed to free agency, the Phillies will also need someone who can handle third base. The fifth spot in the starting rotation is open for competition. Meanwhile, the Phillies figure to have heavy turnover in the bullpen.

Who are the likely candidates to fill the open slots?

Wilson Valdez seems like an obvious candidate to be brought back since he displayed maturity and understanding of his role on the team. It certainly helps his case that the fans grew to like him as well. Of the free agents who could fill the back-up middle infielder role, Willie Bloomquist, Adam Kennedy, and Akinori Iwamura seem like the only ones that would be willing to accept a paltry 150 AB’s. Cristian Guzman is also available but his precipitous decline since 2007 is concerning.

Among free agent third basemen who could accept a bench role with the Phillies, Melvin Mora is an intriguing option. He has been linked to the Phillies in the past in both trade and free agency rumors. His right-handedness is an appealing option since the Phillies are extremely lefty-heavy in the absence of Jayson Werth and Mike Sweeney. Garrett Atkins is a buy-low candidate but his rapidly vanishing offense is a strong deterrent along with his below-average defense at the hot corner. Atkins, though, is another name whose name has floated around in Phillies-related rumors through the years. Overall, though, the market for third baseman is thin with Adrian Beltre being the only impact player out there.

The Phillies are likely to fill their fifth spot in the rotation internally with Kyle Kendrick or Vance Worley. The organization showed depleted patience with Kendrick when he was sent down to Triple-A Lehigh Valley earlier in the season. Begrudgingly, he was quickly recalled in a hectic week that included Andrew Carpenter‘s ineffectiveness and the arrival of Roy Oswalt to Philadelphia. It is possible that the Phillies fill the #5 spot with a cheap free agent, but unlikely.

Likewise, the Phillies are probably going to round out most of the remaining bullpen spots with internal options. The team would like to have two left-handed relievers going into the season, which opens up a big opportunity for Mike Zagurski. However, there will be quite a few left-handed relief options available via free agency. Scott Downs seems to always be linked to the Phillies, but his Type A status is a huge deterrent as it means the Phillies would have to relinquish a draft pick to the Toronto Blue Jays. GM Ruben Amaro will probably sign at least one veteran left-handed arm to a Minor League contract with an invitation to spring training, simply as depth in case Zagurski has a disappointing showing in March.

Elsewhere, Scott Mathieson — who has successfully battled back from two Tommy John surgeries — finally has a legitimate shot at sticking around in the bullpen. Other candidates for bullpen jobs include David Herndon and the loser of the Kendrick/Worley battle in the starting rotation. Among the relievers from the 2010 team heading into free agency, Chad Durbin seems to be the only one with a decent chance of hanging around. However, this figures to be his last opportunity for a substantial contract, one which will not come from the Phillies.

This off-season will take the cake for the most boring in a long time. Do not expect the Phillies to make any big waves whether it’s with a signing or a trade. If placing bets, take the field for Jayson Werth and Cliff Lee. Going into spring training, the Phillies will be taking a long, hard look at their talent at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. As a result, 2011 figures to be a big year for the lower levels of the organization’s Minor League system as well, with plenty of opportunity for advancement.