In Which Rational Philadelphians Headdesk

It’s Chase Utley overkill here at Crashburn Alley. But the “Utley sucks” meme has continued to spread and it must be stopped. Jack McCaffery shot the most recent salvo of stupid, titling his article “It’s time for Phillies to move Chase Utley to the outfield”. Take a minute to let that soak in. Really immerse yourself in the aura of that statement; respect the courage it took to actually send that to his editor; respect his editor for not returning the file back to McCaffery with “LOL” next to it.

I’m worried about beating a dead horse, as Utley has been covered fairly substantially here since the Phillies were eliminated from the playoffs. However, Twitter seemed to be in agreement that this article needed a good fisking, so here we are. You know the drill: his statements will be posted in bold; mine will follow in normal typeface.

Chase Utley has been haunted by one injury after the next.

In an article that will very clearly disparage Utley, this statement implies that the injuries indicate a flaw — something that is Utley’s fault. Utley landed on the 15-day disabled list twice in his career (broken hand in 2007, torn thumb ligament earlier this season). He’s never been on the 60-day DL. Since 2004, he’s missed a total of eight days for “day-to-day” woes.

I don’t think there’s any question that Utley plays hurt a lot, but he is not a medical case fit for an episode of House.

His defense at second base has gone from acceptable to poor.

Yes, if by “acceptable to poor” McCaffery means “elite to elite”. As this article detailed, there has been no better defensive second baseman in baseball since 2005 than Utley.

Even if you are skeptical of UZR, you can’t deny that ALL reliable defensive metrics are in agreement that Utley plays a mean second base. As mentioned in this article:

[Utley] 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.

And no, errors are not reliable. Oftentimes, defenders who have more range make more errors. If I play second base, my range is going to be super small because I’m unathletic and thus I will get to fewer balls. Therefore, I will have substantially fewer opportunities to make errors than someone like Utley. Utley has tremendous range. In terms of runs over the past three seasons, Utley leads all qualified second basemen with over 39 range runs. The runners-up are Mark Ellis and Brandon Phillips with 15.4 range runs.

His offensive production is deteriorating at troubling speed.

This “deterioration” has come at “troubling speed”? McCaffery’s next thesis: “Day turns into night way too fast”.

Despite his injury, Utley still finished the 2010 season tied in wOBA with Hanley Ramirez and Joe Mauer at .373. That’s pretty good company, no?

So exactly what was so outrageous again about the notion of moving Utley to the outfield earlier in his career?

1. He’s super good defensively at second base.

2. The Phillies had/have a glut of outfielders, including a top prospect in Domonic Brown they had sitting on the bench for two months last season because they had nowhere to put him.

3. Moving Utley to the outfield cuts into his value, much like moving Joe Mauer to first base. In calculating WAR, a second baseman is credited one-fourth of a win while a corner outfielder is debited three-fourth’s of a win, for a total of one full win.

Loosely based on the Alfonso Soriano-Robin Yount model, the idea was to provide full protection of Utley as a power hitter by minimizing his inning-to-inning physical stress.

Clearly, Utley wears down as the season progresses from his balls-to-the-wall style of play. The solution isn’t panicking and moving Utley to a corner outfield position; it’s giving him more days off during the season.

And even if his injury history cannot be directly linked to where he plays on defense, heightened physical wear is an accepted cost of middle-infield work.

Said another way, “And even if the facts go against my argument, I am going to restate my argument emphatically nevertheless.”

Now, McCaffery just randomly veers off into a tangent about Cliff Lee. How it’s related to Utley is not clear.

Here’s the deal, take it or leave it. This will be the last blast of the Cliff Lee trade. The topic may arise again in context, but this will be the last 15-yard-penalty pile-on.

Nonetheless, here it comes: From the moment that disaster struck the Phillies, the apologists hid behind one hope. None of it will matter, they kept saying, if the Phillies go to or win the World Series. Well, the Phillies didn’t do any of the above, and instead watched Joe Blanton go less than five innings of a pivotal NLCS loss.

Joe Blanton would have started Game Four of the NLCS even if the Phillies had kept Lee. If the Phillies went into the season with a rotation of Roy Halladay, Lee, and Cole Hamels, then GM Ruben Amaro never trades for Roy Oswalt.

By the way:

  • Oswalt, 2010 regular season: 2.76 ERA
  • Lee, 2010 regular season: 3.18 ERA
  • Oswalt, 2010 playoffs: 2.75 ERA (2.37 excluding his stint as a reliever in the NLCS)
  • Lee, 2010 playoffs: 2.51 ERA

If a World Series was supposed to make people forget Lee, then the lack of a World Series by rule had to supply the opposite effect.

People forgetting about Lee isn’t relevant. What is relevant is whether the trade was the correct move at the time. Many people have strong opinions veering on both sides, but a fair decision can’t be reached until we see the fates of the prospects (Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, and J.C. Ramirez).

Although the prospects didn’t appear to pan out in 2010, they still have plenty of room to grow. And at the very least, the Phillies ended up getting a half-season out of a very good starter in Oswalt, who is under contract for at least one more season for $9 million. If the Phillies think he’s worth it in 2012, they have a $16 million club option they can pick up, or buy him out for $2 million.

What would have happened is the Phillies would have either felt too out of the picture and traded Lee at the trading deadline, or they would have let him walk in free agency as a Type A free agent and recouped one first round draft pick. For an easy comparison, here’s what the Phillies have and would have had in each scenario following the 2010 season:

  • Kept Lee: Halladay-Hamels-Blanton-?-? rotation in 2011; one compensatory pick (likely at the end of the first round, negating its value immensely)
  • Traded Lee: Halladay-Oswalt-Hamels-Blanton-? rotation in 2011; Oswalt under contract for a cheap price well below market value; Aumont, Gillies, and Ramirez; one compensatory pick when Oswalt walks after the 2011 or ’12 season

I don’t think you can make an argument that Lee would have been significantly better than Oswalt and kept the Phillies alive in the post-season. There’s the whole chaos theory thing, but also that Oswalt pitched just as well and arguably better both in the regular season and in the post-season.

It’s just one more reason why trading the dominant left-handed pitcher of his time for three minor-league nobodies is the worst big-league sports trade in Philadelphia history.

What a gross exaggeration.

  • January 27, 1982: Ryne Sandberg traded by the Philadelphia Phillies with Larry Bowa to the Chicago Cubs for Ivan De Jesus. As a Cub, Sandberg compiled nearly 58 WAR in a Hall of Fame career. In three seasons with the Phillies, de Jesus put up 2.7 WAR.
  • July 30, 2006: Traded by the Philadelphia Phillies with Cory Lidle to the New York Yankees for C.J. Henry (minors), Jesus Sanchez (minors), Carlos Monasterios and Matt Smith. Henry was a bust. Sanchez put up decent numbers last year in Clearwater. Monasterios is now a Dodger, having done nothing as a prospect in the Phillies’ system. Smith was a decent LOOGY for nine innings in 2006 but hasn’t been in professional baseball since 2008. Abreu, meanwhile, was worth 17.3 WAR since departing from Philadelphia. Yes, the trade was a salary dump more than anything, but it still is one of the most damaging trades in Phillies history.

You can add the Curt Schilling, Scott Rolen, and Ferguson Jenkins trades in there as well. The Lee trade is easily defensible and comes nowhere near the “worst big-league sports trade in Philadelphia history”. But whatever helps you sell newspapers, Jack.

Now, Lee rant aside, McCaffery spent a lot of time at the beginning of his column whining about Utley’s injuries, hypothesizing ways to cure his ailments. McCaffery wraps up his article contradicting everything he said.

Somehow, Brett Favre ignored a severe ankle injury and started his 292nd consecutive game Sunday. He’s 41.

So what does that say? It says that too many other pro (and college) athletes miss too much time with similar injuries because they’d rather be babied, talked about and massaged. That’s what.

Wouldn’t moving Utley to the outfield because of his injuries fall under the “babied” and “massaged” categories?

Furthermore, playing while hurt is exactly why Utley appears to have hurt the Phillies this year. There’s something to be said for machismo and pain tolerance, but to a point. Playing while hurt to the detriment of a team is dumb and the problem shouldn’t be exacerbated by sportswriters looking to place athletes in neat groups, like “babied” and “gritty”.

I would prefer Utley to admit when he’s not feeling 100%. I would prefer Charlie Manuel to recognize this even if Utley doesn’t say anything, and to give Utley more regular days off during the season. I would prefer that Ruben Amaro mandate extra days off for Utley. And I would prefer the media not to pat athletes on their (aching, sore) backs for refusing to take days off. I would appreciate it even more if those same sportswriters wouldn’t place those athletes in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t so long as the team doesn’t win a championship” quandary.