In 2011, Chase Utley Needs PTO

Ever since taking over at second base for the Phillies in 2005, Chase Utley has been a cornerstone of the franchise and one of Major League Baseball’s best players. His contributions come in many forms:

  • Offense: Five consecutive seasons with a wOBA at .389 or higher. (The league average is around .330.)
  • Defense: Five seasons with a UZR/150 at +12 or better.
  • Base running: Five seasons with 13 or more steals and a career stolen base success rate at 88 percent.

Today is Chase Utley‘s birthday. (Happy birthday, Chase!) He is now 32 years old. He missed 51 days during the 2010 regular season, almost all of them due to a torn thumb ligament. Even when he returned, he wasn’t the same hitter.

Utley isn’t exactly a case for chronic injury like some other players, but his max-effort style of play combined with his age and non-zero injury history creates a little cause for concern. It is true that two of Utley’s three serious injuries — a broken hand and the torn thumb ligament — are freak injuries that can happen to anyone at any time in the wrong circumstances. However, past injuries can pop up again in the future and can lead to other injuries, especially for players in their 30’s.

Fans have already suggested that, as an injury-preventative measure, Utley be given scheduled days off during the regular season going forward. Charlie Manuel hasn’t publicly said anything indicating that he plans to adhere to this, although he did say he would rest Utley more often going into the 2010 regular season.

Utley played in the Phillies’ first 36 games of the 2010 regular season. He missed two days battling an illness, then played in every game leading up to his thumb injury on June 28 — 36 consecutive games. After returning on August 17, he was given one day off on the 22nd, then played in every game until the Phillies clinched the division in Washington, D.C. against the Nationals on September 27.

If you’re counting, that is exactly two voluntary days off in 43 games, post-injury.

You know Utley wasn’t happy taking those two days off when he was sick in May. There have been many reports that, in the past, Utley refused to take a suggested day off, lending to his reputation as a gritty gamer. It’s great to see from an athlete, many of whom simply coast their way to the next paycheck.

It is time, though, to demand that Utley take days off. His performance clearly tapers as the season progresses:

Utley is significantly better than anyone who would play in his stead (i.e. Wilson Valdez). If Valdez were to replace Utley over an entire 162-game season, the difference in production would be felt immensely. Over a much smaller chunk of games, though, the difference isn’t likely to cost the Phillies more than a game or two. The upside is that they may gain those one or two losses — or more — back later in the season as Utley is better-rested and thus more productive.

Chase Utley needs to be benched in 2011. Who’d have thought we’d ever be legitimately saying that?

Regarding the title: in case you’re not hip to acronyms, PTO is paid time off.

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22 comments

  1. Steve

    December 17, 2010 07:57 AM

    Great post Bill. Chase is my favorite Phillie and has been since he came up, but I’ve also been saying he needs more days off each season. It’s startling to see his wOBP drop like it has in August the past few years. Even though it’s obvious in watching games that he has historically struggled in August, I never realized it was as bad as the charts above indicate. Thanks for laying this info out.

  2. Richard

    December 17, 2010 09:08 AM

    I agree.

    Re: last season, I find it curious that his major slump began when he missed those two games. When he came back, he seemed weak. There was, as is often the case, much speculation that he was injured, but it strikes me as much more likely that he was weakened by whatever flu-like thing had kept him out of the lineup. It can take a while to recover full strength after something like that. Not that we’ll ever know for sure, but it’s something that I’ve wondered about.

    The timing of the thumb injury was bad, too, since he’d only just started hitting the previous 7-10 days. Probably eliminated a hot streak.

  3. hk

    December 17, 2010 09:35 AM

    It’s funny. Since learning that the Phillies had it in their budget to spend what they are spending on Cliff Lee over the next five or six years, I’ve been debating in my head whether I thought the money was better spent on Lee or on upgrading the offense (i.e. signing Werth, who I suspect would have taken something less than $126M for 7 years to stay here and using the excess to upgrade another spot next offseason). My sticking point was that adding Lee and subtracting Blanton would be a huge upgrade during the regular season, but only a minimal one during the post-season as your 4th starter is only scheduled to start 2 post-season games. However, after reading this great post by Bill, I am convinced that signing Lee was the right move because of the impact that he should have on the offense…yes, the offense. With this rotation, Charlie should be able to strategically rest all of his regulars (including Chase) much more often without sacrificing wins and keep the hitters fresh for the post-season.

    Scott G, I suspect that you think using Charlie and strategically in the same sentence is an oxy-moron…

  4. Richard

    December 17, 2010 09:53 AM

    I had the same thought process at first, hk. And you make a good point, following on from Bill’s post. (Btw, I wouldn’t get too worked up over Scott G’s over-stated disdain for Charlie’s managing.)

  5. Dave

    December 17, 2010 10:37 AM

    “However, after reading this great post by Bill, I am convinced that signing Lee was the right move because of the impact that he should have on the offense…yes, the offense. With this rotation, Charlie should be able to strategically rest all of his regulars (including Chase) much more often without sacrificing wins and keep the hitters fresh for the post-season.”

    Nicely put.

  6. Scott G

    December 17, 2010 12:03 PM

    HK,

    I am honored that you brought me up on this thread before I even commented.

    Richard,

    I don’t think he’s worked up. You think Charlie’s a good strategic manager? I love the man, and think he should be the manager of the Phillies, but I don’t think anyone can argue that he’s wise when it comes to strategy.

    Anyway,

    I like the addition of Lee. A lot. However, I truly see this offense being brutal this season.

    Rollins – Has a career .337 wOBA. Average. However the last two seasons, it’s been below average. Injuries are a concern.

    Victorino – Has a SLIGHTLY above average wOBA. He’s much better batting RH, but the majority of his PAs will come from the left side.

    Utley – Hopefully Charlie will rest him more because we know what he’s capable of when he’s healthy and fresh (see April)

    Howard – We could really use him to return to his 07 and 09 form. But an above average wOBA any way you look at it.

    Ibanez – Slightly above average offensively. 39 years old. Need more offense from a LF who is as inept as he is defensively.

    Brown – Could really use him becoming a productive offensive player.

    Francisco – Slightly above average wOBA. Can’t project too much in the form of everyday numbers because he hasn’t started everyday in a couple of years.

    Ruiz – It will be very hard for him to repeat the year he had last year. Also, as long as he bats 8th, his good eye at the plate is pretty much wasted. I get that the walks are in part due to the spot in the lineup, but he also has to have the eye and patience to accept the free base.

    Polanco – Was injured most of last year. He’s always been average (wOBA) at the plate. Plus he’s pretty old.

    This team lost a huge offensive piece. He had power, and the ability to take a walk. The team is down to 2 people who have patience at the plate, Utley and Ruiz. When the hits aren’t coming, this team doesn’t really know how to take a walk to get on base. We really need Howard’s power and walks to return.

    Just remember last year, the team went through slumps and struggled for decent periods of time, but it was Werth that remained constant literally the entire season. Yes, the team suffered injuries last year, but with the players a year older, and having introduced some lingering type injuries, that problem isn’t going away.

    Love Lee, but remember the Cole Hamels starts that were wasted by an anemic offense.

  7. Jon

    December 17, 2010 12:26 PM

    Agreed, Werth was remarkably consistent at making outs with RISP and 2 outs :-) Overstating the case against him of course, but I think you’re overstating his value a bit as well.

    Have there been studies done regarding the value of “resting” players in affecting their short or long term performance? I know it’s easy to say “Chase wears down, give him a day off, he’ll be fresher” but is it possible the human body actually isn’t helped by short rests? Can we give him a week off if that would be more effective?

  8. hk

    December 17, 2010 01:12 PM

    On a separate issue dealing with getting Raul Ibanez some PTO vs. LHP’s, Oakland’s acquisition of Josh Willingham would seem to make Conor Jackson (lifetime .373 wOBA vs. LHP’s) expendable from Oakland’s perspective and a good fit for the Phils.

  9. Richard

    December 17, 2010 01:16 PM

    Scott, it’s not that I think Charlie’s a “good” strategic manager, it’s that I think a) in-game strategy has minimal impact and b) we rarely have any way of knowing whether what we think should have been done really would have been better.

    For example, harping on his lineup choices is a popular pastime, but actual evidence shows that there’s not much difference between the least optimal and most optimal lineups (on the order of 4 runs a year). I know hk wasn’t getting “worked up” (I was exaggerating) but I do think you over-state Manuel’s strategic problems. I have in mind, in particular, your comments on your own blog about game 6 of the NLCS. You asserted up front that Manuel made x number of “mistakes” before the game even started, with Rollins leading off being right at the top. But that’s only a “mistake” because you’ve decided Rollins is a terrible lead-off man, ignoring research into lineup optimization (including conversations at this blog about that very topic). Most of the other mistakes were similarly only a matter of opinion. But just because you or I would have done something differently, doesn’t mean his decision is a mistake. (For the record, I had/have no problem with Rollins leading off, in general. Unless of course he stabilizes at an anemic level of offense, about which see below.)

    I will say Manuel’s worst mistakes have to do with when to hook a struggling pitcher. It seems obvious to me, for example, that he left Blanton out too long on several occasions last year, especially in light of his injury (so that his basic stats look much worse than they otherwise would as a result). But that’s not an easy line to walk either.

    As far as the Phillies offense goes, I think there’s no reason to be so pessimistic. They will undoubtedly miss Werth in some manner, but I think stronger seasons are likely from Utley, Howard, and esp. Rollins. Seriously, I don’t see signs of real decline in Rollins. His second half of 2009 was very strong, and last year was just ruined by injuries; whenever he started hitting, he got injured again. No, I think if he can come into the season in better shape, and stay healthy, we’ll see a nice season from him. We will see.

  10. Scott G

    December 17, 2010 02:16 PM

    Richard,

    There are soo many things I would like to address here that this probably will come out terribly, but here I go.

    “a) in-game strategy has minimal impact”

    Yes. I have probably seen some of the same studies as you. However, if you know that something works even 1/100th of a run better, why not do it?

    “b) we rarely have any way of knowing whether what we think should have been done really would have been better.”

    Maybe not on a case-by-case basis, but that’s where career statistics come into play. For example, using J.C. Romero against a RHB might record an out (see B.J. Upton in the gm 5 of the WS in ’08). However, knowing how bad Romero is vs. RHBs makes it a bad decision regardless of the outcome (maybe not in that specific case because I don’t really remember the options, but it’s an example).

    Over the course of the season, I would almost guarantee that relying on career statistics in cases like J.C. Romero would benefit the team. Probably more than the lineup dynamic effect.

    Re: lineup dynamic.

    Granted it’s not worth much, but you know one thing. You need to get on base in order to score. The most important lineup slots are 2=4 > 1 > 5=3 > 6 > 7 > 8. I don’t know about you, but most of the people on this site agree that wOBA is one of the most meaningful statistics. Why not structure the lineup accordingly? Maybe taking into account that OBP at the top of the order is more important than SLG.

    Optimizing who the bullpen faces (R/L matchups, not using the best relievers in 3+ run games, etc.) can easily be accomplished. Maybe the lineup dynamic isn’t crucial, but Rollins is a lousy lead off man.

  11. Mike

    December 17, 2010 02:23 PM

    i think the point re: Lee and the offense is a good one, and mirrors a thought that I had. Not only will this allow Charlie to rest guys as needed without sacrificing wins, it will also allow RAJ to begin to turn over the roster while mitigating the likely (and hopefully temporary) decline in performance while young guys get their footing. Hopefully the Phils can get their linup younger over the next few years while the pitching staff picks up the slack, so to speak.

  12. Richard

    December 17, 2010 02:38 PM

    Scott, where I primarily agree with you is in bullpen usage. Bringing in Romero to face a right-handed bat is invariably a bad idea (unless you need to get him work, have no other options, etc).

    But I disagree on Rollins. I say you undervalue him. Have you checked his BABIP for the last two seasons? (Also, have you looked through his numbers when he swings at the first pitch?) I say he’s been a victim of some bad luck.

    In any event, if it’s true that lineup “optimization” is unimportant, how can his relative lousiness mean anything? It’s not like his OBP is an abomination. It’s lower that you’d like, sure, but it’s not that bad.

    We can talk about this all day long and not convince each other, and we’re both conversant with the data. How could either of us really say a given lineup is a mistake?

  13. Richard

    December 17, 2010 02:50 PM

    To clarify, when I refer to his OBP not being an abomination, I’m saying with a normal BABIP. If he OBPs .345 or so, I have no problem with him leading off. If his low BABIP is a reflection of serious decline (reduced speed, increased pop-ups, etc), so that his OBP is like .290-.300, then, yeah, that’s lousy.

  14. Scott G

    December 17, 2010 02:56 PM

    Why not make the lineup Ibanez, Ruiz, Rollins, Victorino, Polanco, Brown, Howard, Utley, Pitcher?

    If it doesn’t matter AT ALL then who the ef cares if Utley gets 1 fewer PA a day then Ibanez? It’s all the same. Rollins OBP is almost exactly average. For a lead off man, I’d say that’s an abomination. How do I undervalue a man with a .340 wOBA? All I’m saying is he should bat like 6th. Use his speed to make stuff happen at the bottom of the lineup.

  15. Richard

    December 17, 2010 03:09 PM

    That’s fine. You’re sidestepping my main point (which was certainly NOT that it’s all the same, just that it’s not enough of a difference to attack over), which was about the confidence with which we tend to attack Manuel for this or that decision. Manuel makes the lineup he’s comfortable with, and that the players are comfortable with, and you can hardly argue that the Phillies haven’t scored a lot of runs in the last several years.

    Frankly, I’d be perfectly happy with Rollins batting in the 1, 3, 5, or 6 holes.

  16. Scott G

    December 17, 2010 04:28 PM

    Honestly, I’d agree with all of those besides 1. Preferably 3 or 5. My gripe will be less substantial this year since we are minus one great batter.

    You said “if the lineup optimization is unimportant”. If it’s unimportant, why not put the names in a hat and draw them out each day. It does matter. Maybe not a large amount, but it does matter.

  17. hk

    December 17, 2010 07:04 PM

    More good news…the Phillies and Dennys Reyes have decided to part ways. Maybe another benefit of the Lee signing is that the Phils only need Madson and Lidge in the bullpen.

  18. Scott G

    December 17, 2010 07:59 PM

    Thank God. Manuel would probably misuse him the way he misused Romero. This has truly been a great sports week in Philly, sans the Pronger surgery news.

  19. Matt

    December 18, 2010 01:33 AM

    Re: Pronger surgery news….

    No kidding. When’s the last time it felt this good to be a Philly fan (sans 76ers)??

    Flyers look like a bonafide top contender with arguably the best forward depth in the NHL, The Phillies are primed for the next 3 years at least and have one of baseball’s best rotations in its history, and the Eagles have the best young offensive core in the NFL and in their franchise history.

    Ok, this has nothing to do with Utley. Poor guy’s been analyzed to death in this website.

  20. jauer

    December 18, 2010 01:41 PM

    Richard: I have checked Rollins’ BABIP, but I’ve also checked his line drive rate as well.

    Over the last two seasons, he’s had the two worst seasons of his career in terms of line-drive percentage — of course he will have a poor BABIP.

    In 2009, Jimmy Rollins was among JD Drew, Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Howard, and David Ortiz for the league lead in “highest percentage of fly balls to the opposite field” for lefties. Which one of those names doesn’t belong? Has Rollins EVER hit an opposite field home run?

    Rollins’ line drive rate in 2010 was particularly awful, and by far the worst of his career. He’s not hitting the ball hard. Low BABIP does not automatically equal bad luck.

    But at least he is very patient at the plate. He’s the PERFECT leadoff hitter.

    And Ruiz sucks. Keep him 8th while Rollins leads off.

  21. Richard

    December 18, 2010 05:00 PM

    It’s true, jauer, that Rollins’ line drive % the last two years have been the lowest of his career, but 2009’s was 19.2, compared to the next lowest (before 2010) of 19.3 in 2006, which I think we can agree was a pretty good year for Rollins. Last year was very low indeed (16.8), way outside the normal range for his career, which could mean any number of things. But for both the last two years the BABIP was similarly low (in 2009 he had fewer grounders, more pop-ups, so no doubt that contributed). So luck is definitely a factor. I’d guess his leg injuries both lowered his BABIP on grounders, and affected his swing.

    As for his patience, last year his BB rate was 10.2%, 2008 it was 9.3. If his line drive rate returns to his career norms, and his BB rate stabilizes around the 9 or 10% range, I think he’ll be in good shape.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying he’s Rickey Henderson or Tim Raines. In any event, this year is huge for him. Staying healthy is key.

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