Measuring Chase Utley’s Impact

Hey, have you heard the news? Chase Utley is back. He will be making his 2011 debut today against the Cincinnati Reds, the culmination of a long and arduous battle back from patellar tendinitis. At one point earlier during his rehab, Utley needed to sit on a stool to field ground balls; today, he will be doing so freely in a Major League game.

With the offense struggling — it hasn’t scored more than three runs in a game since Friday, May 13 — getting Utley back is huge. As a team, the Phillies compiled a .306 wOBA, a shade below the .312 league average. The return of Utley, assuming good health, will be a boon to the offense. Pete Orr, who had a .258 wOBA, was optioned and Chase’s consistent playing time should significantly cut into the AB’s for Wilson Valdez (.254 wOBA) and Michael Martinez (.202 wOBA). Overall, the offense was nearly nine runs below average, which equates to one win.

We convert wOBA to runs with the following equation:

( ( Player’s wOBA – League average wOBA ) / 1.15 ) * Player’s PA

Using PECOTA’s 50th percentile projection, Utley is expected to post a .383 wOBA in 400 PA for the rest of the season, which amounts to nearly 25 runs, or two and a half wins. That is, uh, quite an improvement over Orr and Valdez, who combined to be nearly nine runs below average in 117 PA (-31 runs in 400 PA). In other words, getting Utley back and severely reducing the roles of his replacements should net the Phillies roughly five and a half wins theoretically. The 50th percentile projection assumes a career-worst season for Utley as well, so Utley could be worth more offensively if he’s back to his usual self.

Then there’s Utley’s defense. It’s no secret that Utley grades out as one of the best defensive second basemen in baseball (arguably the best pre-injury). In over 8,200 innings, Utley has saved 80 runs more than an average second baseman according to UZR (an average of one run above average per 102 innings). If Utley does not decline defensively, he should save about ten runs defensively. In 383 combined innings, the combination of Orr and Valdez have saved 1.4 runs less than an average second baseman would.

We have passed the one-quarter mark of the season. Still, the return of Utley could net the Phillies upwards of six and a half wins. Last year’s contest with the Atlanta Braves was decided by six games, and it figures to be much closer by the time October 2011 rolls around. Getting a healthy, productive Utley back could be the difference between playing October baseball and playing October golf.

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Performance and Results

One of the cool things about Sabermetrics is that it teaches you your own fallibility. Science requires a certain humbleness, to know your limits and to recognize yourself as a flawed being. True arrogance is taking what your untrained eyes see at face value, believing them to be infallible. It’s why the stat guys have had the “you should watch the games instead of looking at spreadsheets” line used as a weapon against them.

The area where I have seen the biggest contrast between the lying eyes and what actually happens is on the pitcher’s mound. DIPS theory has taught us that once contact is made with the baseball, the pitcher’s work is done; he has little to no control on what happens next — the rest falls on the defense, environmental factors, and good old fashioned luck. Many studies, including research that led to SIERA, have shown strikeouts, walks, and batted ball types to be the strongest predictors of future success and failure for pitchers.

Essentially, stats like SIERA separate performance from results. Even fans of traditional stats understand this concept. It is quite possible for a pitcher to have an outstanding performance, but get saddled with the loss for reasons out of his control — his lack of offensive support, bad fielding, bad luck, etc. Similarly, a pitcher can post great strikeout and walk numbers and wind up with poor results in a number of areas including ERA.

For example, those who looked at the 2010 ERA of Houston Astros starter Bud Norris (4.92) would have assumed he pitched badly and would have expected more of the same going forward. Those who looked at his 9.3 K/9, his 43 percent ground ball rate, and his 3.90 SIERA would have expected his ERA to come back down going forward. To wit, his ERA currently sits at 3.93. Even better, his SIERA is at 3.03. His 2010 performances were good; his 2010 results were bad.

Generally speaking, pitchers with good strikeout and walk rates and favorable batted ball splits stick around while the bad ones get weeded out. Adam Eaton had average rates for much of his career, but once they trended in the wrong directions, the Phillies were eager to pay him to not pitch for them.

One pitcher who seems immune to this thinning of the herd process is Kyle Kendrick. His Minor League numbers were decent, but prior to his promotion to the Majors in 2007, he had never pitched above Double-A. With one pitch (a two-seam fastball), it is not impossible to breeze through subpar hitting; doing so at the Major League level is an entirely different story.

Unsurprisingly, Kendrick has a 4.62 ERA in 508 and one-third innings with the Phillies. He has pitched from a number of roles with very limited success, none of it sustainable. He bought himself years of immunity with his 2007 season when he was called up and made 20 starts, earning a 3.87 ERA and helping the Phillies end their 13-year post-season drought. His SIERA was a much less inspiring 4.86 and he benefited from a .281 BABIP.

Kendrick earned a rotation spot in ’08, but posted a 5.49 ERA in 30 starts and one relief appearance. His SIERA was 5.23. He spent the ’09 season getting his first taste of Triple-A, trying to earn his way back to the Majors. He did just that, finishing with a 3.34 ERA for Lehigh Valley. The Phillies recalled him in September for a couple spot starts and mop-up relief duty. Kendrick again earned a rotation spot for the 2010 season. And Kendrick bombed, wrapping up the season with a 4.73 ERA and a 4.94 SIERA.

The appeal to the Phillies about the right-hander was his relative cheapness: he cost under $500,000 in each of his first four seasons. He was arbitration-eligible after the 2010 season, which meant a relatively significant increase in pay if the Phillies wanted to keep him around. The analyst who looks at performance rather than results would have seen the peaks as unsustainable and the valleys as par for the future course. The people who chose to pay him $2.45 million to avoid arbitration instead looked at results, viewing the peaks as future goals and the valleys as, well, valleys.

Kendrick’s results have been very inconsistent. 2007, good, but lucky. 2008, bad, but descriptive. 2009, good but with a very small sample size. 2010 bad, but descriptive. His overall performance — a 4.0 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, and a barely above-average ability to generate ground balls — did not yield optimistic projections. As an example, the following is a list of pitchers from 1996-2011 that have pitched at least 475 innings (starting 80 percent of games) and posted a K/9 at or below 4.5 and a BB/9 at or above 2.5.

Rk Player ERA SO/9 BB/9 IP From To Age W-L% ERA+ Tm
1 Mike Maroth 5.05 4.34 2.57 918.0 2002 2007 24-29 .427 87 DET-TOT
2 Kyle Kendrick 4.62 3.97 2.71 508.1 2007 2011 22-26 .585 93 PHI
3 Aaron Cook 4.41 3.78 2.75 1215.1 2002 2010 23-31 .543 109 COL
4 Kirk Rueter 4.33 3.77 2.83 1692.2 1996 2005 25-34 .561 96 TOT-SFG
5 Chien-Ming Wang 4.16 4.16 2.64 670.2 2005 2009 25-29 .679 108 NYY
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/22/2011.

Certainly not a list of pitchers I would pay $2.45 million or more to keep around when I have better pitchers (Vance Worley, Drew Carpenter, among others) waiting in Triple-A and eager to earn the Major League minimum, which is just over $400,000.

2011 has been yet another wild ride on the Kendrickmobile. If I were to give you the numbers 2.9 and 4.7 and asked you to match them up with K/9 and BB/9, you’d probably match the 4.7 to K/9 and 2.9 to BB/9, right? You would be wrong. Kendrick currently sits with a 2.9 K/9 and 4.7 BB/9. Even more interesting is that they are very nearly the inverse of Livan Hernandez‘s current rates. Yet he has a 3.28 ERA, and even with his spot start against the Colorado Rockies on Thursday, he appears to have completely avoided being eliminated at the bottom of the food chain.

No one doubts Kendrick’s selflessness in taking the ball in whatever role the team puts him in, nor his work ethic which allowed him to jump from Double-A to the Majors in ’07, then re-earn his job out of Triple-A two years later. He has never complained, never been a problem. He took a cruel joke as well as anybody could have. Unfortunately, those are not skills that translate into sustainable success on the mound. Jason Giambi didn’t discover the fountain of youth when he hit three home runs on Thursday; he ran into Kyle Kendrick (and Danys Baez).

Kendrick simply doesn’t have the skills necessary to enjoy consistent, sustainable success at the Major League level. He can improve, albeit unlikely at this stage of his career. The Phillies made a mistake keeping him around for such a relatively exorbitant price, and continue to make a mistake every day he is on the 25-man roster. The Phillies have dealt with quite a few injuries, but have several pitchers that should be ahead of Kendrick on the depth chart. I would love to be proven wrong about Kendrick, but the stats have shown me things I simply can’t unsee.

Caveat: As stated previously on the blog, I wouldn’t mind Kendrick used strictly as a ROOGY. Given how Charlie Manuel has used J.C. Romero, however, I don’t see that ever happening with any consistency. Additionally, paying $2.45 million or more for a ROOGY seems misguided.

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