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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30 comments

  1. Moose

    May 23, 2011 09:36 AM

    Great article. Six wins is freaking enormous. Only thing I’d argue with you about is that I would say it is in fact a secret that Utley is an amazing fielder. Time and again I hear people say how bad he is or that he should move to another position because of his defense.

  2. Nik

    May 23, 2011 10:08 AM

    Its true about the fielding. How many times have we seen a ball ‘just out of reach’ of Valdez where you thought to yourself, Chase would have had it. We just dont appreciate it his D enough as we tend to focus on those weird throwing issues he’s had in the last few playoffs.

  3. Richard

    May 23, 2011 10:25 AM

    The main obstacle to understanding Utley’s great defense is, I think, the main obstacle to understanding defensive metrics and their limitations overall. We can “see” someone make a great play–it looks great because he ranged far into the hole, dove, and threw the guy out. But, while Utley certainly has plays like that, his main strength is positioning and instincts. That ball that Uggla maybe gets to with a spectacular dive, Utley is right there for, without diving, because he both knows how to play the pitcher & hitter better, and is quicker anyway. But it’s difficult to see positioning, because we don’t watch the game that way, we don’t watch for positioning (and can’t when we’re watching on tv).

    Oddly, and I’d have to look into this, it’s always seemed to me–from watching!–that Utley makes most of his errors on easy plays, which are of course easy to see as plays he should have made. Which has no doubt contributed to the idea that he struggles at defense.

  4. Drew

    May 23, 2011 01:02 PM

    It’s not the same feeling watching a Phil’s game without Utley. This short break made me face the reality of his eventual end as a Phillie. I will definitely have a long mourning period when that time comes. It’s great to have him back.

    LONG LIVE UTLEY!

  5. myhofs

    May 23, 2011 01:22 PM

    Bottom line – Utley’s worth waiting out the injury. He’s one of the first players I put in my hall of fame on myhofs.com.

  6. Western Dave

    May 23, 2011 02:23 PM

    I am about to reveal something awful. I grew up on Long Island as a Mets fan (coulda been worse, I could of rooted for the Yankees). We lived a few miles from Shea and several Mets players lived in my hometown (see the book The Tender Bar for more about what is like to grow up there at that time). This means I got a lot of Tim McCarver when he was a broadcaster covering first some very bad teams and then later some very good Mets teams. This was before McCarver was a national guy. One of the things he did really well was talk about positioning of players and the WOR crew would have lots of shots of where people were positioned and how they moved around for different hitters (anything to avoid showing empty stands…). I learned a lot about positioning from McCarver then and although he is no longer that broadcaster (in fact, I now find him so grating I can’t listen to him) he once was a guy who could explain complex things clearly and elegantly. Then it went to his head.

  7. jack

    May 23, 2011 02:38 PM

    All I can say is that my fantasy baseball team’s name has been ChaseUtleyManCrush for as long as I can remember; needless to say, I’m somewhat excited for his return.

  8. David

    May 23, 2011 04:27 PM

    Woohoo! Now to get Victorino back, given that he’s been our most productive hitter this year.

  9. Jack

    May 23, 2011 08:38 PM

    I know Chase hasn’t had a hit yet this evening, but he surely has seen more pitches than the trio would have seen in an average game, hasn’t he? He takes professional ABs every single time. I don’t know if you can really quantify how much that helps, but I’m just giddy to have him back.

  10. John

    May 24, 2011 05:54 AM

    I know this has nothing to do with Chase Utley, but I was reading ESPN’s SweetSpot and Mr. Schoenfield posted the 5 trades that need to be made. Here is his fourth trade on that list:

    Astros trade OF Hunter Pence to Phillies for OF Domonic Brown and P Jarred Cosart.

    He gives his explanation as basically the Phillies are in a win now mode and can’t be sure Brown will provide anything this year. I was just wondering your thoughts on it. I don’t think think they should trade away part of their future to win now, but that is me.

  11. hk

    May 24, 2011 06:45 AM

    John,

    I’m all for trading away part of the future to win now, but I think Dom and Cosart seems like too much of the future to give up. According to ESPN’s Keith Law, Dom was the #3 prospect in baseball heading into the season and Cosart was #34. I would think that Cosart and a lesser prospect or two would be sufficient and that an OF of Pence-Victorino-Brown would look pretty nice for the next few years or more.

    Off of this topic, but still hammering on one that Bill raised recently, Charlie continues to mis-manage the bullpen on an almost nightly basis. He mis-used Romero and Herndon on Sunday to turn a 1-run deficit into a 2-run deficit, then used Bastardo and Stutes tonight to protect a 7-run lead. I’m not saying that his decision cost the Phils the game on Sunday as they were shut out – although you could claim the combination of batting Valdez 2nd and the bullpen mismanagement cost them the game – but I fear that Charlie’s game management is actually getting worse than years past and I wonder whether Charlie misses having Jimy Williams and/or Davey Lopes around.

  12. Bill Baer

    May 24, 2011 06:54 AM

    John,

    I disagree with Schoenfield with that trade proposal. I’m all for acquiring Pence, but not at that price.

    Between now and late July, we’ll be seeing a lot of trade proposals. Roughly 99% of them won’t be realistic.

  13. Scott G

    May 24, 2011 07:10 AM

    Speaking about Sunday. I’m fairly certain the Rangers second run should not have scored, and no one commented on it. The pitch hit Gentry’s hand. It should have been a dead ball, no? Yes, he “swung”, but that simply means it is a strike/dead ball.

  14. LTG

    May 24, 2011 07:51 AM

    I had the same thought as Scott G. Here’s the relevant language:

    6.08 The batter is entitled to first base when, (b) He is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (1) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (2) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball;
    If the ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a strike, whether or not the batter tries to avoid the ball. If the ball is outside the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a ball if he makes no attempt to avoid being touched.
    APPROVED RULING: When the batter is touched by a pitched ball which does not entitle him to first base, the ball is dead and no runner may advance.

    Notice it makes no exception in the bunting case. But I, and I’d bet you guys too, have seen plenty of bunt attempts hit the barrel-hand and go into fair territory without a strike and dead ball called. Moreover, Charlie did not even discuss the call with the home plate umpire, and I can’t remember a manager arguing that call. It is as if the de facto rule is that the barrel-hand becomes part of the bat on a bunt attempt.

  15. Richard

    May 24, 2011 08:21 AM

    following up on hk’s comment: it appears that the use of Romero on Sunday and Bastardo last night means that somehow Romero has taken back the top lefty out of the pen role, which is hard to believe. Unless Charlie just doesn’t see preserving a close deficit as important.

    On the suicide squeeze, I suspect no one really knew the ball’d hit Gentry’s hand. We only saw it on replay, but I don’t recall any awareness of the fact on the field.

  16. Scott G

    May 24, 2011 09:00 AM

    LTG,

    I can’t tell if you agree with the “de facto rule”. I would certainly hope not since the rulebook says X, and they’re officiating by Y.

    It also drove me absolutely insane last week when Jimmy Rollins struck out on a dropped third strike (the checked swing play), and our announcers didn’t even know the rules. Sarge is a former player, and still didn’t know. There were 2 outs at the time, so it doesn’t matter that first base was occupied at the time. They both said “it doesn’t matter that he didn’t run because first base was occupied”. The VERY next inning, the same thing happened again, and as a result of Ross Gload (?) running to first, they realized you can run with 2 outs. It’s terrible that the announcers of a professional sport don’t know the rules. Oh yea, and they didn’t even comment on the dead ball bunt the other day.

  17. hk

    May 24, 2011 10:33 AM

    Steve,

    Thanks. I had never heard of the Morning Call before today and I now know that I never have to read it again…unless I’m seeking humor instead of serious baseball insight.

  18. LTG

    May 24, 2011 10:50 AM

    Scott G,

    I’m not sure whether I would agree with using the de facto rule if I am right that it is a de facto rule and not just a failure by everyone to know the correct call. I don’t have enough information. I work on legal hermeneutics, and I have come to see that what the rulebook says is not as straightforward as it seems in easy cases. The barrel-hand case is a hard case in part because the text is silent on the issue and in part because determining whether a ball has hit the hand only or the bat and the hand or just the bat is extremely difficult. One cannot even trust the batter’s reaction in every case (see Jeter, Derek). If the de facto rule has been accepted as a way to eliminate a set of controversial calls and it is public knowledge to the umps, players, and managers that the de facto rule is in force, I have no gripe with it. However, if either of the previous conditions fail (and no other justification can be given) then it was a bad call. I take it, though, that you would disagree with the kind of interpretive stance I’m taking here.

    And, yes, it is very frustrating when broadcast professionals don’t know the rules of the game. For the most part, however, this is not a big problem. I find Sarge hard to listen to for a different reason. Sarge, while a very nice and good-hearted man, contradicts himself over and over again when analyzing the game. For example, last night he said Hamels should pitch like it is 0-0 when we were up 9-0 after Hamels gave up the homer to Bruce. Had he walked Bruce, he would have said, as he has said in the past, “when you’re up big you’ve gotta be aggressive and throw strikes, etc.” From a contradiction, everything follows.

  19. LTG

    May 24, 2011 10:54 AM

    @Steve

    Haha jokes! I get jokes!

  20. Scott G

    May 24, 2011 11:24 AM

    LTG,

    I would think that it doesn’t matter if the ball hits the hand and the bat (although the text doesn’t speak on it). I’m pretty sure that players have been hit on the hands and been called for swings in the past. The result is a dead ball strike. I hear where you’re coming from since it is not explicit in the rulebook, but I would say you can infer from numerous rules that the result should be the one I desire.

    I didn’t realize that he got hit by the pitch when I saw it live. I guess most of my anger came as a result of the announcers actually realizing he got hit, and not even questioning the result of the play.

  21. Chris

    May 24, 2011 01:30 PM

    Re: Charlie’s bullpen usage last night:
    Bastardo hadn’t pitched in 6 days, I think that warrants some work. Likewise, Stutes hadn’t pitched in 4 days, and I also wouldn’t exactly call him a reliable high-leverage reliever just yet. I’d rather have them pitch the 7th and 8th than leaving Cole out there unnecessarily. Although, I’d most rather they had kept Mathieson, DFA’d Kendrick and he pitched instead of Stutes. Dude’s getting no love from the Phillies.

  22. Richard

    May 24, 2011 02:06 PM

    The point, Chris, is that Bastardo should have pitched in the close game on Sunday instead of Romero, which would have left Romero available for last night’s blowout.

  23. LTG

    May 24, 2011 04:34 PM

    RE: The Barrel-Hand

    1. To make the hermeneutic point more clearly. Whatever you might think follows by indirect inference from other explicit rules, if a long history of practice denies that inference, then it is possible that the inference you wish to draw ought not follow. Whether it does will depend on the extent to which the historical practice is coherent or incoherent with an overall interpretation of the rulebook and the practices the rulebook governs. This is why I said I don’t have enough information to take a side. Why not? Because umpires do not give public explanations for their rulings in hard, borderline, or controversial cases. Sometimes I wonder if the beliefs the umps have about what happened in these cases are even the same as my beliefs. If they are not, then it is difficult even to begin to explain the call actually made.

    2. My first thought was that the ball had hit his hand. But even if it was not Manuel’s perception that it had and the rule was known to be that had it hit his hand it would be a dead ball strike, the play was close enough that Manuel should have gone out to ask whether it had hit his hand and been ruled a dead ball strike. He needn’t get into a heated argument, but he should at least make sure the ump did not forget the rule in this case (granted it is, which again I am not sure about).

  24. LTG

    May 24, 2011 06:58 PM

    Just saw Samuel get a guy thrown out at the plate by a wide, wide margin for the second time this year. It makes me wonder: are there sabermetrics for 3B coaches?

  25. Scott G

    May 24, 2011 07:24 PM

    I’ll have to take your word on part one. My one question is this: Are you insinuating that there is (or there might be) a difference between when a player’s hand is on the handle or barrel? Because if it’s on the handle I’ve seen it called a strike. Again I would be only assuming (and I’d have a hard time being convinced that it’s an incorrect interpretation), that the handle would be treated differently than the barrel. It’s all one object, and there is nowhere in the rule book (correct me if I’m wrong) stipulating where you must hold the bat. See David Eckstein.

  26. LTG

    May 24, 2011 07:47 PM

    Yes, I am suggesting that an interpretive principle could emerge such that the barrel is treated differently than the handle for whatever reason (e.g., the kind of pragmatic reason I suggested above).

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