Chase Utley Isn’t Back… Yet
Chase Utley finally broke out of his shell yesterday, going 3-for-5 with three singles, a walk, and a stolen base in a 7-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. He went into the game with a .195 batting average, .298 on-base percentage, and a .293 slugging percentage in 41 at-bats. His much anticipated return had yet to live up to expectations, but it was nice to see him have a productive game.
Although he had good results yesterday, there is still some cause for concern. Utley entered yesterday’s game hitting line drives at just a ten percent rate, nearly half of his career average. His ground ball rate was down over four percent and his fly ball rate was up over ten percent compared to his career averages. We need 150-250 plate appearances before we can be confident in what the data tells us, but the data does show what has actually happened thus far, which is that Utley has been making very weak contact.
Yesterday was no different. Utley notched all three of his hits on ground balls to right field, grounded into a force out, and hit a weak fly ball to left field. Once again, no line drives to speak of.
Furthermore, Utley seems to be hitting the ball weakly to the opposite field. Unlike his teammate Ryan Howard, it is uncharacteristic of Utley to be hitting the ball this way. Compare his spray chart, courtesy Texas Leaguers, from this year to that of 2009, his last full healthy season.
The overwhelming majority of Utleys’ hits in 2009 went to right field. For Utley, pulling the ball is a high-percentage opportunity to reach base.
His slow start is, of course, very understandable. He missed the entirety of spring training and has not had as much time as the others in getting reacquainted with the grind of a 162-game baseball season. Instead, he played some rehab games for a while and was immediately tossed into the fire with the burden of high expectations (despite what some writers claim to the contrary). I even wrote on this blog that the addition of Utley could be worth about six wins, assuming he was back to his old self.
It has been clear thus far that Utley is still trying to shake off the rust. Hopefully his performance yesterday is an indication of better things to come, but we have learned that the steadfast second baseman is, in fact, human.