Chase Utley Is Good

Just one of your intermittent reminders that Chase Utley is, in fact, good at playing baseball.

Among players with 240 or more plate appearances, Utley is one of nine second basemen with three or more Wins Above Replacement via FanGraphs (fWAR). Utley ranks seventh in the group at 3.3, trailing Dustin Pedroia at 6.5. Although the difference appears quite large, Pedroia has nearly twice as much fWAR due to having nearly twice as many plate appearances. If we scale fWAR to 700 plate appearances, a full season, we get to see just how good Utley is and has been thus far.

WAR

PA

WAR/700 PA

Pedroia

6.5

484

9.40

Utley

3.3

246

9.39

Zobrist

5.5

451

8.54

Kendrick

4.2

382

7.70

Kinsler

4.5

478

6.59

Weeks

3.8

469

5.67

Phillips

3.4

460

5.17

Espinosa

3.2

441

5.08

Cano

3.2

443

5.06

Going by just offense, Utley currently ranks second among all qualified second baseman with a .393 wOBA, just barely trailing Pedroia at .398. Ben Zobrist is in third place all the way back at .380. In fact, overall, Utley’s wOBA is tenth-best in the National League.

What has Utley meant to the Phillies? Utley made his season debut on May 23. From the start of the season on April 1 to May 22, the Phillies averaged 3.83 runs per game. Since then, the Phillies have averaged 4.77 runs per game. To put that in perspective, the St. Louis Cardinals currently average the most runs per game in the league at 4.80. With Utley, the Phillies’ offense went from below-average to among the league’s best.

Although not much has changed for Utley — he has always been this good — two things are noticeable. One is that he has completely recaptured the power that evaded him last year. In 2010, his ISO dipped to .169, by far a career low. This year, it is back up to .212, just eight points below his career average. The second difference is that Utley continues to make contact more frequently when he swings the bat. His swinging strike rate has been on a steady decline throughout his entire career, as the following chart illustrates:

A difference of 2.3 percent from 2005 to 2011 may not seem like much, but in a typical season, Utley sees 2,500 to 3,000 pitches of which he will swing at about 40 percent (minimum about 1,000). So, given that theoretical minimum constraint, Utley is making contact with 23 more pitches compared to the start of his career. With a career BABIP at .313, that is hypothetically seven more hits, worth about ten points of batting average in 600 at-bats.

Along with his typically pristine defense  (his 22.4 UZR/150 is tied for best in baseball; small sample size caveat) and his efficient base running (11-for-11 stealing bases), Utley continues to be the total package and continues to be criminally underrated around baseball.

Left Field Key to Howard’s Resurgence

At the start of June, I remarked at just how little Ryan Howard was hitting balls to the left side of the field. The slugger was trending away from what made him such a success when he won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2005 and the Most Valuable Player award in ’06. Rather than hitting a high percentage of baseballs to left field, he was pulling much more frequently, and as a result of weaker contact and defensive shifts, his production started to plummet.

From the start of the season through July 4, Howard posted a paltry .819 OPS. His production was most noticeably down against left-handed pitchers. However, in the last week, Howard has hit the ball to left field a majority of the time, and as a result, his production has spiked. Since July 23, Howard has posted a 1.220 OPS with five doubles and three home runs.

A look at spray charts from Texas Leaguers reveals that Howard has indeed been hitting more baseballs to the left side.

Yesterday, he even hit a double off of the left-handed Joe Beimel that helped spark a late-inning comeback against the upstart Pittsburgh Pirates. Howard’s numbers against lefties are still ugly overall, but if his recent surge is any indication, he could be ready for one of his typical second-half surges.