The Davey Lopes Effect Redux

Prior to the 2010 season, in a season preview for The Hardball Times, I examined how first base coach Davey Lopes helped improve the Phillies’ running game. Specifically, he helped in three ways: overall aggressiveness, increased aggression in stealing third base, and overall efficiency. When it became known that the Phillies weren’t bringing him back for the 2011 season, I was disappointed because he meant a lot to the team. Lopes eventually signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

While the Dodgers’ season overall has been disappointing, center fielder Matt Kemp has broken out and is a front-runner for the National League Most Valuable Player award. His numbers, both traditional and Sabermetric, speak highly to the now-27-year-old’s improvement. Last year, Kemp had a .760 OPS and barely crossed 50 percent in his stolen base success rate. This year, his OPS is a shade under 1.000 and is stealing bases with a 78 percent success rate.

On Twitter, I saw some Dodgers fans talking about Kemp’s great season. In particular, @Dingersblog noted that Kemp could not only win the Triple Crown (AVG/HR/RBI) but also join the exclusive 40/40 Club. Just out of curiosity, I tweeted to him, “Any idea what impact Davey Lopes has had on Kemp? I know Lopes was a godsend to the Phillies.” Both @MikeSciosciasTI and @truebluela joined the conversation as well. It was very enlightening, so I’ve screencapped it for your enjoyment below (read bottom to top):

@Dingersblog wanted me to add these tweets, in addendum to what you read above:

Giving Kemp an insular environment to succeed, and allowing his game to speak for itself, was for the best in a lot of ways.

I obv. don’t want it to come off like I’m saying Kemp is a hermit and a-hole for not speaking to me or something stupid

I feel like Lopes didn’t get enough credit for what he did while he was in Philadelphia. Now that he’s doing the same in Los Angeles, I think we can gain more of an appreciation for just how much of an effect a coach can have on his players. In particular, Shane Victorino seemed to benefit the most. In his age 22-24 seasons in the Minors, Victorino attempted 75 steals with a 65 percent success rate. In a full season with the Phillies in 2006, the year prior to Lopes’ arrival, Victorino attempted only seven steals in 462 plate appearances, succeeding only four times. Since 2007, he has attempted 183 steals with a success rate of 82.5 percent.

As the base running runs on FanGraphs indicates, the gap between the best and worst teams accounts for only three and a half wins over the course of a full season, but it can turn a good player into a great player. In Kemp’s case (and perhaps Victorino’s), not only did Lopes make him a better runner, but he helped him in ways that don’t show up in the statistics.

Thanks again to @DingersBlog, @MikeSciosciasTI, and @truebluela for helping inspire this post. Make sure to follow them on Twitter for insightful commentary on baseball. And follow me as well.

The Decline of Chase Utley

As the Phillies’ B-team continues to slide, currently on a six-game losing streak after clinching the NL East, fans are beginning to worry if the Phillies will have what it takes to win 11 games in post-season baseball. A week ago, fans were hard-pressed to find things to worry about with the Phillies, but now, we have Chase Utley‘s decline, the well-being of Ryan Howard and Hunter Pence, the two Roy Oswalts, Cole Hamelshome run tendencies, and many ¬†more.

Todd Zolecki described Utley’s decline a few days ago:

Since Utley reached a season-high .290 average on Aug. 1, he has hit just .221 with a .280 on-base percentage and a .329 slugging percentage. He has just nine RBIs in 36 games, which is alarming considering he has been hitting third in a lineup that is tied for second in the National League in scoring in that stretch.

Zolecki also has a quote from Manuel, who worries about Utley’s health. The second baseman has a history of fading in the second-half, perhaps a result of his all-out style of play.

With that in mind, I wanted to examine the data to see if he could pinpoint any specific areas for concern.

Perusing FanGraphs, the first thing that worries me is Utley’s walk rate. At the moment, it sits at eight percent, more than four percent lower than it had been in both 2009 and ’10. Walking is a big part of Utley’s value as his on-base percentage has been above .375 since he took over at second base in 2005. A decline in walk rate usually coincides with other declining plate discipline attributes, but that isn’t the case with Utley. He’s swinging and missing at the fewest percentage of pitches of his career, just over five percent compared to his 6.5 percent career average. His overall strikeout rate is also the lowest of his career at 10.5 percent, below his 15 percent career average. The plate discipline stats at FanGraphs don’t reveal any noteworthy changes otherwise.

The second item that caught my attention was his batted ball profile. While his ground ball rate has stayed constant in both 2010 and ’11, it appears that Utley is making much weaker contact, hitting line drives at a 20 percent clip last year but only 13 percent this year. As a result, Utley is hitting more fly balls — his 46 percent rate is up from 39 percent last year. Utley was more of a fly ball hitter before his hip injury, but he also hit more line drives as well, with a rate ranging from 18.5 percent to 24 percent from 2005-09. In other words, prior to his hip injury, Utley hit fewer grounders and more fly balls; after the hip injury, Utley is hitting the same amount of grounders, but has reduced his line drives in favor of fly balls. This indicates weaker contact.

His BABIP on ground and fly balls doesn’t stray far from his career averages, but line drives have become hits four percent less this year than they have over the course of his career. With a sample of just 40 line drives, this could just be simple variance, but given the other data, at least some of it is explained by making weaker contact.

This is backed up by his decline in power. Utley’s isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) is .164, the lowest mark of his career and the third consecutive year in which it has dropped. He has 26 home runs in 2010-11 combined, which — if a full season — would be the second-lowest mark of his career among his full seasons. Additionally, his rate of turning fly balls into home runs has traditionally been in the 11-15 percent range over his career. This year, however, that rate is only 6.5 percent. With 143 outfield fly balls, the difference between his career rate of 12.8 percent and this year’s rate is nine home runs. If Utley had nine extra home runs instead of nine extra outs, his wOBA would increase by 41 points.

As Zolecki noted, the biggest change has come in Utley’s performance against lefties. Utley has a career .381 wOBA against southpaws, nearly equivalent with his performance against right-handers at .379. This year, however, he’s at .279 against lefties. Nearly all of the changes discussed already are even more prominent when you break it down into platoon splits.

  • 2010 vs. LHP: 13.3 BB%, .287 ISO, .300 BABIP, 20.0 HR/FB%
  • 2011 vs. LHP: 6.6 BB%, .123 ISO, .217 BABIP, 6.7 HR/FB%

That’s just decline across the board. Interestingly, though, there’s a reversal of batted balls with both types of pitchers. Compared to his career averages, Utley is hitting eight percent more ground balls and 10 percent fewer fly balls against lefties this year. The decline in quality of contact helps explain the precipitous drop in his HR/FB rate. Conversely, against right-handers, Utley is hitting 10 percent fewer line drives, the same amount of ground balls, and seven percent more fly balls with a HR/FB rate currently at half his career average rate.

Whether it’s his hip, knee, or recent concussion, it is difficult to pinpoint the cause of his decline without a direct, honest quote from the man himself, or from others in the know within the organization. We can say, though, that the trends are not at all encouraging heading into the post-season. With a .341 wOBA, though, he is still at least the fourth-best hitter on the team and is capable of being productive no matter the situation. Since returning from a concussion suffered on September 7, Utley has had one day off. Perhaps Charlie Manuel should give his second baseman the final six games off to catch his breath and mend his wounds before returning to battle in October for the Division Series.

Why I Love This Game

In the summer of 2006, I didn’t know any better.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I thought I knew better. I thought what I knew about baseball was all there was to know. I figured a hitter was probably best judged by his average, home run and RBI totals. I figured pitchers were probably best judged by their records, ERA, saves and strikeouts. These things were all I knew and all I counted on to tell me what I wanted to know about baseball players.

About a year prior, I had stumbled upon a site called SomethingAwful. Longing to entertain the geek in me, I found a lot of their articles funny, the weekly Photoshop showcase sublime and the occasional animations to be pretty good in their own right. The site featured a forum, one that required a one-time, $10 charge to register and post (reading was free). I thought the concept insane – pay to post on a forum, when the rest of the Internet is basically free…no thanks – and resisted even examining what I was refusing to pay for.

Until the summer of ’06.

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