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.

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22 comments

  1. Frank K

    September 23, 2011 10:37 AM

    I love Chase, but this is starting to remind me of Fred Lynn’s similar decline from a sure HOF career from 1975-1980 into a mish-mash of average-at-best years throughout the eighties. If he needs surgery I hope he gets it this off-season. And if it does not help, his productive career may well be over.

    I had hoped his forced time off due to the concussion would help him get physically rested and come back with some pop in his swing but it simply did not happen. Troubling indeed

  2. JM

    September 23, 2011 10:54 AM

    Bill, you speak of weak contact, and I agree. I think this is a direct representation of the number of 2 strike counts he hits out of. He is taking alot of pitches, indeed trying to “lean” into them more than I have ever seen. I don’t have any stats to back this up, but maybe you do, and that would partially explain the decline. Maybe he just needs to be infected with the Hunter Pence strategy of hitting to get back to his more productive ways…

  3. Tim M.

    September 23, 2011 10:54 AM

    Chase seemed to just get his swing back when he was beaned in the head by EOF. Hopefully he can dial back into that quick threatening swing over the next 6 games.

  4. Ken

    September 23, 2011 11:02 AM

    This was a really strong piece until the very end of it. The idea of giving Chase all 6 remaining games off to rest wounds versus what I’d guess is still some degree of rust, and maybe confidence since resuming play post concussion just seems counterproductive. The guy’s like Doc and Cliff in their finish what they start spirit, and you gotta respect that to an extent. He’ll have Thurs and Fri of next week off (I THINK Game 1 is Saturday), so you give him 1, maybe 2 games off, he maintains routine, and gets a little rest. I believe all 6 would be overkill, but I’m not privvy to what little knicks and the like he has, so I might back off that if there are injuries and the like that he has that typically go unpublicized.

  5. Cutter

    September 23, 2011 11:09 AM

    Am I reading this right? An article here that doesn’t praise Chase Utley? Is this allowed?

    If resting him while he recovered from the concussion didn’t help him, then I don’t think that resting him for the final week is going to do much good either.

    He really shouldn’t be wearing down considering he missed most of the first two months of the season.

    If anything, I would keep playing him in hopes that he regains his hitting stroke.

    And it would certainly help the team if he is moved out of the #3 spot in the lineup if his performance continues to be subpar from what we expect.

  6. Phillie697

    September 23, 2011 12:24 PM

    @Cutter,

    You’re assuming he’s completely recovered from the concussion. The theory is that while he was recovering from concussion, the rest of his body got to recuperate, which is certainly logical. Except, maybe the concussion isn’t over yet, and I think that’s Bill’s ultimate point.

  7. Jon

    September 23, 2011 12:33 PM

    I’ve been waiting for this one. Ugghhh….

  8. Rita

    September 23, 2011 04:08 PM

    Chase plays harder than any other guy out there. I hope all is well with him.

  9. lou

    September 23, 2011 04:20 PM

    A large part of our problem is jroll trying to hit homeruns every at bat instead getting on base as a first priority.He’s trying so hard for his big contract, he’s not doing his job.(get on base) He needs to be on base,to be driven in.Howard needs to get rid of his FLY SWATTER,& stop chasing those down & away pitches.

  10. Jim

    September 23, 2011 05:32 PM

    Utley used to extend his bat (reach it back) before the pitch and cut his swing, now he coils his bat on the pitch and is late on fastballs. Lots of fly ball to left. Last night I noticed he was actually laying his bat on his shoulder (even worse) Fundamental flaws that Gross should be picking up and correcting

  11. jauer

    September 23, 2011 06:04 PM

    @ Cutter

    “He really shouldn’t be wearing down considering he missed most of the first two months of the season.”

    So Utley was just chilling on the sofa until June rather than actively rehabbing?

  12. jauer

    September 23, 2011 06:07 PM

    “This year, however, he’s at .279 against lefties.”

    Whatever you do, Manuel, please keep Utley and Howard stacked in the lineup. Victorino in the 3-hole will lead to a 3-game sweep from Arizona.

  13. rita

    September 23, 2011 08:06 PM

    I love my phillies, but I just don’t understand how almost all of the players including the pitchers are out of sync.
    Howard is overrated. Ruiz is underrated.
    Also, how did Howard get the Clementee award.
    It doesn’t seem possible that all of the player are OFF for six games.

  14. J. Murphy

    September 23, 2011 08:14 PM

    Chase Utley has been in decline for some time. There are many flaws in his game. Let’s begin with the obvious. First, his trigger mechanism occurs so late that he is often not ready to hit as the pitcher delivers the pitch. Second, he gets absolutely no power from his lower half. As a result he his hitting with all hands. If you can’t generate power with your legs and hips you are not going to hit the ball with any power.
    Utley should never been slotted into the 3 hole this year. At best he is an average hitter. Your #3 hitter should be your best hitter and possibly best run producer. In the field he is below average both with his fielding and throwing. Overall he should be rated in the lower range as a 2nd baseman. Chase has done a lot for the organization but it is time to move on. Main focus of the offseason should be to find Chase’s replacement.

  15. Bill Baer

    September 23, 2011 08:21 PM

    Jeez, Bleacher Report is housing all of these biomechanic experts. It’s a shame they’re not working in the Phillies’ front office and on the coaching staff. Jeez!

  16. stu

    September 23, 2011 08:32 PM

    If Utley puts up Fred Lynn numbers through his age 36 season I will be more than happy

  17. George W. Brown III

    September 24, 2011 06:32 AM

    Chase Utley fits the Bill James Sabermatrics profile perfectly. At age 31-32 most position players begin to decline in their capabilities. Utley’s decline is more drastic and probably influenced by his numerous injuries. Hopefully the Phils recognize it is not going to get much better with Utley. He is not a three hole hitter any longer and may have some value left on the trade market. Be satisfied with .260 BA, 10 HR, and 65 RBI because that is the best he can produce, if he can stay healthy which is highly unlikely. Time to say thanks and goodbye to Chase Utley.

  18. Phillie697

    September 24, 2011 09:53 AM

    Why on earth would you trade Utley? Do we somehow have someone better for the 2B job? Is there someone available on the market who can play 2B better than Utley? The objective is still to WIN right?

  19. Jim Mc Dowell

    September 24, 2011 10:29 AM

    All your numbers are right on and strongly support placing Pence in the 3rd spot in the lineup and moving Utley to the 6th/7th slot behind Mayberry/Ibanez. MLB addressed this situation and Bobby Valentine noted that it was obvious that Utley is hitting the ball with only the upper part of his body and not properly using his legs. This substantially reduces his power and points to a lingering hip problem which he won’t discuss with the media.

  20. Debbie Santora

    September 25, 2011 06:24 PM

    When a player is not living up to his past reputation,it must be awknowledged. Not with disdain,but with acceptance. It is a shame to pretend. It is a shame when fans or announcers build a player up on something that does not exist anymore. See it for what it is, whether it is Utley’s declining offensive ability, Howard’s high number of strike outs,or the inconsistency, and perhaps the lower freqency of ‘being on their game,’ amongst starting pitchers. I love the Phillies. What an amazing collection of characters. What I have said does not change this.

  21. Cutter

    September 26, 2011 09:10 AM

    @jauer:

    Yes, I’m sure Utley was rehabbing very hard when he was on the DL. But there’s a difference between rehabbing and the wear that a player gets during the season.

    Otherwise, wouldn’t players be more worn down at the beginning of the season from all the offseason training?

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