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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 ┬ámore.

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.

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.