The Mysterious Appearing Utley

Somewhere around December of last year, the Phillies changed the name of the franchise for the first time in nearly 130 years of existence. Since the New Year, they’ve been officially known in the future tense as “The Phillies, Once Utley and Howard are Healthy.”

Literature is littered with stories whose action is driven by a character who either never shows up or is only introduced at the very end. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, for instance, or Gogol’s The Inspector General. I was beginning to have that feeling about the 2012 Phillies, that their story would be written in large part about the absence of Chase Utley. In the shroud of secrecy that characterizes the Phillies’ media department, it was beginning to look like Utley was not the character we’d wait all year to have introduced, but rather the one who, while absent from the storytelling itself, would drive many of the events of the story, like Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984. Every action, it seemed, was driven to compensate for Utley’s absence.

We’ve lived in a virtual purgatory all season, watching a revolving door of second basemen. Mike Fontenot, who can hit but can’t field. Freddy Galvis, who could field but couldn’t hit. Pete Orr, who couldn’t do either. And most recently, Michael Martinez, who not only can neither hit nor field, but fails to do so with a lack of self-awareness matched only by the douchebag who brings his acoustic guitar to a party, then plays Oasis’s “Wonderwall” until the only people left in the room are waiting for him to stop bogarting the guitar so they can play something not included in the “Teenager’s first open mic night” book of sheet music.

Billy Graham once said: “Have you ever seen God? I’ve never seen God… I’ve never seen the wind. I’ve seen the effects of the wind… but I’ve never seen the wind.” We could say the same about Utley. He wasn’t up to his usual standards last season, but he was still worth 3.9 fWAR in only 2/3 of a season. And with Utley back in the lineup, Hunter Pence moves back down to fourth or fifth, and maybe there’ll finally be someone on base for Carlos Ruiz to drive in. Suddenly, the pieces start to fit back together as bench players are taken out of the starting lineup and returned to their original and appropriate uses.

A friend of mine once explained how he eats at Five Guys every six months or so. Every time he eats there, he marvels at how tasty their burgers and fries are, and then spends the rest of the evening on the toilet as a pound and change of greasy, beefy glory result in crippling gastrointestinal distress. But a few months later, you forget about the aftereffects and begin to crave Five Guys again. Six months is just enough time to forget about the full Five Guys experience and go back again, more out of curiosity than anything else.

So too with Utley. It’s been so long since we’ve seen a truly great position player in a Phillies uniform that I’m starting to forget what one looks like. Utley says he’s in better physical condition now than he’s been in a while, but even so, we shouldn’t expect too much from him too quickly. If Utley comes back and is even a shadow of his 2007 self, I’ll be thrilled. If he’s anything more, I’ll be so happy you won’t hear from me again until the state troopers are chasing a man playing an accordion and riding a unicycle the wrong way down I-295. Because that’ll be me.

But with Utley back in the lineup, it feels like we’re at least a little closer to being whole, that things are at least a little closer to being okay again. And, most importantly, it means that Charlie Manuel can nail Michael Martinez’s ass to the bench and never think about him again.

We’ve missed you, Chase. It’s good to have you back.

Happy Chase Utley Day!

Like a young child impatiently waiting for December 25, we have been X-ing out days on the calendar anticipating the return of Chase Utley. The Phillies have grimaced through 76 games in which the impotent bats of Freddy Galvis, Pete Orr, Michael Martinez, and Mike Fontenot have been not only utilized but relied upon in Utley’s absence, resulting in the third-lowest OPS by second basemen in the league. With all due credit to Galvis, of course, who played outstanding defense before suffering a back injury and testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

But there’s nothing quite like Chase Utley, a once-in-a-generation player who can do it all: hit for average (.290 career), hit for power (.215 career ISO), steal bases (27-for-29 in 2010-11), and play outstanding defense (best UZR/150 among second basemen since 2005). Despite a late start to his career — he was first promoted at the age of 24 — and having his last two years tarnished by injuries, Utley remains a fringe Hall of Fame candidate as well. With 50.2 career rWAR, he is one of only 17 second basemen to have accomplished the feat:

Player rWAR From To Age
Rogers Hornsby 124.6 1915 1937 19-41
Eddie Collins 118.5 1906 1930 19-43
Joe Morgan 97.1 1963 1984 19-40
Nap Lajoie 85.6 1901 1916 26-41
Charlie Gehringer 76.6 1924 1942 21-39
Lou Whitaker 71.4 1977 1995 20-38
Frankie Frisch 68.0 1919 1937 20-38
Bobby Grich 67.3 1970 1986 21-37
Ryne Sandberg 64.9 1981 1997 21-37
Roberto Alomar 63.1 1988 2004 20-36
Willie Randolph 63.0 1975 1992 20-37
Craig Biggio 62.6 1988 2007 22-41
Jackie Robinson 58.7 1947 1956 28-37
Joe Gordon 54.0 1938 1950 23-35
Jeff Kent 53.9 1992 2008 24-40
Billy Herman 52.5 1931 1947 21-37
Chase Utley 50.2 2003 2011 24-32
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/27/2012.

11 of the 17 are either in the Hall of Fame or on the ballot, so perhaps with a productive second-half of 2012, Utley can revive his historically-great career.

What can the Phillies expect out of Utley right now, though? Utley himself feels great:

“So far, so good,” he said. “It felt pretty good out there. … I’m feeling pretty confident out there. I felt a little bit more comfortable out there on the field and in the batter’s box and hopefully I’ll move forward from here.”

Utley stopped short of saying he expects to be activated for Wednesday’s game, saying he has to talk to general manager Ruben Amaro first.

“I’ll talk to Ruben tonight and tell him how I feel and go from there,” he said. “Right now I feel good. Everything so far has been pretty good.”

Even while battling injuries in 2010 and ’11, he compiled a combined 9.3 fWAR and 9.4 rWAR, so if everything goes as planned, the Phillies could still get two or three wins above replacement if Utley is able to stay healthy and productive throughout the second-half of the season. Though his power is waning, it would be a welcome addition to the lineup as his .169 and .166 ISO in the past two years would be the third-highest on the team, behind Carlos Ruiz and Hunter Pence. Short of making a trade for an impact player, something that has become commonplace over the last three years, activating Utley from the disabled list is the biggest improvement the Phillies could have made. It’s great to have him back.

(Not familiar with the stats cited in this article? Check out the Stats page full of links and resources!)