Chase Utley Back to Form in 2012

This season, the city of Philadelphia has been focused on two key words regarding Chase Utley, completely unrelated to what he has done thus far: “knee” and “third base”. Utley suffered from patellar tendinitis and chondromalacia in his left knee, delaying his 2012 debut until June 27, the Phillies’ 77th game of the season. Even before he was set to return, there was speculation — spurred in part because of the city becoming smitten with Freddy Galvis and the chronic injury problems of Placido Polanco — that Utley should move from second base across the diamond to third base both as a way to get Galvis in the lineup and to save Utley’s knees in the long term.

Lost in the frenzy of discussion surrounding those two topics is Utley’s very productive season. In his 325 at-bats between the end of June and present day, his weighted on-base average (wOBA) is .359, the third-best mark in all of baseball among second basemen with at least 300 plate appearances. The average NL second baseman has a .304 wOBA. The .055 wOBA difference, when converted to runs, is about 15, or roughly one and a half wins. Comparatively, in Galvis’ brief stint as a regular before his back injury and drug suspension, he posted a .266 wOBA. Over 325 PA, the difference between Utley and Galvis is 26 runs, or nearly three wins. You can double that, if you dare, to get a feel for the difference over a full season.

The Phillies more or less have the old Utley back, with an emphasis on old. He is 33 years old, so his days as a regular 30 home run hitter are long behind him. However, his isolated power (ISO) at .190 is the highest it has been since 2009 (.226). It is also the second-best on the team behind Carlos Ruiz‘s .214, ahead of Jimmy Rollins‘ .179. The average NL second basemen has a .122 ISO, (think Jason Kipnis or Daniel Murphy).

Along with the power, Utley has brought along his always-incredible plate discipline. He is one of nine players in all of baseball (min. 300 PA) with more walks than strikeouts; his BB/K ratio at 1.11 is fifth-best in the Majors. As a result, Utley’s on-base percentage is an elite .375, tied for the best mark among all second basemen with Ben Zobrist.

As expected, Utley has lost a step or two defensively, but is still an above-average second baseman. The sample size is still too small to even think about citing defensive statistics, but Utley’s value as a defender has never centered on his physical ability; rather, by his great decision-making and positioning. As a base runner, FanGraphs has him adding 2.5 runs while Baseball Prospectus is slightly behind at 2.2, the third-best mark on the team behind Rollins and Juan Pierre. Utley, the most efficient base stealer of all time, has stolen nine bases in ten attempts and has taken the extra base (e.g. first to third) in 59 percent of his opportunities, compared to the 41 percent league average.

Baseball Reference has Utley at 2.8 WAR while FanGraphs has him at 3.1, both very, very good marks in a half-season considering two WAR is what we expect out of an average player. While we have focused on his taking grounders at third base, Utley has taken the field day in and day out and has arguably become the Phillies’ most valuable player of the second half. He enters the final year of his contract in 2013, potentially his last hurrah in Philadelphia given his advancing age and nagging injury worries. Make no mistake, though — Utley can still hang with the best players in baseball.

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8 comments

  1. Ryan

    September 25, 2012 08:41 AM

    So…sabermetrically speaking–what would be your solution to manning second and third base for the 2013 season, Bill? I’m of the opinion that our defense would be good with Utley/Galvis, but I worry that Galvis’ bat is still too light to be a full time starter.

    Personally, I expect Utley to be healthy and produce quite well next season (for a 33 year old). His knee problems should be manageable from here on out, but he can only play one position.

  2. Gaël

    September 25, 2012 08:52 AM

    I’m pretty sure Bill’s solution would be to go after Chase Headley.

  3. jabroni

    September 25, 2012 09:55 AM

    Bill, have you heard any “inside info” about how Utley’s feeling these days? Apparently last season, after he came back from injury, he was still playing severely injured, as evidenced by his 2011 stats. I know he’s going to have chronic knee pain for the rest of his career (rest of his life), but are his normalized 2012 stats a sign he’s more-or-less stable going forward? He shouldn’t miss the first 76 games of 2013, right?

  4. EricL

    September 25, 2012 10:08 AM

    I think it’s kind of amazing that this team had four of the top 25 most efficient base stealers of all time on the 2007-2009 teams.

  5. Richard

    September 25, 2012 10:16 AM

    jabroni, the problem last year was that Utley had not been able to strengthen his legs, given his knee problem… this year, he took longer coming back, primarily for that reason. And it was the other knee this spring.

    I know we have no way of really knowing, other than reading the combined tea leaves of his statements and his play, but my sense was he was NOT playing in severe pain either last year or this year (emphasis on severe). And the problem with his production last year was strength. This coming off-season, he’s going to have to figure out some way to build and maintain strength without over-working, and getting enough rest.

    I suspect Utley has a plan to just that, given all that he now knows about his legs. Just like Rollins now knows far more about his legs than he did in early 2010, and how to keep himself on the field. These guys are still getting older, of course, which is unavoidable, but they’re smart.

  6. Chris S

    September 25, 2012 01:21 PM

    I think something that gets lost about Galvis is his incredible bad luck. He posted a respectable .137 ISO in his 200 PA’s, but he also had a very low BAPIP of .253, with some normalization of his BAPIP and probably more like .090 ISO he becomes an average player, but he is still young and could improve over time.

  7. Richard

    September 25, 2012 01:40 PM

    Not so fast, Chris. Let’s say you give Galvis an average BABIP of .300, in the same # of plate appearances. That brings his BA up to .268, which seems swell, but his OBP would still only be .290. Further, you reduce his ISO to .090, you effectively take away the only promising thing about his offensive game: his decent pop. In any event, a .290 OBP player with a .090 ISO is decidedly NOT average.

  8. LTG

    September 25, 2012 03:39 PM

    Not to mention hitters’ BABIPs are not as much a matter of random fluctuation as pitchers’ BABIPs. It is entirely possible that Galvis’s hitting-skill is accurately reflected by his .253 BABIP. When one swings at crap, one makes solid contact less often.

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