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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.