The Phillies have operated without superstar second baseman Chase Utley for large chunks of each of the past two seasons. In 2011, Utley played in 103 games, making his season debut on May 23 after recuperating from his patellar tendinitis injury. His other knee became a bother going into 2012 due to chondromalacia. As a result, Utley’s season debut was even later, occurring on June 27. He finished the season having appeared in 83 games, the fewest of any full season. The Phillies were fine without him in 2011, but as even more injuries piled up and fewer players provided exemplary production, Utley’s absence hit hard in 2012 as his team scrapped its way to .500.
Going into 2013, it seems like fans are writing Utley off, hoping for this chapter of Phillies baseball to end, not unlike the Placido Polanco era at third base. Polanco, like Utley, spent a lot of time on the disabled list, and the time he did spend on the field did not live up to the standards we had set for him previously. I think we need to recalibrate our expectations for Utley for a few reasons.
Offense Is Down League-Wide
Utley’s prime coincided with the waning day’s of MLB’s offensive era. After the 2009 season, for a litany of small reasons (unrelated to drug testing), offense declined across the league. Second base was not left unaffected. The average second baseman’s wOBA ranged between .321 and .327 between 2005-09, dropped to .316 in 2010, then .306 and .302 in the following two seasons. To put that in perspective, in 2007, Luis Castillo and Mark Loretta finished with a .326 mark. In 2012, they would have tied as the eighth-best-hitting second basemen, narrowly trailing Ian Kinsler at .327.
As a percentage of the league average, Utley’s wOBA was between 19 and 28 percent better than the positional average between 2005-09. In the past three years, it has been 17, 10, and 13 percent better, respectively. Yes, Utley has declined a bit offensively, but not nearly as much as it appears before adjusting for the shifting positional averages.
Utley Is 34 Years Old
It seems like just yesterday we were watching Utley hit a grand slam off of Aaron Cook for his first Major League hit. Utley turns 34 years old in December. His propensity for hustle has left him weathered and beaten down. 34 year olds this side of Barry Bonds rarely match the production of their youth, and that needs to be taken into account when we set our expectations for Utley. The 7-8 WAR seasons are over, as are the .200-plus isolated power seasons.
There is some good news, though — not all is lost. Going by wOBA, Utley was the fifth-best-hitting second baseman in all of baseball in 2012 (min. 350 PA). He walked exactly as often as he struck out (43 times; 12%). His .173 ISO ranked fourth among all second basemen, ahead of names like Rickie Weeks (21 home runs), Ian Kinsler (19), and Dan Uggla (19). Pitches he hit for weak fly balls last year (down to 36% from 46%) turned into line drives (up to 21% from 13%). Despite the line drives, though, he was a bit BABIP-unlucky as his .537 hit rate on liners trailed the league average .705.
The signs indicative of a good hitter are all still there for Utley. This isn’t a case like Ryan Howard where he can’t hit to a particular side of the field, against a certain type of pitcher (e.g. left-handers), or against a particular pitch (e.g. sliders low and away). No, he will never hit 30 home runs again. Hell, he may never hit 20 again. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be a productive hitter going forward.
Let’s say Utley’s bat is worse than I give him credit for having. Even so, few players bring as much to the field non-offensively as Utley. He has arguably been the best defensive second baseman of the 2000’s. The knee injury certainly saps him of range and agility, but Utley’s defensive value has been linked more to his and his coaching staff’s ability to utilize scouting information:
Now for the Left-Handed Batters side of the chart. It’s the whole key to Chase Utley. What appears to be clear from this chart is that both players are shifting left against left-handed batters, but Utley is going further. Phillips is missing plays to his right, but gets a few extra to his left. Utley is missing even more plays to his right, but is really making up for them on plays to his left. To the tune of +37, 30 more extra plays than even Brandon Phillips is making. That’s huge.
So what makes Utley so good? Simple answer: Positioning. And more specifically, positioning against left-handed batters.
Now keep in mind that not all left-handed batters are created equal. If you look at Defensive Positioning System in the Fielding Bible, you’ll see that. Utley has to vary his positioning by batter, even against different lefties, to maximize his performance. But, in general, the key appears to be that he is moving closer to first base against lefties than virtually any other second baseman in baseball. BIS Video Scouts, who watch every game and chart nearly everything you can imagine, have said the same thing. Utley has a strong tendency to position himself towards hitters’ pull side.
Unless, for some strange reason, Utley has stopped doing this, then we shouldn’t expect his defense to tank as precipitously as we would for a normal second baseman.
How about base running? Utley is the all-time leader in stolen base success rate at 89.6%. Even with his knee injury, Utley stole 14 bases in 14 attempts in 2011, and 11 in 12 attempts in 2012. That prorates to about 20 stolen bases in a full season. Only five second basemen stole 20 or more bases in 2012 and none match Utley’s efficiency. As for overall base running, Utley was still the Phillies’ second-best runner in 2012 despite the half-season, according to Baseball Prospectus. He finished ahead of Juan Pierre!
Let’s imagine a world where the Phillies put Utley in the lineup every day, but he is physically unable to swing a bat. No problem. Well, kind of a problem, but not as big of a problem compared to other players, anyway. Utley got on base about as often after being hit by a pitched baseball (11) as he did hitting doubles (15) or home runs (11). It’s one of Utley’s many underrated talents. His 151 career HBP’s tie for the 21st-most in baseball history. Overall, they account for about three percent of his plate appearances. Add to that his great ability to work counts and draw walks — his 12% walk rate was third-highest among qualified second basemen in 2012 — and you have a quality player who doesn’t always need to make great contact to contribute to his team’s offensive attack. But, as we learned above, Utley is still quite potent with the bat.
All told, Utley was worth 3.2 wins above replacement per FanGraphs and 2.9 per Baseball Reference. That’s in a half-season, 362 plate appearances. Imagine how good he would have been with a full season and slightly improved physical function. Fortunately, Utley will have that going into 2013, potentially his last hurrah as a Phillie. Utley is one of the players you should be least concerned about in terms of actual production. Just hope that the baseball gods who have so angrily pillaged the Phillies’ 25-man roster in recent years are merciful and spare the second baseman any further misfortune.