Reminder: Chase Utley Is Still Good

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.

Multi-Talented

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.

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47 comments

  1. Ryan

    October 23, 2012 07:17 AM

    Isn’t it the other knee that bothered Utley in 2012?

  2. Bill Baer

    October 23, 2012 09:37 AM

    Not related to the article, but just a random aside…

    I vividly remembered Utley’s grand slam in my head to have been hit to left-center until I watched that video. So weird how your brain will alter your memories.

  3. Chris S

    October 23, 2012 11:01 AM

    Oh how I miss Harry Kalas’s voice. Listening to a Phillies game has never been the same. RIP Harry.

  4. LTG

    October 23, 2012 12:07 PM

    Wait, are Phillies fans really anticipating Utley leaving? I just don’t understand this. It’s not like we need sabermetrics to see that Utley is one of the best 2Bers in the league still.

  5. Phillie697

    October 23, 2012 12:12 PM

    Why do we keep saying 2013 is the last hurrah for Utley in Philly? Do you really think RAJ will let the best 2B in the history of the Phillies, who is still capable of producing adequately at his position, who SHOULD retire a Phillie as much as anyone in the history of Phillie sports, go play for another team? Why the hell aren’t Phillies fans as outraged about this as we were when RAJ dragged his foot on re-signing Hamels? Are you people nuts??? He IS the Derke Jeter of Phillies. I don’t remember ANYBODY talking about Jeter’s last hurrah when his contract was up and he looked like he was a former shell of himself. Sure, plenty of talks back then about a reduced role, but nobody, NOBODY, talked about him leaving. Please don’t tell me the fing Yankees have more class than we do.

  6. GDF

    October 23, 2012 01:21 PM

    Assuming he is healthy and able to play 130-140 games next year, Utley’s experience, talent and desire will make him at top 5 third baseman. I would expect 20-25 home runs, 100 runs scored, 80-90 RBIs, .280 average, .390 OBP and 5 WAR. I also believe he wants to stay with the Phillies after 2013 and a deal will get done that protects both sides.

  7. Ryan

    October 23, 2012 01:22 PM

    Who knows if this season will be his last hurrah in Philly or not? I think that RAJ would love to have him back–if he can make it through something resembling a full season. Why take a huge risk and re-sign him now when you can wait and see what his health is like this spring or at mid season? Derek Jeter was healthy when the Yankees re-signed him, so that’s not a good comparison. If Utley was healthy or had made it through a full season lately, he would probably already be re-signed.

  8. Corinne

    October 23, 2012 01:49 PM

    My stomach actually lurched at the words “potentially his last hurrah as a Phillie.” Can’t express how much I enjoy watching Chase Utley play baseball in a Phillies uniform.

  9. Jeremy

    October 23, 2012 01:59 PM

    Wait….. Since when will howard never hit 30 or even 20 HRs again? He hit 14 this year over 71 games. That’s a pace to hit 31/32 over 162…. and we all know he wasn’t 100%, so where’s that statement coming from?

  10. Chris S

    October 23, 2012 02:01 PM

    I believe Bill was talking about Utley, not Howard.

  11. LTG

    October 23, 2012 02:20 PM

    GDF,

    Utley can’t play 3B. Among other things, how will he make the throw from behind the bag with his momentum going away from 1B? And what 2Ber will replace Utley if he moves to 3B?

  12. Phillie697

    October 23, 2012 03:22 PM

    Plus, who do we get to play 2B? Anyone suggesting Galvis should swear under oath that they’ve been happy with Polanco as our 3B, because Polanco at 3B > Galvis at 2B, both with the glove AND the bat.

  13. Phillie697

    October 23, 2012 03:30 PM

    @Ryan,

    Chase Utley in 2012 still produced more in 83 games (3.2 WAR) than Derek Jeter did in 157 games in 2010 (2.8 WAR), the year in question that I was speaking about. Just saying…

    That said, I’m okay if this was a ploy to wait and see so that we don’t have to pony up more money than we have to to re-sign him. Unlike Hamels, where waiting was stupid, I’m okay with that. But please, don’t call this the last hurrah. I dislike RAJ as our GM as it is.

  14. Chris S

    October 23, 2012 04:19 PM

    If this season is Utley’s last hurrah with the Phillies I would be extremely disheartened. He is by far the best player I have ever seen in a Phillies uniform and I want to see him retire as a Phillie.

    During his prime he was the second best player in all of baseball, it just amazes me how underrated he was during his prime.

    FanGraphs

    From 2005 to now he still has the second highest WAR behind only Pujols. It is just a testament to how he can miss a whole year in that time span and still have the second best WAR in baseball.

  15. Phillie697

    October 23, 2012 04:32 PM

    Utley is our generation’s Mike Schmidt. Absolutely no offense to Mike Schmidt intended. Anyone want to suggest that we don’t re-sign Mike Schmidt back then when he was getting older and more injury-prone?

  16. Richard

    October 23, 2012 07:19 PM

    “Unlike Hamels, where waiting was stupid, I’m okay with that.”

    Again, the assumption that Hamels had no agency in this. What’s likely is he’s known what he was doing all along and simply wouldn’t sign earlier. Give the player some credit.

  17. Pete

    October 23, 2012 11:58 PM

    @Bill

    “After the 2009 season, for a litany of small reasons (unrelated to drug testing), offense declined across the league.”

    Not sure I understand this statement that the decline in offense is unrelated to drug testing. Are you saying any decline in offense due to drug testing would have occurred in previous years? Or are you saying that drug testing is not the reason at all for declining offense in baseball?

  18. Bill Baer

    October 24, 2012 12:34 AM

    I was saying that it’s not a big reason, or one at all. I like to throw shots at MLB’s drug policy sometimes. It’s fun.

  19. Pete

    October 24, 2012 12:42 AM

    Got it, thanks!

  20. Ryan

    October 24, 2012 07:56 AM

    @Phillie

    Yes, Utley outproduced Jeter in their walk years even with Jeter playing a whole season and Utley half of a season. However, Jeter averaged more than 150 games per season in the three years prior to his walk year (2010) while Utley barely averaged over 100. When you take into account how badly the players replacing Utley devalued second base for the Phillies, re-signing him immediately is far from a smart thing to do. Jeter didn’t give way to replacement players that devalued shortstop for the Yankees. If Utley can put play over 130 games in a season at production resembling what he averaged last season, then it’s a no brainer to re-sign him.

  21. LTG

    October 24, 2012 08:40 AM

    Cuz Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix are league-average shortstops?

  22. Phillie697

    October 24, 2012 11:50 AM

    @Richard,

    And give MLB teams and their GMs some credit too, that if they have shown great interest to sign a player early and that player simply refused to so that he play the market, that they would have in some way, shape, or form leaked that information to the public so that they’d look like they’re trying. Last time I checked, Phillies and RAJ did no such thing. And please, spare me the “they didn’t want to mess up negotiations” excuse; even if that WAS RAJ’s thinking, not to try to get the public and the media on his side so as to pressure Hamels would also be inexcusable. Face it, RAJ just had poor judgment.

  23. Phillie697

    October 24, 2012 11:52 AM

    @Ryan,

    You DO understand how WAR works right? By producing 3.2 WAR in 2012 in only 86 games, the Phillies could have plugged a replacement-level player at 2B for the rest of the games, and we would have been better off than having Jeter in 2010 for the WHOLE season. The devaluation of not having Utley in the other games is already factored in.

    If your argument, and I’m hoping it is not, is that RAJ is so incompetent as to be unable to find replacement-level players to play while Utley is out, then you know what, you have less faith in RAJ than I do.

  24. Ryan

    October 24, 2012 12:21 PM

    This is the RAJ that brought us Mike Fontenot, Michael Martinez, and Ty Wigginton is he not?

  25. Phillie697

    October 24, 2012 01:12 PM

    @Ryan,

    So your reasoning for not re-signing Utley is because… Our GM sucks?

    I am amazed how Phillies fans have rationalized themselves into suggesting moves for this team for the express purpose of working around the glaring deficiencies of our manager and our GM. You know what they would say if you were doing this for your own manager at work? “Does the manager have compromising pictures of you doing things involving a gerbil or something?”

    Seriously tho, the players you named aside, we do have a replacement-level player fully capable of putting up replacement-level play if need be when Utley is injured. His name is Freddy Galvis. Freddy Galvis + 86 games of 2012 Utley > 2010 Jeter.

  26. Richard

    October 24, 2012 01:28 PM

    you’re just making shit up, Phillie697; you have no idea how or why the negotiations took so long… why pretend you do?

  27. Phillie697

    October 24, 2012 01:46 PM

    Because you’re pretending too, instead of focusing on the only fact available to us, that Phillies waited until the last minute to re-sign Hamels. Do you know of any other fact beyond that I don’t?

  28. JB Allen

    October 24, 2012 02:26 PM

    I don’t know, maybe RAJ is loathe to re-sign players too far in advance given his experience with Howard.* That’s sort of like Pandora shutting Hope in the box after letting all the nasties out, but that would mean he’s trying.

    *I’m not arguing that RAJ’s timing with respect to Hamels has been perfect, just that he might be trying to learn from his mistakes.

  29. hk

    October 24, 2012 02:37 PM

    JB Allen,

    I like your thinking. If we assume that RAJ can learn from his mistakes, maybe he is now thinking to himself that 2 years before free agency is too early, 2 months before free agency is too late and somewhere around 1 year before free agency is just right.

  30. hk

    October 24, 2012 02:40 PM

    Actually, on second thought, I doubt that RAJ – in all of his smugness – thinks that the Howard extension was a mistake. He probably thinks that he was just unlucky that Howard got hurt at the end of the ’11 season.

  31. Cutter

    October 24, 2012 03:29 PM

    I think people are understandably skeptical at Utley’s ability to play for an entire season. While even a diminished Utley is still one of the best second basemen in the league, he only provides value when he’s on the field. If he’s not, then the team has to rely on the Pete Orrs of the world.

    I think many people wonder if half a season of Utley is worth it, if they’re going to have replacement level fill-ins for the other half.

  32. Phillie697

    October 24, 2012 04:19 PM

    @Cutter,

    You actually made the BEST argument for not re-signing Utley, without actually making it, and I have been waiting for 3 days for someone to make it. The BEST reason isn’t whether 86 games of Utley is worth it; it clearly is, because he’s still producing at a very high level overall. The best reason for not re-signing Utley is that because he’s one year older, has an established injury history, and that injury history is by all intents and purposes a chronic one, do you really want to gamble Jeter money that he can still play enough games, even if those games he does play are stellar, to warrant the money? There is absolutely no guarantee he can play 86 games in 2013, or even 30 games; he’ll be worth it at 86 games, not so much at 30.

    In essence, Utley is, to use a very recent example, Placido Polanco 2.0 (the more expensive and better version of the original, but just as frail). Do you want to gamble Jeter money on that?

    That said, I would be fine giving him a $5M AAV contract. Let’s say something like $15M for 3 years. I think he’s earned at least that much even if the day after we sign him he gets abducted by aliens.

  33. Brian

    October 24, 2012 05:23 PM

    I can’t believe anyone though Chase Utley was ‘bad’. He’s no longer a super-star, that much is for certain, but he STILL stands to be a top 10 second baseman in the league.

    A casual fan should be able to search for Utley’s stats on fangraphs to realize he’s still good.

  34. Pete

    October 25, 2012 03:11 AM

    @Phillie697

    You’re fine with giving Utley $5M AAV over 3 years? In other words, you’re fine with letting him walk.

  35. Pete

    October 25, 2012 03:14 AM

    @Phillie697

    If Cutter didn’t make the argument, what were you doing, reading Cutter’s mind?

  36. Ryan

    October 25, 2012 06:42 AM

    I’m sure that he’ll be happy to sign for three years 15 million–and I’m the pope.

  37. JB Allen

    October 25, 2012 07:01 AM

    An aging, injury-prone but still productive middle infielder – why wouldn’t Utley expect a Rollins-level contract, at least?

  38. Eric Longenhagen

    October 25, 2012 03:12 PM

    There’s an extra “o” in the title of this post

  39. Phillie697

    October 25, 2012 04:10 PM

    *smirk*

    I intentionally low-balled the offer to show fellow fans that this doesn’t necessarily have to be his last hurrah; there IS a price that wouldn’t seem too much for the risk. I personally think 3/$30M is acceptable, but others might not. But I think Utley has it in him to even accept something as long as 3/$25M. Would that be too much to the “last hurrah” crowd?

  40. EricL

    October 25, 2012 11:29 PM

    Eric, it doesn’t look like there’s an ext…OHHHH, I see what you did there.

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