Chase Utley and Left-Handed Pitching
Ken Rosenthal reported this week that the Phillies may be in search of a right-handed bat, listing Scott Hairston, Alfonso Soriano, and Vernon Wells as possible targets. Leaving aside the fact that the latter two are horrible tire-fires, the phrase “right-handed bat” triggers in me a gag reflex many years in the making. The notion that the Phillies are “too left-handed” has been around since at least Ryan Howard‘s arrival, and possibly longer. You could find such a claim on some blog or newspaper for any season since their run of success began.
This talking point persisted despite the fact that, from 2008-2010, the Phillies were the second-best hitting team in the NL against left-handed pitching when measured by their 105 wRC+ (friendly reminder that this is just park-adjusted and league-normalized wOBA). It seems almost shameful in its ingratitude nowadays, when an extra-base hit or a walk is almost a luxury for Phillies fans. In the two most recent seasons, the Phillies certainly have struggled against left-handed pitching, posting a 92 wRC+ in that split in 2011, and an 86 wRC+ in 2012. It’s less of a canard and more of a legitimate issue now.
The departure of Jayson Werth put a dent in the lineup’s LHP effectiveness for sure, but just as costly was Chase Utley‘s time lost to injury, and the apparent crumbling of his adverse platoon abilities. Entering 2011, Utley was just about equally lethal against either flavor of pitcher for his career. In fact, in 2010, he hit .294/.422/.581 in 166 plate appearances against lefties, compared to .266/.371/.381 in 345 plate appearances against righties. After knee injuries forced him to miss lots of time in the next two seasons, his bat declined, and his defiance of the platoon advantage principle unraveled in dramatic fashion. His wRC+ crashed from 172 in 2010 to 73 in 2011. It rebounded to 90 in 2012, but that figure is still second worst of his career.
It’s not hard to pick out what’s underlying that. Take a look at this table (click for larger), which plots various measures of Utley’s contact, discipline, and power against left and right-handed pitchers since 2007.
wXB/H is a statistic that measures power totally independent of contact ability, which is why hits are in the denominator. For more information, see here
The areas with discernible trends — and in which the decline is markedly worse against LHPs — is in BABIP and the power metrics. Utley is swinging roughly as often against LHPs as he usually has, and putting the ball in play about as often too. But those balls in play are becoming hits much less often, and, even when they do, they’re less likely to go for extra bases, or turn into home runs.
The culprit appears to be Utley’s pulled balls. From 2009-2010, when pulling the ball against a left-handed pitcher (136 plate appearances), Utley posted a .556 wOBA. For 2011-2012, in 97 such plate appearances, his wOBA is less than half of that — .246. The effect is easily visible when you chart his hits and plate coverage in these scenarios. Observe his hit locations when pulling the ball against left-handed pitchers, 2009 to 2012:
Now look at his slugging percentage when pulling a ball into play against lefties, over that same time period:
More outs and weakly hit balls are evident since his injury. Needless to say, we’re slicing the data up rather finely here, and these are pretty small sample sizes. But it’s not blogging without some questionable speculation. With that in mind:
Pulling the ball requires the hitter to be ahead of or right on the incoming pitch. Timing and recognition is crucial, especially if you’re a left-handed hitter trying to pull the ball against a same-handed pitcher, since you “see” the ball for significantly less time. For the Utley of old, this was never a problem. His pitch recognition was and still is among the best in the game, and his short, compact swing allowed him to bring the bat through the strike zone as quickly as needed, getting on top of left-handed offerings without issue. If his chronic knee issues have forced him to make alterations to his swing, even minor ones, this advantage could be obviated. A change in footwork could slow his bat just enough to hamper his contact abilities, or sap his ability to generate power to his pull side, relegating Utley to the production of a more traditional left-handed hitter.
This is not to say that such an outcome would be disastrous. Utley’s performance against lefties in 2011 was atrocious, but it rebounded significantly in 2012. Even then, with an OPS of .679 against left-handed pitching last season, Utley was 11% above the average left-handed batter in adverse platoon scenarios. His overall line of .256/.365/.429, while somewhat sub-Utley in caliber, was still more than acceptable for a second baseman of his defensive talents.
Besides that, Utley was really the least of the Phillies’ problems against lefties last season. There were several notable non-lefties who couldn’t hack it against southpaws — Jimmy Rollins (221 PA, 65 wRC+ vs. LHP), Placido Polanco (101 PA, 65 wRC+), and Michael Martinez (54 PA, 46 wRC+). And a few of Utley’s same-sided cohorts had their own problems — Ryan Howard (106 PA, 60 wRC+ vs. LHP), Juan Pierre (60 PA, 13 wRC+), and Domonic Brown (59 PA, 70 wRC+). The good news is that Polanco, Martinez, and Pierre are no longer with the team, and there is room to hope that Rollins and Brown will improve upon their figures. If Utley is able to build upon 2012 and make a further effort to resurrect his lefty-on-lefty abilities, and any of the previously mentioned players can make their own adjustments, the Phillies could even their nasty platoon split without the addition of the ever-elusive right-handed bat.