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.

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24 comments

  1. TomG

    January 16, 2013 08:57 AM

    “… [T]he Phillies may be in search of a right-handed bat, listing Scott Hairston, Alfonso Soriano, and Vernon Wells as possible targets [….]”

    Of those three, I think only Hairston would be worth getting, assuming he could be had for roughly a third of what he’s evidently asking for in salary. Which ain’t gonna happen. So even he is not worth getting. At this point, it’s probably more worth it to stand pat with what we have, finally give Brown a legitimate chance to show if he’s got what it takes to be a regular at the major league level, and hope that Doc bounces back and that Utley can be there from day one and be at least as Utley-like as he was for his half season last year.

    It’d be nice if Howard had a bounce-back year, too. But that may be asking too much.

    Obtaining either Soriano or Wells – or any other tire fire (as you aptly put it) who may be out there – would just hamstring the team monetarily should the need to acquire a (semi-)big bat before the trade deadline arise. It would be unwise to waste that money now. Let’s see how it goes with what we already have, first.

  2. LTG

    January 16, 2013 09:45 AM

    So, I understand why Wells is a tire fire. But AlSo? Sure, he’s old, expensive, and probably a league-average player at best. But he’s maintained his power and had decent BABIPs as he’s aged. He could still be valuable on the field if you don’t have to pay much of his exorbitant contract. I don’t want the Phillies to acquire him but he’s not a tire fire. He’s not even Michael Young.

  3. Ryan Sommers

    January 16, 2013 10:00 AM

    He’s a disaster in the field, which is fine if you’re a world beater, but he is not. He’s also 37. I wouldn’t put money on him throwing up a ~120 OPS+ again at any rate.

  4. Richard

    January 16, 2013 10:20 AM

    He’s not a disaster in the field. Why do people keep insisting on this?

    UZRs with the Cubs:
    2007: 33.2
    2008: 16.2
    2009: -2.9
    2010: 5.1
    2011: 3.9
    2012: 11.8

    But then I look at Defensive Runs Saved, and yes, it has an opposite view. So I guess this is why people insist on it. How is it they are so consistently different?

  5. LTG

    January 16, 2013 10:44 AM

    I live in Chicago and have watched him play left for a while. He looks awkward and, every so often, makes a horrendously uncoordinated error. (I remember one game where he ran into foul ground, realized the ball was tailing back into fair territory, drifted under it, and then fell on his butt while the ball landed a few feet away.) That’s why most people think he is a defensive disaster. Notice DRS has been kinder to him over the last couple of years and, FWIW, sports commentators “saw” an improvement in his defense last year.

    While I agree he is unlikely to have another year like last year, he doesn’t need to be that good to not be a tire fire. I’m not exactly sure how to make an argument for that because the criteria determining metaphorical tire fires are unknown to me.

  6. Ryan Sommers

    January 16, 2013 11:15 AM

    You’ve certainly watched him more often than I, so I’m willing to take that as a data point. No offense Richard, but I would not wipe my ass with single-season UZR values.

    We’re talking about an aspect where we inherently have an incomplete picture, it’s true.

  7. LTG

    January 16, 2013 12:26 PM

    In fairness to Richard, the UZR values are pretty stable over his many years in LF. He’s not relying on single-season values but the cumulative total of those individual seasons. And any objection to UZR from sample size goes for DRS as well. The sample size problem for advanced defensive metrics is a result of how the data is collected for their counterfactual claims about which balls the average fielder would have and would not have gotten to.

  8. Richard

    January 16, 2013 12:28 PM

    Yeah, I meant to add, before I got distracted by the DRS values, that even if a couple of those UZR values are wack, the cumulative effect of six years of data suggests to me someone who is at least somewhat better than average out there.

  9. LTG

    January 16, 2013 12:34 PM

    I should have made clear earlier that the perception of Soriano’s defense probably makes him out to be worse than he is because he makes a lot of (ugly) errors. It is no coincidence that sports commentators thought this defense improved when he had a 30 point increase in his fielding percentage. If he had become a slug in the field they still would have thought his defense improved.

  10. Phillie697

    January 16, 2013 12:57 PM

    How about this LTG on AlSo? Cubs ain’t trading him without someone taking at least some of his salary with him, and if you have to take some of his salary to get him, he’s not worth getting. His problem isn’t what is left in his tank; it’s that you have to pay super premium price to get that what is now more or less economy-grade gasoline.

  11. LTG

    January 16, 2013 01:09 PM

    “I don’t want the Phillies to acquire him but he’s not a tire fire.”

    Quote, me.

  12. Phillie697

    January 16, 2013 01:35 PM

    LOL, I have a hard time separating what I consider as someone being a “tire fire” from their contract status. Everything is relative. If either Wells or AlSo are making league minimum, I wouldn’t have issues with getting either of them really.

  13. Phylan

    January 16, 2013 01:39 PM

    You guys are improving my opinion of Alfonso Soriano and that is terrifying and confusing

  14. Bill Baer

    January 16, 2013 01:46 PM

    I’d bet on some amalgamation of 2009-11 Soriano offensively-speaking (101 OPS+) than 2012 (121). I think the Phillies can get league-average offense+defense, at the very least, out of the platoons they have already.

    If the Phillies have an itch to get a corner OF from outside the organization, I’d rather they sign Scott Hairston with a few free agent bucks. I think that’d be cheaper than having to pay a small percentage of Soriano’s remaining salary.

  15. LTG

    January 16, 2013 01:49 PM

    I don’t have to separate contract status and tire fire to make my point. Last year Soriano probably provided as much value as the market expects given his contract. Tire fires don’t do that.

    Soriano has also only been, at worst, 2 WAR under the market expectations during this contract. Wells has been 4-5 WAR under. If you only had to pay Soriano $10M, you would probably break even on him given market expectations. Again, tire fires don’t do that.

    And, of course, that a player is not a tire fire does not entail a team should acquire him. The Phillies have better internal options than AlSo.

    Ryan, if I live for nothing else, it is to make arguments that terrify and confuse people.

  16. Phillie697

    January 16, 2013 01:55 PM

    *points to BB* What he said about AlSo. I trust AlSo’s 2012 about as much as I trust Michael Bourne’s 2012.

  17. Joecatz

    January 16, 2013 02:25 PM

    All you have to do to determine sorianos value is compare his WAR to his BABIP. In his six years with the cubs he’s put up a minimum of 4fWAR and over 18 total in the 4 seasons where his babip was above .279. In the two seasons where it was lower, 1.4 total fWAR.

    For 5-7mm per season and a prospect he’d be a sly sneaky pickup. The soriano hate is not warranted.

  18. Phillie697

    January 16, 2013 02:43 PM

    @Joecatz,

    “For 5-7mm per season and a prospect he’d be a sly sneaky pickup.” Since he’s signed for $18M a season, that means the Cubs would have to pick up $11M-$13M of his salary. On what planet do you think a GM as shrewd as Epstein would do that deal for ANY of the prospects we have in our farm without laughing in our face?

  19. LTG

    January 16, 2013 04:24 PM

    Joecatz,

    I don’t disagree with the BABIP analysis, but it is important to note that it is trending downward. Expected outcomes now should be weighted toward the ~.265 BABIP of 2011 and away from the ~.300 BABIP of 2012. Thus, the expectation that he will be league-average. If he will be league-average then we would do better to play a cheaper platoon and keep the prospects it would cost to get AlSo at a discount on salary.

  20. Gaël

    January 16, 2013 05:02 PM

    Now I kinda want the Phillies to put a literal tire fire in left field and just act like everything’s normal. Just make other teams too embarrassed to say anything about it.

  21. joecatz

    January 17, 2013 04:59 PM

    LTG: Heres Soriano’s BABIP and fWAR going back to 2002:

    American League

    2002: 335/5.7
    2003: 310/5.0
    2004: 305/2.1
    2005: 281/2.3

    national League

    2006: 300/5.3
    2007: 334/7.0
    2008: 302/4.1 (in 101 games)
    2009: 279/0.0 (in 117 games)
    2010: 295/3.2
    2011: 266/1.4
    2012: 303/4.0

    I don’t see a downward trend there, I see two outliers (2007 and 2011) and two injury shortened seasons.

    he had ONE BAD YEAR babip wise, and he still put up 1.4 war.

    Dude gets a bad rap solely based on his salary and sub par defense, but I don’t see 2012 as an outlier, I see it as a normal year in relation to his career. And it’s what you should expect from him in 2013.

  22. joecatz

    January 17, 2013 05:04 PM

    697:

    On what planet do you think a GM as shrewd as Epstein would do that deal for ANY of the prospects we have in our farm without laughing in our face?

    That would be the planet Earth, and it has less to do with the actual prospect as it does how that prospect relates to their needs and ours. They need a catcher. Valle or Rupp are expendable. Throw in a neglible second piece and they bite, or pick up more cash. its less about that as it is Whether Epstien thinks he’ll get more value mid season, which he probably will if Soriano has a normal babip season.

  23. Phillie697

    January 17, 2013 06:58 PM

    @joecatz,

    That’s my point, Epstein realizes that AlSo has SOME value, even to the Cubs. Just not $18M worth, but he’s not going to let him go for nothing.

    Seriously, after Valle’s 2012, I don’t think other teams want him that much anymore. If they are trying to get Brown on a sell-low, you don’t think they’d be doing it with Valle? Epstein is not going to ask for Valle for AlSo. Well, I guess he would take him if we pick up, say, $15M of the $18M. Yeah, no thanks. As for Rupp… I like Rupp. I hope they don’t trade him. Certainly not for no AlSo.

    You might want to read the post today about the state of our minor league system. I don’t think you are properly evaluating what we have in our system, which is, well, not much.

  24. LTG

    January 19, 2013 06:57 PM

    Pre-2009: 1 year below .300 BABIP
    2009-forward: 1 year above .300 BABIP
    That’s a downward trend in his BABIP, not surprising given his age.

    His 2012 WAR is supported by an unlikely 11.8 runs of UZR. So, if his defense is league-average, his WAR should read 2.8. If his defense is below average, even less. This is why I wouldn’t rely on him for more than league-average production. And I wouldn’t want to pay for more than that in prospects and money.

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