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2013 Bold Prediction: Bill Baer

Throughout the week, the Crashburn staff will be unveiling their bold predictions for the 2013 season.

Chase Utley will log at least 600 plate appearances during the 2013 season and finish with at least 5 WAR.

Utley’s PA totals from 2008-12: 707, 687, 511, 454, 362. A clear trend. Utley had thumb surgery in 2010, suffered from patellar chondromalacia in his right knee in 2011, and suffered from patellar tendinitis in his left knee last year. Just a few weeks ago, Utley appeared in a spring training game for the first time since 2010. In a sense, the second baseman hit “resume” on a career paused by an unfortunate rash of injuries.

Even a hobbled Utley was still among the best at his position. Going by FanGraphs WAR, only five second basemen (min. 1,000 PA) were more valuable than Utley (12.6) from 2010-12. Baseball Reference (12.3) paints a similar picture, ranking him fourth. Though Utley is now 34 years old, he is by all accounts healthy once again and running on all cylinders. So far this spring, he has exactly as many walks as strikeouts (nine). Last year, he was one of ten players (min. 300 PA) with at least as many walks as strikeouts:

Player PA BB SO Year Age Tm
Jose Reyes 716 63 56 2012 29 MIA
Prince Fielder 690 85 84 2012 28 DET
Joe Mauer 641 90 88 2012 29 MIN
Carlos Lee 615 58 49 2012 36 TOT
Joey Votto 475 94 85 2012 28 CIN
Chipper Jones 448 57 51 2012 40 ATL
David Ortiz 383 56 51 2012 36 BOS
Ryan Hanigan 371 44 37 2012 31 CIN
Chase Utley 362 43 43 2012 33 PHI
John Jaso 361 56 51 2012 28 SEA
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/16/2013.

And even while hobbled, Utley has been a positive contributor on the bases. According to Baseball Prospectus, he was the Phillies’ third-best runner in 2010 (+2.0 runs), fifth-best in 2011 (+0.9), and second-best last year (+2.9). FanGraphs agrees, putting him at fourth, second, and third (+3.6, +4.6, +4.3) from 2010-12, respectively.

Though Utley’s range at second base has been limited, he has still been an above-average contributor defensively. His defensive contributions have never centered around his athletic ability; rather, it has come from his intellect and the Phillies’ positioning of him on the field. John Dewan explained this in detail back in 2009:

What are these charts showing us? Against right-handed batters, Utley and Phillips look about the same. They both have minus plus/minus scores to their left. But their positive scores to their right more than make up for the difference. Both players appear to be shifting well over to the right when a right-handed batter is up. They have a harder time getting to the balls to their left, but there are fewer of those. They more than make up for the missed plays by making more plays on the greater number of balls to their right.

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.

There’s also the fact that manager Charlie Manuel may not be able to help himself use Utley as much as possible. In past years, the Phillies said they’d take it slow with Utley (and Ryan Howard, for that matter) and it never happened. It’s easy to imagine a world in which a healthier Utley is leaned upon for 140 or more games.

I’ve long believed that as long as Utley is physically capable of taking the field every day, he can continue to be a significantly productive player simply based on his non-physical abilities: his great plate discipline, his great decision-making on the bases, and his great defensive positioning. If the reports are truthful, Utley is his healthiest since 2009, which bodes well for the upcoming season.