As the days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months, there was but one conclusion about second baseman Chase Utley: he is old and washed up. The type of injuries Utley endured — patellar tendinitis and chondromalacia in his knees — can’t be healed, only mitigated by rehabilitation and strategic rest as needed.
Since starting to play every day in 2005 up until his last full, healthy season in 2009, Utley posted an average 135 adjusted OPS (the average is 100) over 3,374 plate appearances. From 2010-12 while he battled injuries, he posted a 116 adjusted OPS over 1,327 plate appearances. He was still a great defender and baseball’s smartest base runner (he stole 38 bases in 41 attempts!), posting a combined 12.6 Wins Above Replacement over those three years, according to Baseball Reference.
Utley entered the 2013 season playing out what could have been and still may be his final year as a Phillie, the last of a seven-year, $85 million contract extension signed in January 2007. The expectations weren’t very high: as long as he stayed healthy for the most part, hit a bit above the league average, and continued playing slightly above-average defense, the Phillies wouldn’t need to worry about second base at all, at least for this one year.
Utley has vastly exceeded expectations, especially offensively. He went 3-for-4 in last night’s 4-1 loss to the Cardinals, bumping his wRC+ (a stat like adjusted OPS that uses wOBA instead) to 137. The only second basemen better than Utley are Matt Carpenter (154), Jason Kipnis (151), and Robinson Cano (140). Howie Kendrick, in fifth place, is far behind Utley at 124.
He is walking at a career-low rate (7.6%) and striking out at a rate (15.9%) that is close to beating his career-highs. His isolated power — slugging percentage minus batting average — is at .240, the best he’s had since posting a .244 ISO in 2008. As he dealt with injuries, he hit more and more ground balls, cutting into his power potential. From 2010-12, his ground ball rate was around 41-42 percent, but is now down to 35.5 percent, while his fly ball rate is back up to 46 percent.
Although Utley has become more of a pull hitter than he had been in previous years, Utley is performing much better on pitches towards the outer half of the strike zone.
Utley’s ISO and wOBA on outer-half pitches has increased from .158 and .329 from 2010-12 to .246 and .384, respectively.
Utley has also closed the gap in his performance against left-handed pitchers. During his prime, he was well-known for hitting lefties well, but as he battled knee injuries, he didn’t handle lefties as proficiently. This chart shows his wOBA against each side by year:
While his overall performance against lefties hasn’t changed much from 2010-12 and this season, his power has improved substantially. He posted a .190 ISO against lefties in the three previous seasons, but it is up to .271 this season. Five of his 13 home runs have come against lefties, and it’s mostly because he has recaptured the ability to hit inside pitches.
Utley still rates among the team’s better base runners and, by all accounts (both scouts and stats agree), still plays great defense at second base. He is, however, 34 years old and will turn 35 during the off-season. The Phillies don’t have any legitimate long-term solutions at second base right now, so there is some speculation that the team could either sign him to a short-term contract extension soon, or trade him and try to sign him again as a free agent during the off-season. There are, rightly, concerns over his ability to stay healthy over the course of a potential three-year contract. In previous years, those injury concerns would have come with performance concerns as well. What he has done this season, though, changes that calculus a bit and makes extending the Chase Utley era much more appealing.