Utley Retrospective – The Minors and Rookie Campaign(s)
I’m going to take a close look at Chase Utley‘s minor league career and rookie season(s), much like I did with Jimmy Rollins when he was traded to The Dodgers. When I wrote about the franchise-best shortstop last winter, I called James Calvin Rollins “the rarest of the rare”. Damned if we didn’t have two gems surrounding the Keystone Sack in the Keystone State for more than a decade. This is how we got from the draft to a big-league superstar named Chase Cameron Utley.
Chase Utley was drafted out of high school by the very same LA Dodgers who traded for him Wednesday. He turned down their second round advances for a starring three year stint at UCLA and became the fifteenth overall pick from the Phillies in 2000. He would sign and quickly commence his pro career at High-Rookie Batavia (New York Penn League) that summer, where he shared time with Former Obscure Phillie Eude Brito. Utley got off to a hot start, putting up an .827 OPS over 175 PAs, walking at a 10.3% rate and striking out just over 13% of the time. And gosh, was he a handsome young man.
The following year, the 22-year-old Utley skipped low-A and joined a still-wild 20-year-old starter named Ryan Madson in Clearwater. Utley scuffled at the plate a bit that year, but he did show some power, knocking 16 homers and putting up an ISO of .165. His OPS was down at .746, His Ks were up (almost 17%) and his walks were down (~7%). And while he stole 19 bases, he was caught 8 times.
As an aside – We know that pattern didn’t hold, as it took Utley over 1500 PAs worth of stealing big league bags to get caught for the eighth time. Here’s a tidbit – Chase had 33 MLB steals by the time he was caught for the 8th time, an excellent 80.5% rate. Since then, he has only been caught 10 more times in his career (10!!!) compared to 109 more steals. His career rate is an absurd 142/160, or 88.8%, the best post-integration mark for anyone over 100 career steals. Second? Jayson Werth (Missin’ U Davey). Third? Jackie Robinson. Not bad company.
In 2002, a 23-year-old Utley would again be double jumped, this time to Scranton-Wilkes Barre, the old AAA affiliate of the Phils. He would be asked to try to learn third base, in a dual effort to both avoid a minor logjam with Marlon Anderson, who had just put up a decent 2.9 WAR season in 2001, and to hopefully have someone available to play third base when Scott Rolen was inevitably traded at the 2002 deadline. He shared a roster at SWB with dozens of recognizable Phillies names, including those of Byrd, Estrada, Punto, Myers and Joe Roa and his magical 14-0 campaign, which of course was just a prelude to his eventual superstardom because WINNING IS EVERYTHING.
The Utley Third Base Experiment, by all accounts, did not go well. Chase never did have the arm for regular duty at third base, but the offense that year…even after a second consecutive double jump, and with a defensive challenge? Pretty impressive. He OPSed .813, ISOed .198 and hit 39 doubles, 17 homers, walked at an improved 8.6% clip and kept his Ks about steady at 16.7%.
A little foresight from the club and GM Ed Wade the following winter may have solved both of their positional problems, but instead of moving Placido Polanco over to third after they received him for Scott Rolen at the 2002 deadline, they kept the big-headed one at second, DFAed and non-tendered a diminished Marlon Anderson that winter, (no big loss), and signed David Bell to a four-year free agent deal to play third base at less than 1.5 WAR/season. Frustrating then, frustrating now.
And so instead of hopping into the fire, Utley’s 2003 would be mostly a repeat of AAA. Many of the names from Scranton the year before made the roster out of camp, Utley included. But he was an extra bench bat and was optioned before the end of the first week. He would also be up for a couple weeks in late April and then again from mid-August through the end of the year. For the year in the minors, he improved across the board. Walks were about the same, Ks were down a bit, and he added 60 points to his average, 90 to his OPS overall (.907) and still hit for power, ISOing near .200 again. He was back at second, despite being blocked there by Polanco.
He would exceed his rookie status that year, as he took 152 MLB PAs in scattered action. He OPSed a pretty paltry .696, but in that late April call-up, he did get his first big league hit, which happened to be a grand slam. Harry and LA had the call:
As Harry said, “Welcome to the show, Mister Utley!” Pretty sure several of his mates needed hand surgery after that celebration. Guy doesn’t do things half way, that’s for sure.
2004 would be an odd year for Chase. He would log some time at AAA, mashing again, with a .227 ISO and .880 OPS over 144 PAs, (and again teaming with Ryan Madson, who had made it through AA the year before). Eventually, Utley spent the majority of the year on the Phillies bench, starting a handful of games at first base to go along with 44 at second and about 40 pinch-hitting appearances. He OPSed .776 and ISOed over .200 in less than 300 PAs, but all of those watching the club could see he was primed for a breakout.
The off-season came and went, and Polanco was still around. But by early June, 2005, Ed Wade, finally recognizing a need to make room for Chase to play every day at second, would ship his veteran second baseman to Detroit for a package headlined by an (eventual) attempted murderer. (And we all thought the current GM was bad at his job…ok, admittedly, he was for a while there.)
The way Chase Utley was yanked up and down from AAA in the early part of his career – even after it was clear he was ready for consistent big league time – should be factored into any discussion of his Philadelphia tenure. A lot has been said over the last couple days about the Hall of Fame chances of the man we call “The Man”. Unfortunately, the people voting on the Hall of Fame are unlikely to care for any argument about Placido Polanco or David Bell or Ed Wade. But those of us who care so much about this player, know that the talent we saw blossoming in the early years was being wasted in Scranton or wasted on the bench for far too long.
As a guy old enough to remember only about four or five years of Mike Schmidt, the Utley/Rollins years will be with me forever as the first stint of true greatness I got to witness in its entirety. Their journeys to the show are a significant part of the finest crop of homegrown talent in Phillies history. Dodger Blue notwithstanding, I personally wish them continued success together.