Monday, November 21, 2011

Chase Utley's Alarming 2011

The 2009 World Series is still fresh in the mind of this Fan. The Yankees beat the Phillies, of course, in that series, but Chase Utley was on top of the world. He hit five homers that series and seemed unstoppable. The post season of 2009 was the icing on the cake for Chase Utley who might have been the best player in the majors in 2008 and 2009. He could field like few others at second. He hit for power. He walked a lot. He was a fantastic runner on the bases. He could do it all. Flash forward two years to 2011 and there are serious concerns about what kind of player Chase Utley is now and will be in the coming seasons.

Utley's situation after two injury plagued seasons is at a crossroads. Sure, he was still a valuable player in 2011. In only 103 games played, he still compiled a 3.9 fWAR (2.9 bWAR and 2.9 bWARP on the other two sites) and you could project that out over a full season and still have a terrific player. But you do have to figure durability into valuation equations and Utley has only played 115 games in 2010 and 103 in 2011. He was still very good in the field and on the base paths, which helped add value. But he was far from the hitter he was in 2008 and 2009.

The question that will need to be answered is how much his injuries contributed to his batting decline and if he will bounce back for more healthy campaigns moving forward. With Ryan Howard perhaps missing a large chunk of time in 2012 and the unsure status of free agent, Jimmy Rollins, Utley's return to form is a key to the Phillies this coming season. Sure, the Phillies have that golden rotation. But they do have to score once in a while. Utley in some ways symbolizes the Phillies' offense the past three years. In 2009, when Utley was flying, the Phillies finished second in the National League in OPS. In 2010 they fell to fifth. In 2011, they fell to seventh.

There really wasn't any part of Utley's offense in 2011 that provoked optimism. His ability to take a walk was still very good and led to a .344 OBP, but even that ability was down a bit from his career norms (8.6 percent in 2011 compared to the 9.7 of his career). His ISO of .169 and .166 the past two years respectively do not compare well to his .215 career average or to the .236 and .244 rates he put up in 2008 and 2009. His wOBA was down forty points last season from his career norm. Utley's offense has always shown some favorable home splits but he was still terrific on the road too. His home/road splits in 2011 were much more extreme with a slugging percentage of .508 at home and .343 on the road.

There is one fluky number that really jumps off Utley's Fangraphs page. And this statistic may be totally due to his thumb injury. The statistic is Utley's line drive percentage. Utley for his career has hovered between 18.5 percent and 24.3 percent. His career line drive percentage is excellent at 20.2 percent. So then look at his 2011 number of 12.7 percent and it just makes your jaw drop. For all 2011 players with more than 400 plate appearances, only Vernon Wells had a lower line drive percentage than Chase Utley. That simply has to show that something was vastly wrong with Utley in 2011.

The other glaring number was his home run to fly ball percentage. Utley's career norm in that category is 12.8 percent. That means that 12.8 percent of all the fly balls Utley has hit in his career have gone over the wall. That figure tumbled to 6.7 percent in 2011.

Chase Utley will be 33 years old in December. He's already beyond his peak years. Regression is to be expected, but injuries have sped up that regression in an alarming way. The Phillies are on the hook for $15.3 million for Utley the next two seasons. If Utley can be 90 percent of the player he was in 2008 and 2009, he can certainly earn those dollars. But after his last two seasons and particularly his 2011 season, it will be interesting to see if Utley can pull it together and again take his place as among the elite second basemen in baseball.

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