Monday, March 18, 2013

Any last hurrahs for Utley and Howard?

Once upon a time in our not too distant past, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard were a two-man wrecking crew for the Philadelphia Phillies. In 2006, the two combined for 13.7 fWAR as Howard hit 58 homers and Chase Utley was in the second year of a five-year run that might be among the best runs ever for a second baseman. Howard has never matched the incredible numbers he put up in 2006, but he did hit 145 homers combined in 2007, 2008 and 2009. The two were part of a World Series Championship in Philadelphia in 2008 and were beaten by the Yankees in the 2009 World Series. Those were heady times.

Howard slipped in value in 2010 and 2011 and in his last playoff game of 2011, tore his Achilles tendon and only played in 71 games in 2012 finishing with a fWAR value of less than zero. Utley ran into a series of medical problems starting in 2010 and has played 115, 103 and 83 games respectively in the last three seasons. When he played, he still showed some value, but, as you can imagine, that value was about half of what it had been in that incredible five-year run.

So what will 2013 bring for the pair? Are their glory days gone for good? Can they (or should they) play a full season? The good news is that both are playing a lot in this Spring Training. Ryan Howard is killing the ball with four homers and four doubles accounting for half of his eight hits this spring. Utley has a homer and two doubles but is hitting about .200 in his spring games. Is the fact they are playing a full spring schedule a sign that they might just have some of that old magic left in them for the 2013 season? The projections are mixed.

First off, projection systems like PECOTA see the Phillies as a .500 team. And the projections for Utley and Howard do not seem to predict that they will make much of a difference to change the Phillies' chances of improving on that record. Let's look at both players and see if there is any hope for some sort of renaissance season for either or both of them.

Let's start with Ryan Howard. The five projection systems that list on Howard's player page do not have hope that Ryan Howard will be any better than he was in 2010 and 2011. The WAR range from the five systems project him anywhere from 0.9 WAR (ZiPS) to 1.8 (Fans34). PECOTA rates him much higher and checking in with Baseball Prospectus his projection there is a somewhat healthier 2.2 WAR projection. Despite the higher projection, PECOTA doesn't see Howard finishing higher than an OPS of .812.

While that is not that bad of an OPS, with Howard's diminished defense and base running, he still doesn't project anywhere close to where he was from 2007 to 2009.

You pretty much have to throw out Howard's 2012 season. The numbers simply do not fit in any category to his career numbers (or even his 2010 and 2011 numbers). His plate discipline went out the window and whereas he used to swing at only 25% of pitches out of the strike zone, that number ballooned to 37% in 2012. His strikeout rate also blew up from its already high 27.8% career percentage to 33.9%. Those numbers should be thrown out the window as a year adjusting to a bad wheel and not really being in any kind of shape to play.

But you cannot dismiss his 2010 and 2011 seasons when he lost some of his plate discipline and went from that aforementioned 25% to the low 30's percent range for swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. He did not strike out more than he had before, but his wOBA or TAv (pick your favorite) was thirty to forty points lower than where he had been as recently as 2009.

The spring he is having is encouraging and perhaps is a sign that he can produce somewhere near where he was in 2009. But the odds seem in better favor of him staying at his 2010 and 2011 levels. He will need to regain some of his plate discipline of the past and make pitchers pitch to him to return to some semblance of his old form.

Oddly, the feeling here is that there is more cause for optimism for Chase Utley than there is for Howard. One of the reasons is that Utley's game is still more complete than Howard's. Despite playing only 83 games in 2012, Utley still garnered eight runs above average in fielding from and 5.5 above average at Plus, Utley still scores high for his base running skills.

The other thing to look at is that Utley's BABIP has been ridiculously low for both 2011 and 2012 at .269 and .261 respectively. If you look at his line drives, for example, his BABIP on line drives in 2012 was .528. That may sound high, but the league average is a hundred points higher than that. His ISO was off about seventy points from his super hero days. But his home run to fly ball percentage rebounded a bit in 2012 from a career low in 2011.

Looking deeper at Utley's numbers, he still maintained his plate discipline and he swung and missed at pitches at a very low 4.7%, the lowest of his career.

Most of the projections for Utley are not encouraging. They have him in the 3.2 to 3.5 WAR(P) range. All of them see his wOBA and TAv off by twenty points from his career average. Until proven otherwise, it is hard to fault these projections. But then again, both B-R and Fangraphs had him at 2.9 and 3.4 respectively for 83 games in 2012. If he plays 135 to 140 games, there is no reason not to think he can represent about a five or six WAR season. 

The key is their continued health. It is encouraging to see them both playing so often this spring. That seems to indicate that they are both healthy...or at least healthier. If they can both obtain 550 to 600 plate appearances, there is a chance that both can rebound nicely to some semblance of what they were from 2009. Howard is 33 and Utley is 34. So neither is ancient by baseball standards. It would be fun to see them both rebound in 2013. It still might not be enough to overcome both the Braves and the Nationals. But it would be fun for baseball.

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