Where Have You Gone Chase Utley, Our City Turns Its Lonely Eyes To You

If you listen to sports talk radio, you know people have been very quick to say Chase Utley has lost it and his career is over. Hosts have said this and callers have said this. I can’t necessarily blame them, but when you just focus on one stat, such as batting average, it may be a bit misleading. I recall some in the media saying the same thing about Jim Thome, who went on to have productive years after his time in Philadelphia, including 2006 when his OPS was over 1.000.

Now, I am not going to sit here and tell you that Chase Utley is having a good year or that if he plays next year he is going to rebound and be an all-star. However, if you dig a little deeper into the stats, there are some things that may suggesthe will rebound at some point, which may not be until nex year (if there is a next year in Philly for him).  I am not a major advanced-metrics stats guy, but there is value in them, although as I’ve said before, it can be overdone.

The first stat I want to cover is BABIP, which is short for Batting Average on Balls In Play. Basically, it is a player’s batting average for all the balls he puts into play. The idea behind this is to show how “lucky” a player is. We all know that you can hit a ball really hard, but right at somebody or, hit a little dribbler that finds the hole. That is not reflected in traditional batting average, but it is in BABIP. The average BABIP is supposed to be .300 and, in fact, the average for all players last year was .299. The lower a player’s BABIP is, the lower his traditional average will probably be, and vice versa. One issue I have with BABIP is that it doesn’t take into account how hard a player hits the ball. For example, a player may have a lower BABIP not necessarily because he is “unlucky”, but because he is just not hitting the ball hard. The harder you hit the ball, the better chance you have for it to be a hit. Not always, but it improves the odds of getting past a fielder. For this reason, I think it is important to also take a look at a player’s line-drive percentage and “hard-hit” percentage in conjunction with the BABIP.

So, let’s take a look at Chase Utley through his career and then this season. Utley’s career number in BABIP is .299. The year he hit with his highest batting average, .332 in 2007, he also had his highest BABIP number at .362. The other year in which he hit over .300, .309 in 2009, he had his second highest BABIP at .343. What’s also interesting is that when his BABIP was around .300, his batting average was around .280-.290 for those year. From this we can infer that his career batting average should be around that mark, which it is at .281.

This season, Utley has been remarkably unlucky in the BABIP category with a career low of .186. There’s no way anyone could sustain a good batting average with such a low BABIP. The next lowest of his career was .261 in 2012 when he hit .256. If this was the only issue and if Utley weren’t 36, people would be less worried. But it isn’t. Making contact isn’t an issue, his contact percentages and “plate discipline” (whether he is chasing balls out of the strike zone) are all around his career averages. If we look at Utley’s line-drive percentage, it is also low, but not the lowest of his career. He’s had years where it’s been lower and his stats have been better. The glaring issue for Utley is that he is just not hitting the ball hard. There are actually stats for this and it is very revealing. His career “hard hit” percentage is 35%, but this year it is only 22.9%, the lowest of his career. This implies that Utley has been more than unlucky this year. This is also reflected in a very low slugging percentage of .275.
This leads us to the question of why. Why is Utley not hitting ball hard this year? Well, he is 36 and that is probably a part of it. Also, Utley has a very long list of injuries he’s had over the years, a lot of which are lower-body injuries: hip, knees, and now ankle. A lot of a player’s power is generated by the lower body and the torque that is created in the swing. That probably also factors in.
So what we are seeing here is a perfect storm of bad luck, age and injuries that have combined to create a terrible year for Chase Utley. What does this mean for Utley’s future? Is he finished? That’s a good question. Judging by his BABIP it might be prudent for the Phillies to put him back in the lineup once he is healthier. He really can’t be traded at this point, but a team might be interested if the Phillies paid most of his contract. Utley can provide valuable leadership and influence if the price is right. However, I can’t see the Phillies doing that. Utley means a lot to the franchise, but no one player is greater than the team. The best scenario I can see if no team is interested is that the team sits down with Utley in the off-season and they determine that if Utley has another bad start next year, that Utley will retire and free the team from the contract.
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This entry was posted by theyellowseats.

2 thoughts on “Where Have You Gone Chase Utley, Our City Turns Its Lonely Eyes To You

  1. Good post. My understanding is that hitters have more control over their BABIP than pitchers, largely due to the factors you mentioned. I agree that his loss of power, and seemingly loss of range at his position, are the most concerning things. I wouldn’t mind seeing him in red pinstripes for another year, though.

    • Yeah, with his BABIP numbers, another year would be okay, but $15 million is a lot for a part-time player. I get the impression Utley would be the kind of guy who would walk away when he really thought he was done.

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