Chase Utley Hustles for History

Rewinding the clock roughly 11 months, we’d find Chase Utley in a very different place. He had just completed a .212/.286/.343 season that led to 423 plate appearances of replacement-level value. He was the subject of significant (justified) criticism for tackling Ruben Tejada and breaking his leg during the NLDS. Then 36, Utley was staring into the twilight of his career and it didn’t look like there were a lot of great days left.

Utley is a borderline Hall of Famer, delivering five Cooperstown-level peak seasons from 2005 to -09 and then five more well above-average seasons from 2010 to -14. His problem has always been that a good portion of his value has been tied up in defense and base-running. Given his slightly late debut, accumulating the sort of counting stats one often requires to earn 75% of the vote is probably out of reach. He’s not a slam-dunk case, but from an objective statistical sense, he’s worthy of consideration.

Players of Utley’s caliber often need a narrative to lift them over the last hurdles of a Hall of Fame candidacy. Unfortunately for Utley, it looks like his final notable act is might be having injured another player and ushering in a rule named for his transgression. Perhaps he’ll carry the Dodgers to a World Series this October, but if he doesn’t, might I suggest one final argument in favor of Mr. Utley’s election.┬áChase Utley is a week away from joining one of baseball’s most exclusive clubs.

Here is a leaderboard featuring players with at least 450 plate appearances through Thursday, sorted by the number of double plays.

2016 Double-Play Avoidance
Name PA GDP
Chase Utley 541 0
Charlie Blackmon 601 2
Kris Bryant 667 3
Matt Carpenter 526 3
Dexter Fowler 519 3
Danny Espinosa 565 3
Mike Trout 642 4
Odubel Herrera 617 4
Joc Pederson 450 4
*Min 450 PA

This table might be interesting for a variety of reasons, but on it’s own there’s nothing earth-shattering. MLB players hit into somewhere between zero and 30 double plays per year and this is the bottom of the list. There are some great players and some okay players on this list.

Here is a second table, however, that adds a little color to the first.

1939-2016 Double-Play Avoidance
Player Year PA GDP
Chase Utley 2016 541 0
Craig Biggio 1997 744 0
Rickey Henderson 1994 376 0
Ray Lankford 1994 482 0
Otis Nixon 1994 461 0
Rob Deer 1990 511 0
Dick McAuliffe 1968 658 0
Pete Reiser 1942 537 0
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Qualified batters

Baseball-Reference has double-play data back to 1939 and Chase Utley is zeroing in on just the eighth qualified season since the start of World War II without a single double play. There have been over 9,000 qualified seasons since 1939, meaning that these no-double-play seasons constitute a tiny 0.08% of the entire available sample. And that’s actually underselling it, as you’ll notice that three of the seasons are between 376 and 482 PA because of the 1994 strike. Presumably, one or more of those players would have hit into a double play if they had gotten a fuller season of reps.

A few years ago, I wrote about that fantastic 1997 Biggio campaign, noting how he led the league in WAR and hit .403/.487/.677 in situations in which a double play was possible. Utley isn’t anywhere close to the league lead in WAR, but┬áhe has hit .373/.400/.608 in double-play situations. Overall, the league has a .777 OPS in these situations this year compared to a .739 OPS overall. Utley is rocking a 1.008 OPS compared to his overall mark of .709.

Of course, offensive performance in double-play situations isn’t really a skill. There is skill involved in avoiding double plays, but that’s not the same thing. You can adjust your swing to avoid double plays, but that adjustment isn’t going to make you a more productive hitter. And if it did, you should adopt it in all situations. Fly-ball hitters and strikeout artists will hit into fewer double plays because double plays are predicated on ground balls. Naturally, Chase Utley is running the highest (?!) ground-ball rate of his career.

screenshot-2016-09-23-at-1-33-10-pm

His ground-ball rate in these types of situations isn’t quite so high, but it is in line with his career norms from seasons in which he grounded into a very normal number of double plays. Being left-handed helps, but Utley has mostly hit leadoff this year and he’s presumably not getting a lot of help from the ninth-place hitters in breaking up double plays. Also, in case you’re wondering, the overall incidence of double plays hasn’t declined in the year of the Utley Rule.

At it’s most fundamental level, this is an anomaly. Utley hasn’t been a huge double-play guy during his career, but he’s never demonstrated an extreme ability to avoid them. He also hasn’t done anything new this year that would make you think he picked up this trick in his late thirties.

This isn’t a record chase with meaning, but he is angling to be the fifth player in a non-strike season to qualify for the batting title without hitting into a double play. This is my favorite kind of “record” chase because, by definition, it will go down to the wire. If you only have 65 home runs after 160 games, you’re not breaking Barry Bonds‘ record. But until Utley comes to the plate for the final time next Sunday, the record will be in jeopardy.

Perhaps you’ll be spending time watching actual playoff races during the season’s final week, but if your team is out of it and you’re looking for something to follow, it doesn’t get more gripping that Utley’s chase for zero. Who knows, the notoriety that comes with this gritty, random oddity might be enough bring a few more Hall of Famer voters into his camp.

We hoped you liked reading Chase Utley Hustles for History by Neil Weinberg!

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Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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Utley has to have the highest Eckstein Grit Score ™ over the last decade. Leads the league in HBP (158), eighth in baserunning value, second in GDP avoidance value.