Chase Utley’s Worst Month

Chase Utley just finished the worst month of his major league career. The 36-year-old second baseman with knee problems in his past played well last season, hitting .270/.339/.407, with his 4.5 WAR leading National League second basemen. Last year was his his tenth straight season with more than three wins and the eighth time in his career he has had at least four wins in his career. An offseason ankle problem slowed his Spring Training regimen, and the results in April have not gone Utley’s way. Much of the underlying statistics are similar for Utley and pitchers do not appear to be pitching him differently, but the results have been lacking. For a player of Utley’s caliber, chalking up a bad month to a rough run of luck is simple for a player in his prime, but at Utley’s age, questions will linger whether he might be done as an effective everyday player.

Chase Utley hit a meager .114/.198/.200 in 81 plate appearances, and his wRC+ of 1 was second worst among the 186 qualified hitters, besting only Matt Joyce. Utley has played at an incredibly high level for a long time, and there are sure to be lengthy discussions about his possible induction to the Hall of Fame, but April’s production was far below the standards Utley has set over the course of his career. Utley had the worst month of any in his 13-year career.

CHASE+UTLEY+wRC++BY+MONTH

For his part, Utley does not appear to have done much different over the first month of this season compared to the rest of his career. Chase Utley maintained his plate discipline this year, with the figures lining up neatly with the numbers from last year and throughout his career. Utley sees 3.6 pitches per plate appearance this year, down slightly from 3.8 the previous two years, but nothing significant. His pull percentages are within expectations compared to the last few years. His walk rate at 9% and his strikeout rate at 15% are nearly identical to his career numbers. Chase Utley hits fly balls just as long as he has in the past few years, per Baseball Heat Maps.

Pitchers treat Utley the same regarding the types of pitches thrown to him, and the locations are very much the same according to these heat maps from Brooks Baseball.

2014:

Utleyallpitches2014

2015:

Utleyallpitches2015

Utley has not hit as many line drives as he has in the past with just a 17% rate so far this season compared to a career 21% rate and 25% last season. Most of the line drives have turned into ground balls. We do not yet know the full implication of the newer batted ball velocity information that we are receiving this season, but we do know that Utley has not hit the ball particularly hard in the early going. Chase Utley’s average batted ball velocity is 87.6 miles per hour, per Baseball Savant, ranking 121st out of 187 players with at least 30 at bats with data.

It is possible that last season’s high line drive rate obscured Utley’s decline slightly. Line drive rates fluctuate, and expecting a repeat of last year is unreasonable. If his slugging had dropped below .400 and his wRC+ had been below 100 last year, Utley’s continued decline might be more understandable. Utley has seen the other end of spectrum so far this year on batted balls and his BABIP is at a ridiculously low .102. That number will not remain anywhere near that low moving forward, and although his isolated slugging percentage is under .100 right now, he is a little more than one home run away from matching his .138 ISO from last season.

Utley would not be the first player to see a precipitous drop in production at 36 years old, but for a player as good as he is, especially among second basemen, an complete crash in performance would be surprising. Utley’s career WAR is 60.3, ranking 16th among second baseman all-time. There are seven second baseman in the past 50 years within 10 wins of Utley. Including Utley, here are their numbers from their Age-35 season.

Age 35 PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Chase Utley 664 0.270 0.339 0.407 106 4.5
Lou Whitaker 544 0.278 0.386 0.461 138 4.4
Jeff Kent 552 0.297 0.351 0.509 120 3.3
Craig Biggio 717 0.292 0.382 0.455 116 2.8
Willie Randolph 446 0.260 0.339 0.325 94 2.4
Bobby Grich 432 0.256 0.357 0.452 125 1.9
Roberto Alomar 598 0.258 0.333 0.349 81 0.3

Almost everyone had productive seasons, with Whitaker and Grich hitting extremely well while Utley combined the greatest blend of hitting and fielding to achieve the highest WAR. Unfortunately for Roberto Alomar, the end of his career was calling. Ryne Sandberg did not play in his Age-35 season as he had retired the year before, but he returned form his hiatus at Age-36. Here are the numbers for the above players as well as Sandberg in their Age-36 season.

Age 36 PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Jeff Kent 606 0.289 0.348 0.531 121 4.2
Willie Randolph 512 0.327 0.424 0.374 131 4.0
Lou Whitaker 476 0.290 0.412 0.449 134 3.5
Bobby Grich 571 0.242 0.355 0.372 106 3.4
Ryne Sandberg 621 0.244 0.316 0.444 96 3.1
Craig Biggio 655 0.253 0.330 0.404 91 1.9
Roberto Alomar 190 0.263 0.321 0.392 81 -0.7

Players like Utley generally do not have a steep decline at his age. Utley could go the way of Alomar, but he is more likely to stay productive like the rest of his second base brethren. The second basemen Utley compares to played well at Age-36, and Kent, Grich, and Whitaker all had at least average seasons at Age-37. Kent and Biggio managed to have decent seasons at Age-39. The rest of the season projections for Utley sit at .248/.320/.392 with a 96 wRC+. That is a bit of a drop from the preseason, when the FanGraphs Depth Chart projections pegged him for a .258/.328/.406 season, but he should still be a productive player.

There is no getting around Utley’s rough April. Those statistics are going to keep his seasonal numbers down even if he matches last year’s numbers the rest of the way. Older players with distinguished careers like Utley have had terrible Aprils and managed to have solid seasons. Carlos Delgado recovered in 2007 and Bernie Williams fought his way back to average, at least as a hitter, in 2006, but in 2011, Magglio Ordonez could not get back to a high level after a disastrous April. Utley should not be as bad as his production has indicated in April, but that production is a sign of a continued decline unlikely to reverse itself.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Goldsteins dumb fedora
Guest
Goldsteins dumb fedora

I thought fangraphs tried to ignore small sample sizes… the guy has been the most unlucky player in the first month of the season.

Pirates Hurdles
Guest
Pirates Hurdles

The article isn’t saying that his struggles will continue based on SSS. It is saying the opposite, that Utley will likely rebound, but nevertheless his terrible April will keep his overall stats down this year.

Natty Bunto
Guest
Natty Bunto

“Utley should not be as bad as his production has indicated in April, but that production is a sign of a continued decline unlikely to reverse itself.”

That final line comes out of nowhere. And it does look like a paean to SSS. Incredible, after the rest of the article noted that he’s not doing things much different and is getting very unlucky.

Phillies113
Member

Piggybacking off this, his BABIP of 0.102 (a depth I never knew previously existed) ranks 186th out of 186 qualified batters. This is followed by Jose Bautista at .132 and Mark Teixeira at .145.

http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=1679&position=2B#platediscipline

His plate discipline numbers are right in line with where they’ve been for most of his career. The exceptions are he’s making much more contact and his swinging strike percentage is down quite a bit from his career average. That tells me he’s picking his pitches more carefully and still making contact.

He just hasn’t been hitting them where they ain’t.

frivoflava29
Member
frivoflava29

I haven’t watched him in any games, but we know he’s had chronic knee issues and so hits he used to turn in from grounders are now becoming outs.

I want to blame aging bat speed, but a lot of his power peripherals are middle of the pack. IFFB% is about where we’d expect. The only indicators would be his GB% being an all time high while his LD% is an all time low, although neither are so out of the ordinary to explain a league worst babip by themselves. Negative outcomes associated with those two stats would be exacerbated by his running issues, however.

That said, I too expect some heavy regression, but I’m not too hopeful about a 36yo with well documented health issues making a return to 2013-2014 pedigree.