Dodgers Add Chase Utley for Playoff Race

The Los Angeles Dodgers made another move after a very active trading deadline, trading for life-long Philadelphia Phillies’ player and icon Chase Utley. The Dodgers, attempting to hold off the San Francisco Giants for a division title are currently two games ahead of the Giants, but are also one game behind the Chicago Cubs in the wild-card standings, making the division title potentially the only real avenue to make the playoffs. The Phillies will reportedly pay $4 million of the $6 million that Utley is owed for the rest of the season and in return receive minor leaguers Darnell Sweeney and right-hander John Richy. While the players the Phillies receive are not non-prospects — each appeared in Kiley McDaniel’s Dodgers write-up this past spring — for this season, the trade is centered on Utley’s potential contribution to the Dodgers.

For the Phillies, this trade is another in a series of transactions which represents a move away from their World Series’ runs at the end of last decade and toward rebuilding. For the Dodgers, in a tight playoff race where any additional help could mean the difference between the playoffs and going home despite a $300+ million outlay in salaries, the move for Chase Utley is no guarantee of success, but the possibility, especially when Utley had been rumored to go to the Giants, likely makes the move worth the effort.

The use of word underrated with regard to certain types of players is probably overused (and overrated), but for Chase Utley the term might very well be appropriate. Among position players, Utley provided better production than teammates Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard for years, but saw each of them take home Most Valuable Player awards. From 2005 to 2009, Utley finished among the top three by WAR in all five seasons, but never finished higher than seventh in the MVP voting. Utley has spent all 13 years of his MLB career in Philadelphia and he ranks third among Phillies position players with 61 WAR behind Mike Schmidt and Ed Delahanty, who stopped playing after the 1903 season.

At 36 years old, Utley is somewhere near the end of a Hall of Fame career. He does not have near the playing time of recent second basemen enshrined like Craig Biggio, Roberto Alomar, or Ryne Sandberg, but thanks to his incredible peak from 2005 to 2009 and sustained success since that time, his WAR total is within about five wins of all three Hall of Famers. Second base is a tricky position when it comes to predicting Hall of Famers. Bobby Grich, Lou Whitaker, and even Willie Randolph have decent cases for the Hall of Fame, but were ignored by voters. The next few years might make the difference for Utley: if he can compile a bit more in the numbers about which the voters have historically cared, his case might more closely resemble the former three second basemen who were all enshrined early on in their years of voting eligibility. To do so, Utley will have to recover from a poor 2015 season.

The version of Chase Utley the Dodgers will be receiving is not entirely clear. Beset by ankle troubles, Utley had the worst month of his entire career in April after a solid 2014 season. The ankle problems persisted and he eventually landed on the disabled list in late June, missing more than a month. That hideous first month acknowledged, Utley has not hit as terribly as his current 66 wRC+ would indicate. Since May 1, he is slashed .257/.318/.385 with a wRC+ of 93, roughly average for a second baseman. Much of that production has come in just the last few weeks since Utley came off the disabled list.

Last week, Jeff Sullivan wrote that Utley had worked on fixing a flaw in his swing that occurred due to Utley’s ankle injury. Utley has gotten a hit in every single game since his return from the disabled list and while an eight-game hitting streak doesn’t match the no-hitter with which Cole Hamels ended his Phillies tenure, Utley does leave the team on a slightly positive note. Sullivan reinforced that positivity on the player the Dodgers might be getting after the stint on the disabled list and a change in mechanics that got his full body into more of the swing.

Pretty much every hitter needs a strong base, and while a weaker lower body didn’t hurt Utley’s ability to recognize pitches and make contact, it looks like it could’ve been responsible for the weak contact quality. If you believe that Utley feels better now, and if you believe that he’s gotten back to his familiar mechanics, you might be inclined to just throw his whole first half out. And before the year started, Utley was projected as a 3-win player. If he has his lower body, maybe he’s still about that good.

Sullivan also noted an uptick in Utley’s exit velocity. A week later, the velocity is still there. The graph below shows Utley’s exit velocity from earlier in the season and the increase over the past few weeks, per Baseball Savant.

chart (1)

The Dodgers already have a second baseman in Howie Kendrick, but Kendrick has been on the disabled list for more than a week due to a hamstring injury and is not expected back until early next month, creating a need at second base. Utley will take over for Enrique Hernandez, and allow Hernandez to play a utility role, at least until Kendrick returns. Utley’s presence should allow the Dodgers to play it safe with Kendrick’s injury without rushing him back. Utley, a left-handed batter, does not have much in the way of platoon splits, but a platoon between Kendrick and Utley over the last month of the season could be beneficial for the Dodgers. Since the beginning of 2012:

wRC+ 2012-2015 v LH v RH
Chase Utley 93 114
Howie Kendrick 131 105

Much of Utley’s production came when he was a much better hitter in general. For Utley to continue to receive regular playing time after Kendrick’s return, he will need to show that the last few weeks that have seen six extra-base hits in eight games have not been just a flash of the old Utley. While the impact one player can have in just six weeks of regular season time is minimal, the Dodgers might have found themselves a solid contributor for the rest of the regular season and potentially the playoffs. In a tight race, that might make the difference.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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7 years ago

I know it’s for the best, but just the thought of Chase Utley in any uniform other than red pinstripes is gut wrenching. You take good care of him, Dodgers.

7 years ago
Reply to  Phillies113

It’s way more sad for me than Rollins or Hamels because Chase always talked about how much he loved the city and the fans and coming from someone who never talked about how he felt, that was the best compliment ever.