The Reason to Believe in Chase Utley

There are three reasons to be interested in Chase Utley as a baseball player. One, there’s his whole history. Utley’s track record of being one of the best second basemen in baseball. If his career ended today, he’d be a borderline Hall-of-Famer. Two, he’s available. The Giants are reportedly in negotiations, with the Phillies looking to keep getting younger. If you want Utley, you can have him, provided you give a little something, and provided Utley is open to the chance. Three, this:

Utley’s numbers this year are very bad. He’s not one to typically offer excuses, but Utley injured his right ankle over the winter, and it never really got quite right. Lousy on-field performance followed, and then Utley went to the disabled list for a while. There’s no positive evaluation of what Utley’s been. The Giants are presumably thinking about what Utley might be now. They’d only be interested if they thought that Utley was better. His numbers since returning from the DL the other day are better. Small-sample numbers mean only so much, though. The numbers aren’t the encouraging thing. The swing is the encouraging thing.

Below, two swings — one from a home run against the Marlins in May, and one from a double against the Padres last weekend. No, of course not everything can be controlled for. And two swings might not be representative. That’s the hazard of not being able to evaluate every single swing by some means. But I did watch a bunch of other swings, outside of just these. These aren’t weird, isolated instances. Here’s the home-run swing:

Here’s the double swing:

You might easily be able to spot some differences. Probably depends on how much time you spend looking at swings. Utley figures he was able to correct a problem that seeped into his muscle memory because of the ankle discomfort. Pretty frequently, injuries have mechanical effects, as bodies attempt to compensate for pain. It’s easy to dismiss these things; players are always trying mechanical tweaks, and they’re not always the answer. Sometimes bad is just bad. But when there’s an injury, and a track record of good performance, I think it’s worth thinking about. And here, let’s examine a few screenshots. Sure enough, the double swing is different from the home-run swing, and it’s better, too, despite going for half the total bases.

Here’s Utley getting his front foot down, before going deep:

utley-before-1

It’s easiest to analyze by way of comparison, so here’s Utley getting his front foot down, before doubling:

utley-after-1

If you look at the .gif for the home-run swing, you might notice Utley’s front foot behaving oddly. That’s the hurt one. During the step, it sort of cuts itself off. In these screenshots, I want you to look at Utley’s knees. In the first image, look at how the knees are bent. Weight is back, and momentum is back. The knees are bent toward the right side of the image. In the lower picture, the bend is different. Now the back leg is bent inward. The front knee is bent more forward. In the first swing, there’s not much momentum building from the lower body; the second one looks more natural.

Moving ahead, here’s contact:

utley-before-2

utley-after-2

Obviously, the contact in both cases was good. But the home-run contact came almost exclusively from the upper body. It might be most helpful here to compare the stripe going down Utley’s left leg. Above, the leg is bent at less of an angle, and we’re not looking at the stripe right on. His left hip still isn’t pointing at the camera. In the second picture, we’re looking at the hip, with the hips about perpendicular to our view. Put another way, the second swing shows more full, natural rotation, which might also be seen in the shoulders. In the first swing, even though Utley went deep, he sort of cut himself off. The swing was all arms.

And, post-contact:

utley-before-3

utley-after-3

Just more evidence of the different rotation. In the first image, Utley’s belt buckle might be facing the pitcher; in the second, it might be facing the second baseman. In the second image, you can see more of Utley’s back, while above his shoulders are roughly perpendicular to us. And you can also see something in Utley’s front foot — in the double swing, the foot is slightly rolled over, whereas in the home run it’s perfectly flat. The double simply included more lower-body force transfer. More energy went toward the front foot, and Utley was able to swing more or less like himself.

That’s the gist of it. Before going on the DL, Utley was experiencing discomfort, and it could’ve reduced the involvement of his lower body in his swing. It wasn’t always the case:

…but it was often the case, and few and far between are the hitters who can get by and succeed swinging all-arm. 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.

For whatever it’s worth, before going on the DL, Utley had an average batted-ball speed of 88 miles per hour, ranking him in the lower half. Since returning, over that small sample, Utley’s at exactly 95, ranking him 15th, between Evan Longoria and Adrian Gonzalez. So maybe it’s about video *and* numbers. Video backs up what the numbers are saying.

I know that I tend to see the best in things, and I might be over-eager to believe in a player’s recovery. I know that Utley still hasn’t proven very much on this side of the DL stint, and his first half was really bad. But I do like what I see in his swing. Maybe more importantly, Chase Utley likes what he sees in his swing. And this is Chase freakin Utley we’re talking about. I believe that he can help someone now. And so I have to believe he can help someone beyond that. This career isn’t necessarily finished.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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David G
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David G

Was Utley’s swing also affected retroactively by the ankle injury in the second half of 2014?

Richard
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Richard

Clever.

durn
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durn

No, that was being 35 years old and an everyday infielder with a history of bad knees.