The Phillies entered the season relying heavily on the pitching staff after several seasons of scoring runs at will. Jayson Werth signed with the Nationals and Chase Utley was thought to be sidelined for an undetermined amount of time. The downgrade from Werth to some combination of Ben Francisco, Domonic Brown, and John Mayberry was substantial. Even more significant was the dropoff in performance from Utley to the three-headed monster of Wilson Valdez, Pete Orr, and Michael Martinez.
The outfield situation remains in flux, especially with the recent injury to Shane Victorino, but the second base situation is now solved as the Phillies welcome Utley back tonight.
The Phillies are averaging 3.83 runs per game, worse than all National League teams aside from the Pirates, Giants, Padres, and Dodgers. However, the pitching staff has been so effective that the Phillies have the best record in the league at 28-18.
The idea was always that, if the team could hold down the fort until a healthy Utley returned, his supplanting of the replacement level second base triumvirate early enough in the season would help cement their bid as a serious contender.
Though it has gotten to the point that a nifty fantasy strategy might involve adding whoever faces their lineup, the aforementioned sentiment remains true: replacing Valdez, Orr, and Martinez with Utley makes a big difference. Utley’s return invites two questions:
1) What can the Phillies expect from him over the rest of the season?
2) Is his return enough to stave off the Marlins and Braves?
Expectations of Utley
Last season, Utley hit .275/.387/.445 while battling numerous injuries, producing 5.2 WAR in 115 games. Even at that level of production, including relatively depleted power, he was still one of the best players in the game. A slash line like that looks downright Ruthian, Bondsian, or Bautistian relative to the current crop of crap the Phillies are trotting out at the keystone. As my brother pointed out on Twitter, the Phillies second basemen are hitting a collective .225/.269/.270. The Astros starting pitchers are hitting .226/.261/.262.
Small samples, sure, but that comparison aptly speaks to the ineptitude at the position through the first 46 games this season. In the aggregate, the Phillies second baseman are one of the worst hitters in baseball.
The fans projected Utley to hit .290/.395/.491 this season with 6.5 WAR in 136 games. If he played every day from here on out, he would only tally 116 games played, so the raw WAR total should be prorated down based on that and given that he won’t play everyday in the initial weeks of his return. Health permitting, 4.5-5 wins seems reasonable.
The rates are still applicable, and suggest that expectations call for his usual high on base percentage and a regression in the power department.
The ZiPS projection system was a bit less optimistic, calling for a .278/.381/.476. Whether he produces a .391 wOBA like the fans expect, or the .377 ZiPS expects, the Phillies are vastly improving their offense. I know, thanks Captain Obvious, but Utley could actually produce a .340-.345 wOBA and still make a big difference. The situation is dire.
If he produces somewhere in the 4.5 WAR range, the improvement is truly at least four and a half wins, because the players he is replacing are either at, or below, the replacement level. This isn’t a situation where the impact of his return is lessened by the fact that a solid player manned the position in his absence.
Is His Return Enough?
If he stays healthy, then his return, and the return of Shane Victorino from the disabled list, should be enough to get the offense back on track. However, it doesn’t guarantee a playoff berth, because of the elephant in the room: his health is in no way guaranteed. For all we know, Utley could return tonight, play well for three weeks, and suffer another injury to his knee. The Phillies medical staff has handled the situation tremendously, turning what could have been a completely lost season into a late-May return.
But their efforts, and the gameplan to play him two days on, one day off, might not be enough. Considering it took so long to even diagnose the ailment it stands to reason that the rest and rehabilitation exercises might not have been enough in the long-run.
The Phillies should not stand pat and assume that his return spells the end of a putrid stretch for the offense, but they also shouldn’t panic before seeing what their actual major league lineup looks like in a few weeks. A lineup of Rollins, Polanco, Utley, Howard, Victorino, Ibanez, Brown, and Ruiz is much more effective than Rollins, Valdez, Polanco, Howard, Francisco, Ibanez, Mayberry, and Ruiz.
It’s entirely possible that the former lineup could produce more respectable offensive results and give the pitching staff wiggle room. Getting Utley back, as an isolated transaction, might not be enough given the struggles of various other players. However, his activation coupled with Brown’s increased playing time and the eventual return of Victorino will go a long way towards moving the team out of the bottom third in runs per game.