Is Chase Utley Really Declining?

Posted by Paul Boye, Thu, November 11, 2010 05:05 PM | Comments: 66
Analysis, Posts, Raising Questions

Spurred by Bill Baer’s Wednesday post on Baseball Analytics discussing Ryan Howard’s apparent decline, I started thinking about whether Chase Utley may be facing the same fate already.

The harsh reality of an aging core is one no front office or fanbase ever really wants to deal with, but that time has arrived for the Phillies. Assuming Domonic Brown starts the year in right field as Jayson Werth’s replacement, and no other changes are made to the starting eight position players, Brown will be the only starter under 30 on Opening Day 2011. Raul Ibanez will turn 39 in June. Placido Polanco is 35. Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz will be 32, and joining them will be Utley, following a season in which Chase added “surgically-repaired thumb” to his list of ailments.

Is age necessarily a forebear for poor performance? Not really. One hundred thirty-six players have hit at least 100 homers after turning 32, and a guy with a skill set like Utley’s – compact swing, good discipline – is likely to age pretty well, assuming good health.

What’s got me curious, however, is the notion that Utley is on the decline. Did he have a good postseason? No, I’m not sure anyone will argue that for very long. His defense was a little shaky and he hit just .212/.325/.333 in his 40 playoff plate appearances, but people seem to forget that Utley’s September/early October was much better over a bigger stretch of PAs. Chase hit .306/.420/.491 with five homers and 10 extra-base hits in 131 PAs in the season’s final month-plus.

Let’s take a look at Utley the same way Mr. Baer did in his article, by utilizing the ever-wonderful tools provided by the folks at Baseball Analytics. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see some data that supports either side of the decline argument. To start, the following three graphics are maps of Utley’s SLG against “hard” pitches – basically any pitch around 85 MPH or faster – from 2008, 2009 and 2010.

On the top row, we see 2008 and 2009′s slugging heat maps, with 2010 nestled below. It seems that, while Chase still handles hard pitches down and in, his overall plate coverage seems to have diminished. Pitches on the outer half weren’t driven for nearly as many extra-base hits in 2010.

Let’s put this concretely: in 2008, Utley slugged .768 with a 24.2 percent line drive rate on those hard pitches on the outer half. In 2009, he slugged .855, but with a greatly decreased 16.5 percent line drive rate. What really gets interesting is that, in 2010, Utley’s slugging dropped to “just” .554, but his line drive rate soared to 23.3 percent despite that.

We could simply be dealing with a sample disparity. Through all three seasons, there were no great fluctuations between Utley’s swing rate and contact rate for those hard, outer-half pitches. He did put more of those pitches in play in 2010, but the increase in line drive rate dilutes the argument for weaker contact made, somewhat.

It appears the answer isn’t in Utley’s success against hard pitches, but soft pitches, especially changeups and sliders. In 2008, Utley slugged .511 against the change. In 2009, he had a .404 SLG, and in 2010, that number dropped to .344, far below what’s expected of Chase. A large part of that could be due to a decrease in BABIP with those pitches (.364 to .358 to .250), especially since Utley is, again, still hitting line drives.

As for sliders, it seems Utley’s kryptonite is a slider from…a righty? Chase hit just .188/.325/.406, with a .316 BABIP, against sliders from righties. Compare that to 2009 (.298/.377/.511, .467 BABIP) and we have our biggest drop-off of any pitch’s stats from 2009 to 2010. Again, part of that could be BABIP fueled and could reverse in 2011 with no extra adjustment from Utley, though he did strike out more than 30 percent of the time against sliders in both years. This is the closest I’ve come to evidence supporting some sort of dramatic decline.

Graphically, though, Utley seems to be handling RHP sliders where they’re pitched the most.

The sliders that catch the plate are handled rather easily, and those that miss outside the zone aren’t often put in play (as expected). The sliders that do dive down and in on the black, however, do seem to pose a bit of an issue. The lack of color on the in play map tells us that Utley either takes those pitches or doesn’t make good contact, but only 25 pitches found that red/yellow spot on the inside black, not nearly enough to be truly problematic (Utley saw 154 total sliders from righties in 2010, so only 16 percent of the sliders Utley saw hit that spot).

The conclusion here is unclear. The numbers clash and conflict across the board, and there’s no clear pattern like the one Mr. Baer found with Howard. Hard stuff doesn’t really do the trick, changeup struggles seem BABIP fueled and without any particular major flaw on Utley’s part, and the closest thing we have to a definitive answer (the slider) doesn’t really feel definitive enough to shoulder the full weight of this argument.

I’m wondering if I’m dealing with a red herring. For all we know, these numbers could simply be year-to-year fluctuation based on luck. Unfortunately, the data runs out in 2008, so expanded samples aren’t possible. What are we left with, then? It’s tough to say. Every point of data seems counterbalanced, and there’s no true lean in any direction.

All this really tells me is that Utley may simply be susceptible to the effect of aging, with hip and thumb surgeries certainly not helping the cause. So, perhaps he is declining, but that decline certainly isn’t dramatic or alarming. Every player with decline at some point in their careers, and Chase Utley is no exception, but there doesn’t seem to be any imminent collapse around the corner for Utley, at least as far as these numbers go, and I would expect him to have another Chase-esque year in 2011.

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About Paul Boye

Paul Boye has written 58 articles on Phillies Nation.

  • Posts: 0 Bart Shart

    I love Chase Utley. Injuries have, in my opinion, expedited his decline. Hip and thumb injuries are critical. They take a long time to heal. Chase comes back quickly from them. They must take their toll. I think the Phils should consider Chase in left field, find a decent second baseman or third baseman and possibly move Polanco to second base. Just one man’s opinion. Also, Chase may come back stronger than ever in 2011 when all these injuries heal. I certainly hope so.

  • Posts: 0 Bart Shart

    Orlando Hudson is available as a second baseman. He is gold-glove caliber and a decent hitter. Is Ibanez worth his contract next year? I personally saw a very slow bat in the playoffs against the Giants. At this point he is a very expensive utility player. I think that putting Chase in left field will prolong the playing time of a great player.

  • Posts: 0 Paul Boye

    Chase isn’t moving to left field.

  • Posts: 0 Bart Shart

    Paul, your article was well-researched for sure. Well written and I thought that it did point to Chase Utley’s aging based on his declining ability to handle hard outside pitches. However, that could be due to injury factors, and injuries do indeed add to the aging factor in any athlete, especially extremely vital areas like hips and thumbs, especially in professional baseball players where hands are so important to success. In 2009 we did see a slight decline that was small, but that declline was larger in 2010. I do not know how long Chase will be outstanding at second base based on a pitiful defensive performance at second base. It could be an oddity, but I really do not think so.

  • Posts: 0 The Dipsy

    Paul – Yes he will. I’ll make you a little wager that Chase will be the starting Phils’ LFer on Opening Day 2012.

    The Dipsy

  • Posts: 0 Bart Shart

    When I say “pitiful performance” at second base, I am citing Chase’s showing in the playoffs. I think Utley is a great player. I hope I am wrong about his decline. But I am very concerned and believe that a change in position might help him.

  • Posts: 0 jeff of Nova

    Let’s be realistic here, Chase has shown great flashes and great plays at 2nd but…. he has not been consistent there. Many have said he is Gold glove type 2nd basemen… wel we are at the point in his career where he is not an up and coming player he is in his prime. He is what he is.

  • Posts: 0 Phylan

    Chase has been consistently excellent at 2B since 2005. I don’t mean to be a jerk but I think you’re allowing a few high profile bad throws to cloud your perception

  • Posts: 0 Paul Boye

    I watched a metric ton of baseball this year, and when he was healthy, there was no one better in the field at second in the NL than Chase Utley. People watch 9 playoff games and think the guy is a wreck because more people care about the playoffs. I get that.

    But to watch Chase Utley play defense at 2B is a luxury. Not only does the guy hit, he’s got an excellent, excellent glove with supreme range. He gets to more balls in play than just about any other fielder.

    Moving him to the outfield is a waste, premature and the absolute wrong move to make for this team.

  • Posts: 0 jeff of Nova

    He has been good not an excellent fielder. He has been an execellent hitter since 2005 minus most of 2010.

  • Posts: 0 jeff of Nova

    I hate to put emphasis on awards cause we would all agree that they are not always correct. Chase has not been a gold glover in any year. He does make a lot of plays, but he does lack consistency over time, which is what shows a top notch fielder, such as Fielding percentage.

    Chase is one of my favorite players, I still think he has way more in the tank, not sure a move to Outfield needs to ever happen. I think he is the best overall 2B in the game but not the best fielder. He has some dynamic plays to his credit though. They throw home in the WS 08 is Historic!

  • Posts: 0 jt

    Ryan howard just had a down year i mean i was the year of the pitcher,but chase on the other hand could be on a down slide i mean whens the last time he had a full season without an injury?it’s been awhile i think a move to the of in the future will be better for utley.

  • Posts: 0 Phylan

    No, he has been excellent. He’s topped +/- ratings among all second baseman consistently since 2005, and his career UZR there is 13.7. All the metrics agree, he is an elite second baseman.

    And don’t cite Gold Gloves, don’t even bother. Go look up how they’re voted on.

  • Posts: 0 bacardipr05

    Left field belongs to Oswalt. The 2012 season Oswalt will be both a long relief reliever and also play left field.

  • Posts: 0 Kate

    I’m not sure we should be talking about Chutley declining right now. As rough as I’ve been on him for the bad throws to first base in August and September and the fielding in the postseason, he spent a significant amount of time on the DL this year. Let’s wait and see what he does in 2011.

  • Posts: 0 bacardipr05

    I agree with Kate if he has another bad year then we can should open the discussion about Chase declining. Im hoping he stays healthy this year.

  • JUST STOP…………….

  • Posts: 0 Bill Baer

    I’m like 99% sure Chase consistently plays hurt. I wish he’d just admit to not being healthy and take days off.

    He had almost no power on the inside part of the plate in 2010, definitely odd for him.


  • Posts: 0 Ryan H.

    I simply cannot see how anybody can say Ryan Howard has declined in any way. If you take out the MVP year where his numbers were simply off the charts, he’s been one of the most consistent players in all of baseball with his numbers.

    Chase I am worried about though. he just can’t stay healthy. he’s banged up.

  • Posts: 0 Chuck

    I guess we need to listen to Geoff…

    In the 11/10 thread “Odd and Ends: Samuel, Sandberg and Lee”…. Geoff is quooted as saying…

    “Chase Utley is the epitome of the lazy all talent no heart professional athlete – total stereotype. He cannot play second base all that great anymore, might as well see if anyone will ask for him.”

    I mean….Geoff said it….must be true.

    And while we’re at it we might as well try to move Howard, Rollins, Ruiz…oh, and Roy Halladay, too because they all have some sort of flaws and they’re over 30. They can’t play. They’re washed up. Basically, anybody on the Phillies over 30 flat-out sucks..

    Geoff more or less said it…so it has to be true…

  • Posts: 0 Phylan

    Howard and Utley are both coming off of their lowest OPS season since 2004. Yes, it’s too early to say either of them are declining, but I don’t see any reason to be any more worried about Chase than you would be about Howard.

  • Posts: 0 Ted Bell

    Chuck – There’s a big difference between saying a player is “in decline” and saying that a player is “washed up”. There’s a lot of area in between.

    I really haven’t seen many people here saying that Utley is finished, just that there are obvious signs that his best years are behind him. The same can be said about most of the Phillies roster at this point. That’s not to say that they aren’t productive players. It’s only saying that we’ve seen the best they have to offer and there’s a good chance that they don’t reach those heights again. Sadly, the Phillies don’t have a roster of guys that can defy the laws of nature.

    I’m Ted Bell.

  • Posts: 0 Andrew from waldorf

    It takes alot out of you playing 2b and playing at that level.
    i hope hes not done.
    2011 is a huge year. It will show if hes in a decline or not.
    This guy was on pace to maybe be the best 2b ever.
    He is no longer on that pace.

    I feel its 50/50 almost. If hes on the decline move him while he has value. And yea hes one of my favorite players ever.

  • Posts: 0 Andrew from waldorf

    Ryan Howard is in the same boat as utley. Only he is alot scarier because he makes 25 million this year.

    The Howard lovers better strap in. Even an MVP this year is irrelevant if he gets 0 rbi again in the playoffs.
    Maybe not fair but thats how hes seen.

  • Posts: 0 Andrew from waldorf

    If the Yankees would take Howards contract (which they wont) personaly id send him over.
    Hes all ours and 2011 is for him a huge year also.

  • Posts: 0 Andrew from waldorf

    He is not going to left.
    Dipsy you are funny

    you trade him before you move him to left in 1 year.

    its about value for the franchise and hed offer more that way then playing left

  • Posts: 0 karen

    I would guess that Chase will be fine next year. Beyond just him, I am not confident in this team. Somehow I see Amaro getting rid of key pieces and not replacing them. We can all talk about bloated contracts but the rest of the league and our division will be improving upon 2010 team. We need some new and young-ish talent

  • Posts: 0 mike

    i love chase utley….love him.
    he’s in my top 3 favorites athletes ever…(all my athletes are philly, obviously)

    and you know who chase reminds me of?
    Allen Iverson.

    hear me out…

    sure, AI hated to practice, hated coaches, said some dumb things…

    but..when he played…he poured his heart out EVERY SINGLE NIGHT. 48 minutes a game…82 games a year….every year..
    even when he dislocated his shoulder, he came back only after like 4 games…

    thats why we love AI….he gave us everything…
    and…it cost him….it wore him down.

    and thats what is happening to chase utley.
    he goes hard 9 innings every night…27 outs…162 games a year…

    and its breaking him down.

  • Posts: 0 brooks

    Well, Andrew and others are right. This year is really big. If Utley, Howard and Rollins don’t come back this year will be a mess. Without Jayson Werth in the lineup and as beat up and average as our core group has played – 2011 could be a .500 or sub .500 year. Not included but vital to this puzzle is Vic & Poly.

    Huge questions – will Brown amount to anything? Can Rube bolster the lineup with a RH power hitter? What will be the fate of the BP? To many questions to get a warm cozy out of this, especially as pathetic as the offense played this past year – taking Jayson out of that mix, ugh!

    Ted, I hope you are dead wrong.

  • Posts: 0 jeff

    chase is not playing left. get real. first off his arm is bad.

  • Posts: 0 Andrew from waldorf

    @ Brooks havent been around for awhile. Was a tense time there in the playoffs. Hope all is well with you and look forward to next season.

    Like I said to me Utley is 50/50 a straight toss up.
    If he stinks hes declining. I also wont be suprised if hes leagues MVP next year.

    I will say this if I can get him round 3 of fantasy baseball I am taking him.

    The moving him to left stuff is just nonsense. I suppose if you want to entertain it you can. I wont anymore.

  • Posts: 0 Andrew from waldorf

    And like I said I think the situations for Howard and Utley are similar.
    So if they are both 50/50 that means most likely one will have a monster year next year and one will struggle (continue to decline).
    As Phillie fans probably would like to see Howard be dominant. Hes ours for a long long time.
    I guess there is chance both might bounce back.
    Then there is chance both continue to decline.
    This is why this is the greatest sport in the world and I can barely follow the others.

  • Posts: 0 Geoff

    I have soured on Utley, yes, but he is NOT done. I happen to think he still has great value and can be a great player at left field. Guys like him need new challenges as well to humble and motivate them, this would fit the bill. They just need to move Raul…see the other thread about Gordon Beckham…thats the ticket to get Chase in LF.

  • Posts: 0 Phylan


  • Posts: 0 Ryan H.

    it absolutely astonished me how anybody can think that Ryan Howard is in decline. where do you get that stuff from? If he didn’t get hurt this year he would have been at his usual numbers. 45 homers and 140 rbi. I just have no idea where that theory is coming from.

    utley I can understand where its coming from because ever since that year when he got pegged in the wrist when he was the leading candidate for the MVP in August, he simply hasn’t been anything close to that good since then and that was several years ago now.

  • Posts: 0 brooks

    Ryan, no way he was on the same path to get the hallowed numbers you speak of. Yes, his average was up until his injury but his power numbers were definitely down. I am not convinced that these guys are on a decline, to me early 30′s is still prime and I also think the best of Utley is ahead of him (hope, hope, hope..). But, like a bunch of these guys are saying – see what happens this year.

  • Posts: 0 Bob D.

    This talk of decline is premature. When they hit 34+ then we can talk about it. When they all got hurt they didn’t come right back and mash it, it took a bit to get the timing etc… I expect Howard, Rollins, Utley, and Polanco all to come back this year and produce again. They all had atleast slightly down years. Howard was going strong when he got hurt and not only missed a month but he was off for several weeks when he returned. If he didn’t get hurt he would have likely have hit 40+Hrs.
    These guys are all in thier primes still. In 2 years we can all get together and talk decline. 28-32 years are the typical prime years, with decline years usually start showing at 35+. So the Phils are looking good for the next 2 years

  • Posts: 0 The Dipsy

    AFW@ – Its your opinion that he is much more valuable as a second baseman and that’s true. Lets pretend we’re NOT playing fantasy baseball here. If his body is in fact breaking down a bit, then maybe it would be a good idea to take him out of the pivot and the possibility of getting taken out three or four times by runners. 2B is just a tougher position to play and you wanna keep his bat in the lineup. Lest we not forget that after this season the Phillies will not have a LFer either, hence another reason for a possible move. If you wanna keep Utley, than he will play more games for you if he is in LF. If you wanna trade him, fine. Then he will have a lot more value in fantasy at 2B. I hope he has a healthy and productive 2011 and stays at 2B.

    The Dipsy

  • Posts: 0 brooks

    @Bob, the premature talk of decline is not based on fiction, but as I posted previously there are players that are average or below and players that stand out (such as our All-star cast). The players that stand out will hopefully play longer and still have productive seasons. My bet is that Utley has an outstanding year or so ahead of him.
    Truthfully, if the cast will perform to average across the board, this team will dominate. Average being a huge increase in power numbers from Utley, Howard & Rollins.

  • Posts: 0 Ted Bell

    There are two parts to this analysis, and I suggest you read both. There are no methods of analysis that point to a player still being in his “prime” years after age 30. There just isn’t. Nobody is saying that these guys are going to fall off a cliff. Nobody is saying that these guys are no longer productive players. We are saying that a gradual decline has begun, and it gets faster after 35.



    I’m Ted Bell.

  • Posts: 0 Manny

    Whoever is saying that Chase should or will move to the OF is just CRAZY. CRAZY. Or, at the very least, way overreacting.

  • Posts: 0 brooks

    I just read an article about Robby Alomar, possibly the best 2nd baseman I have seen in my 45 (+) years of watching baseball – he had tremendous seasons prior to 30 years old and then continued on with 4 more years of baseball greatness. He started to slow down, or I should say hit like the rest of the league (a .266 BA) when he reached 34 (or you could blame this on the Muts factor, it was his first year with them). At 33, he played in his 12th consecutive AS game, had his 10th GG out of 11 seasons, hit .336 (a career best), had a triple double (hrs, 3b, 2b), scored 113 runs and knocked in 100 for only the second time in his career.

    Would you rate Chase Utley as highly as Robby Alomar? Defensively, I’d give it to Robby, offensively, I think Chase has it as well as the key ingredient, grit. We’ll see what happens but my money is on a few more great seasons from our beloved Chase.

  • Posts: 0 The Original Chuck P

    I’ve said this a million times… you have to put this slump in the context of baseball – it was the year of the pitcher and a ton of hitters had down years. If Utley, Howard, Rollins, Vic, Ibanez, Werth and Polly didn’t live up to expectations, how did we win 97 games? I think that Chase will be fine but we all have to come to the harsh realization that we might not see Chase hit 30 HR again and that’s not Chase Utley’s fault – I think that baseball is heading into a pitcher driven era. You’ve got some phenomenal young pitchers and a couple of top notch veterans that are controlling the game. Think of how many guys will be on the Cy Young watch list in 2011- Felix, Lincecum, Lee, Halladay, Sabathia, Weaver, Lester, Buchholz, Hamels, Johnson, Wainwright, Carpenter, Cain, Hudson, Santana… there are a lot of really good pitchers out there, right now.

    He needs to focus on hitting for average… period. I will measure Chase Utley’s success in terms of doubles and average in 2011… if he’s hitting +.280 with 40 doubles, he’s going to grade well even if he only hits 20 HR.

    As for shifting Utley into the outfield; the only weakness in his defense is his arm, which is not particularly strong. I don’t think his skillset would translate to success in the outfield.

    As other mentioned- Utley needs to slow down and get healthy. Take time to mend his wounds completely. I don’t know if he’s capable of that and that is really scary but hopefully it will work out for Chase- he has the opportunity to finish his career as the greatest second baseman of all time and that’s why I think moving on is not an option -ever. You don’t let guys like Chase Utley walk away.

  • Posts: 0 Chuck

    Roberto Alomar is the best second baseman I ever saw play. Period.

  • Posts: 0 bfo_33

    Everything I’ve ever read or seen from Robbie Alomar indicates he is a first class pr1ck, but he is also the best all around second baseman of my lifetime, after Joe Morgan (Sandberg a distant 3rd). Chase has an edge on power, BA is close, Alomar an edge on D, but Alomar has the years (he was a full time starter at 20, gives him a 7 year head start over Utley, who only has 4 years starting more than 140 games, Alomar had 13 – Chase won’t get there). Alomar should have been a first ballot hall of famer, should get it this year (accompanied by a harem of women with lawyers).

  • Posts: 0 brooks

    OCP – generally accepted that this was the year of the pitcher. Ask “why” though. In the late 60′s, the pitching mound was raised to 15″. As a result, a very few AL hitters actually topped the .290 batting average, Yaz won the AL triple crown with a .301 batting average. Bob Gibson had 13 shutouts and an ERA barely above 1 run per game. Denny McLain became the first pitcher to win 30 games since the 1930′s.

    The next year the mound was lowered, the strike zone shrunk and whammo, the hits and hrs started pouring in, again. And, more people attended games.

    But the question remains, why was this the year of the pitcher? The highly rated talent in DC nary finished a week of baseball, basically the same players were here last year as this and yet hits, hrs, averages all were down accross the board. I read somewhere that there was a question on tinkering with the bats? MLB said that was not the case. An improvement on defense? Not buying that one either. Any ideas?

    Anyone heard anything interesting?

  • Posts: 0 psujoe

    Chase is our second baseman. However, if you can upgrade 3b with a high quality RH that is much better than the RH you can upgarde the OF with I have no problem moving him to OF. If you could land Adrian Beltre for 3 years, $42 million(unlikely), why not move Polanco to second and Chase to LF. Rube has his work cut out for him this off season.

  • Posts: 0 Bob in Bucks

    Brooks – Just guessing but perhaps, just perhaps MLB crackdown on steroids and other drugs might be having an effect?

  • Posts: 0 The Original Chuck P

    Alomar was great… baseball purists and writers hate him but he was a player in every sense of the word. The allure with Utley over any other second baseman that has ever played is that he possesses all 5 tools… Alomar and Morgan never had the power. Utley, in his prime, is a better all around player than both. Alomar and Morgan were both 2 hole hitters – Utley is a 3 hole hitter and rightfully so. He can drive in a run or get on base, depending on the situation and he can pop one out at any time against any pitcher. Utley plays good defense… maybe not as smooth as Morgan or Alomar but his range is probably just as good as both of those guys (his glove/arm aren’t quite as good but I’ll take the other things that he brings to the table). He’s got Jeff Kent’s bat and he’s Alomar/Morgan Light in the field and on the bases.

  • Posts: 0 jim

    i’m a big fan of utley, but that is some joe morgan blasphemy right there.

    check out the dude’s prime and remember the era.

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