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.

Avatar of Paul Boye

About Paul Boye

Paul Boye has written 58 articles on Phillies Nation.

  • Posts: 0 jim

    also, if you don’t see a decline in howard’s numbers, you are looking at the wrong numbers. simple as that. unlikely he ever replicates the 06-07 level production, which was the only time he was actually worth 25 million. it’d be better to have given 60% of that money to werth.

  • Posts: 0 brooks

    @Bob – that was one of the theories I read also. Bautista and Albert defy roids then? I dont know…

    OCP, I got to see Robby play in Baltimore after he (and Molitor) wreaked havoc on the Phils in the 93 WS. Purist have the problem, Robby had a following. He was loved and appreciated where ever he played.

  • Posts: 0 The Original Chuck P

    Why are pitchers dominating?

    Cracking down on steroids is part of it… you’ve got less guys on steroids which means that there are less guys in your lineup that have an advantage over the pitcher – less guys on base and fewer home runs means less pressure on the pitcher and more confidence in his ability to get through a lineup.

    Bats… maple bats are a problem. The ball hops off maple bats better but they shatter easier – just ask Tyler Colvin and his nearly collapsed lung how dangerous that is. It was my understanding that MLB focused its efforts on the manufacturers- making sure that the bats were manufactured at a high standard. Could that have had an impact? I would assume it could.

    Other impacts: the change up. For a while, pitchers were getting away with a hard fastball and a good curve. The change up was an afterthought… pitchers have realized that the change up can be devastating. It will take hitters a while to adjust to the change up- that’s kind of how it works… hitters adjust, pitchers (and pitching coaches adjust), hitter re-adjust… it’s cyclical.

  • Posts: 0 The Original Chuck P

    Joe Morgan blasphemy… I don’t think so. Morgan had 3-4 seasons where he had some pop. Other than that, he wasn’t didn’t hit for power and that’s not a knock on Joe- it’s just not what he was about. Utley has one less all star appearance in 8 seasons that Morgan did over 22. 4 silver sluggers to Joe’s one.

    Look back at my posts – I didn’t say that Chase Utley is better than Morgan or Alomar. The allure has always been that Chase can hit 30-45 HR… Morgan/Alomar couldn’t. But if you wrap that around my original post when I said that I think that Utley is going to have to start thinking in terms of doubles and batting average, you’ll see that I think he’s going to end up more like Morgan or Alomar than he is unlike them. He’s not a HR hitter – he’s just not built that way. People have to realize that in order for Utley to generate the most production over the next 5-10 years, he’s probably going to have to redefine himself at some point. Coupled with the pitching dominance… I think that now is that time.

  • Posts: 0 The Original Chuck P

    Re-reading my last post… I’m not suggesting that Utley is better than Morgan but I do think that it’s fair to use their names in the same sentence.

  • Posts: 0 The Original Chuck P

    Jim – If you could be guaranteed that Howard would finish top 5 in HR and RBI every season, would you feel more comfortable paying him that money and less likely to proclaim that he’s not worth the money he’s going to get?

  • Posts: 0 jim

    he led the league in HR and RBI in 08 and wasn’t worth 25 million then… so no. there’s more to offense (and baseball).

    can you lead the league in these numbers while stinking up the joint? possible but not likely. can you be in the top 5 consistently while not being one of the best players in the game. much easier to imagine. especially when he’s getting more RBI opportunities than anybody else.

  • Posts: 0 The Original Chuck P

    More RBI opportunities than anybody else…

    How do you explain this year where everyone had a down year yet still ended up top 5 in RBI? He would have easily ended up top 5 in HR if he didn’t spend time on the DL.

    It’s not production… you have a problem because he can do things that other players can’t without breaking a sweat. Anyone can hit for average – there are few players in the game that can hit 30 HR per season consistently because it takes more than talent… Placido Polanco could work as hard as he want and he could never do what Howard does. Why? He doesn’t have the build or the God given strength to hit home runs. Home runs aren’t everything; you’ve gotta be able to do whatever it takes to drive in a guy standing on second or third and Howard has certainly done that. Why do I say that? He’s consistently been at the top of the RBI leaderboard since he came into this league. And his defense was pretty good this year because he worked hard to make it better.

    So there’s more to baseball but I pay Ryan Howard $25 million because he’s one of the few players in the game that you can bank on for having +30 HR and +120 RBI.

  • Posts: 0 jim

    even with the time missed he was #7 in the NL in runners on base for his plate appearances. drove in the same percentage of runners on base as literally dozens of other guys. if you look over the years he consistently has the most opportunity, and his most pronounced skill is power. so of course when you look at HR and RBI they skew toward his skill and his situation.

    the basic reality is this. when you total up all the ways that a guy can provide value for your team, he is not going to be a top 5 1B over the length of the extension, or a top 20 player overall. there are about 2 dozen players who will be more valuable when you consider he doesn’t play a tough position and plays it average at best, doesn’t draw walks like many elite players, and is increasingly vulnerable to LHP as we saw in the playoffs.

  • Posts: 0 psujoe

    Don’t forget the crackdown on Amphetamines. Doesn’t seem like much, but these players get dog tired with all the travel.


  • Posts: 0 Phylan

    It’s hilarious how deluded Philadelphia is about this contract. He’s not even a top 5 1B right now, or last year, and he’s getting paid like he is top 3.

  • Posts: 0 Phylan

    And I’m not saying Howard is bad, but he’s not $25 million good. There’s like a billion ways to demonstrate this

  • Posts: 0 jim


    obviously i agree. it will come into clearer focus after next season, when we can make our best possible guess at what he would have commanded on the open market – specifically which teams would have even been available as suitors. it likely won’t be more than 1 or 2 others, and it won’t include teams that have a shot at outspending philly.

    then we will see how much money was wasted on a straight up market misevaluation. and after that, the real dicey part begins.

    rodriguez and howard will a two horse race for biggest albatross (whoa mixed metaphors). difference is the rodriguez contract doesn’t affect yankees’ spending ability as much. we are seeing that is not true of the phillies.

  • Posts: 0 The Original Chuck P

    There’s like a billion ways to demonstrate this…

    Like, go for it. Please, demonstrate your genius.

    If he’s #7 in runners on base for his plate appearances and he’s top 4 in RBI, I’d say he’s doing a pretty good job of knocking guys in.

    You think that he’ll decline because…

    I think that he won’t because he works hard, he’s been one of the most consistent run producers in baseball since he came into this league and he wants to be great. He’s a wonderful ambassador for this city and this team, he’s one of the most feared hitters in baseball and yet people on here have a problem with how much money he’s making. He’s a great player – he’s probably the biggest reason why we’ll be hanging another NLE banner at CBP this April. If he doesn’t get injured, our season might have ended different.

    If he’s hitting for average, people are mad that he’s not hitting home runs. If he’s walking, people are mad that he’s not swinging the bat. If he’s hitting home runs, people are mad that he’s not hitting for average. He’s the fastest player to 200 HR in baseball history. He’s going to be 2nd on the franchise all-time HR list by the end of next season. Is $25 million too much? Maybe but a lot can happen between now and 2017- player salaries keep going up and guys like Albert Pujols and Adrian Gonzalez are going to re-set the bar. We bought out his arbitration years and gave him a 5 year deal… it’s not like A-Rod’s 10 year deal. I’m glad that I don’t have to watch him play for anyone else.

  • Posts: 0 jim

    part of demonstrating it is this exercise:

    look through all the guys with similar skills – namely guys with a ton of power who strike out a decent amount (don’t hit .300) and don’t walk a ton (less than 90 BB a season over the last 3). then see how many of them were among the best in the game from their 32-36 season. sure he works hard, but father time gets us all. willie stargell is a pretty good example of the best case scenario. but he is the exception, not the rule. people constantly complain that mo vaughn and david ortiz are bad comps for howard. who is a GOOD one that inspires hope? nobody can predict the future, but the odds are heavily against him being one of the best players in the league for any of the extension years.

    nothing in your “i think he won’t” paragraph actually addresses why he won’t decline. with a lefty on the mound, he is far from feared.

Leave a Comment

>> Create a new Phillies Nation account.
>> Already registered with Phillies Nation? Log in here.
>> Comment without logging in:

Please ensure your comments comply with our Comment Policy.