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Leave Utley At Second Base

Posted by Eric Seidman, Wed, September 26, 2012 09:00 AM | Comments: 25
Analysis, Commentary, Statistical Analysis

There are three key facts that must be understood before properly analyzing the potential position switch of Chase Utley:

1) Neither Chase Utley nor Freddy Galvis has third base experience at the major league level
2) There is no tangible proof that moving to third base will allow Utley to stay on the field
3) Utley still rates as one of the best defensive second baseman in the game

Since the idea of moving Utley to third base next season is really picking up steam it’s worth exploring these three facts to get a better understanding of why the Phillies are even considering the idea. These facts also suggest that the team is better off leaving Utley at his natural position. The concept of playing Utley at the hot corner was certainly intriguing, and an example of out-of-the-box thinking on the Phillies part, but for now it should get shelved as an interesting idea ultimately not worth exploring at this juncture.

Based on our current knowledge of the situation and the particulars associated with the facts above, it doesn’t seem prudent to make him learn a new position while he still excels defensively in his current diamond spot. It doesn’t seem prudent to make him learn a new position when the only readily available study on position-switches — by friend and injury expert Will Carroll — indicates that these moves carry a greater injury risk than if the player simply stayed put. It just doesn’t seem prudent to move Utley to third base no matter how poor the free agent class looks.

The most important aspect of this situation relates to Utley’s health. Conventional wisdom dictates that second base is harder on the knees because it requires the player to exhibit more range. That makes sense, as second basemen certainly seem to run more from side to side to track down grounders. They also have to deal with double play turns and hard slides from inbound baserunners. In Utley’s case, the range requirement has been even more pronounced given the defensive shortcomings of Ryan Howard. Since Utley’s health issues predominantly center on his knees, ipso facto, a move to a position that reduces the stress on that area is beneficial. That is a perfectly valid theory if it was based on solid medical footing. Unfortunately, it isn’t, because while many of us can construct that type of theory, we aren’t medical professionals or experts, we aren’t major league baseball players, we don’t know the magnitude of Utley’s pain, and we have absolutely no idea if such a position-switch would keep Utley healthy.

According to Carroll’s study, switching players to a new position carries with it a greater injury risk. The money paragraph:

One of the most misunderstood issues with changing positions is the injury risk that’s entailed. Over the past five seasons for which I have detailed injury data, players moving to a new position had a 30 percent greater chance of injury. This was across the board, whether the move was simple — like switching from left field to right — or more complicated, like going from the outfield to second base, as Kelly Johnson did a couple of seasons ago. (And that was after coming up as a player who was playing the left side of the infield in the minors.)

It’s a bit counterintuitive that no single position is higher risk than others, even one like second base, where the second baseman’s back is to the double play in most situations. However it also clearly points to the major cause of these injuries: unfamiliarity.

Utley is unfamiliar with third base and extremely familiar with second base. While the range requirements of third base may be lesser than those at they keystone, it’s likely that the unfamiliarity con matches or outweighs that pro. Carroll went onto suggest that the risk goes back to normal after approximately 60 games at a new position, when the player’s familiarity level increases. These aren’t proven facts or definitive conclusions, but he has devoted his career to these types of studies.

Moving Utley to third base may, in theory, help his knees, but it increases the risk that he gets hurt based on not being familiar with the position. If the potential for increased defensive miscues exists for the entire season with him at third base — it certainly does — and he still has a strong chance of getting injured, whether for one reason or another, moving him doesn’t make much sense.

On the other hand, Freddy Galvis has spent most of his career on that side of the infield, and already boasts a strong arm. If anyone was to make the move to third base, it should be Galvis. That way, the Phillies only have one player out of his natural position — Galvis is a shortstop that played tremendous defense at second base, but he’s still learning the position — and, as cynical as it sounds, if someone was to bear the increased injury risk of a position-switch, better him than Utley. This isn’t to say that Galvis would learn the position instantly or make us forget Placido Polanco and Pedro Feliz, but rather he makes much more sense as the Cody Asche stopgap than does Utley, who hasn’t played the position since Omar Daal was the Phillies de facto ace.

Statistically, Utley is still a fantastic defender at second base, which goes against the idea that his age has caught up with him. It has become common to hear on sports radio or television shows that Utley has lost a step at the position and that Galvis would have made certain plays. Sure, Galvis was awesome defensively in Utley’s absence this year, but since he returned, Utley has picked up right where he left off. He has only played 654 innings at second base this season, but his +4 UZR ranks 6th among the 26 NL second baseman with at least 200 innings at the position. For context, most players on the list are over 900-1000 innings this year. The same thing happened last year: Utley returned around mid-season, played 100 games, and rated among the best defensively at his position.

The UZR metric is a counting stat as well, which makes Utley’s current rank even more impressive, as he essentially missed two months. In terms of rate, UZR/150 indicates how a player’s rating would look over 150 games at the position, if he fielded at his current pace. Utley again ranks 6th, at +10.4. Not even a rounding difference ahead of him is Galvis at +11.0. In other words, it is justifiable to suggest that Galvis may get to balls Utley doesn’t, but that’s like comparing seasons of The Wire. If Galvis is Season 4, defensively, Utley is Season 3. There may be a tiny difference in quality, but both get an A+ grade for their defense. The difference isn’t so extreme as to suggest the Phillies must move Utley off of the position to make room for a superior defender.

There is simply no legitimate reason to move Utley off of second base unless the Phillies have run their own comprehensive medical studies that show how chondromalacia is immune to the effects of position-switching. And even if they have, we haven’t even discussed the chance that Utley can’t even handle the position well. His range is top-notch but his arm strength has fallen off lately. That has been mentioned frequently over the last several weeks, and it’s certainly a valid defense against this position-switch notion. But aside from that, it’s important to remember that switching positions isn’t easy, or as cut-and-dried as it might seem. It’s important to remember that Utley still brings it defensively at second baseman, and has performed equally as good as Galvis has with the glove season. And it’s important to remember that, even though third base may require less range, changes in position carry a significant injury risk that can’t be ignored.

Regardless of how Utley would fare at third base, these reasons are enough for me to advocate leaving him at second base next season and biding time until Asche is ready with some combination of Galvis, Kevin Frandsen, and Jeff Keppinger if he can be had on a reasonable deal. There are a couple of reasons to move Utley to third base next year, but many more to leave him at his natural position.

Avatar of Eric Seidman

About Eric Seidman

Eric Seidman has written 64 articles on Phillies Nation.

Eric offers his unique analytical perspective to Phillies Nation and is a regular contributor on FanGraphs.com.

 
 
  • Posts: 105 pamikedc

    Avatar of pamikedc

    Great article! Long, but very informative.

    Few questions for all my PN friends:

    1) why can’t he play LF? Why has he said no?? That would really fill a hole for us!!

    2) Chase is smart. He only wants to play 3B for a contract from someone in 2014. More valuable as a 35? year old FA that can play 3B or 2B.

    3) WHY DON’T WE like Frandsen at 3B?? He can HIT!!!! Stop gap for Acshe.

     
    • Posts: 0 schmenkman

      I don’t know that sprinting after balls in the alley and in the corner would be that great for his knees, but when did he say he wouldn’t play Left?

       
      • Posts: 0 Ryne Duren

        yea schmenk i agree with your LF comment. and personally i’d leave him at second also. and no, i don’t ever remember him saying no to leftfield either.

         
    • Posts: 804 schmenkman

      Avatar of schmenkman

      Also, pamike, would you make room in the lineup for Freddy Galvis, or for an outfielder who can hit?

       
    • Posts: 1135 EricL

      Avatar of EricL

      In addition to what schmenkman said:

      1. There is a loss of production associated with moving players out of their natural positions. The change from IF to OF is something like 8-runs a season. Not sure how long that lasts; have to find the study that was done on it.

      2. The FA market is MUCH deeper for corner OF than it is for 2B/3B. If you have a hole in left, the optimal thing to do is fill it with a player who is a very good hitter but does not have the skill to play IF. IFers who hit like corner OFers are much, much more valuable.

      3. You’d be under utilizing Utley’s IF defense, which is at an elite level, again artificially decreasing the value he provides to the team.

      4. Frandsen is acceptable, I suppose, as a stopgap (although I surmise that I his hitting tool isn’t quite as good as you think it is…his BABIP is currently .349 – expect that to fall), but more importantly, if Utley’s potential move to 3B is being done to help his knees keeping Frandsen there doesn’t really solve that problem.

       
  • Posts: 1135 EricL

    Avatar of EricL

    I tend to generally agree that Utley is best utilized at second, but I’m not sure the calculus is quite so straightforward.

    This passage spells out the problem:
    “while many of us can construct that type of theory, we aren’t medical professionals or experts, we aren’t major league baseball players, we don’t know the magnitude of Utley’s pain, and we have absolutely no idea if such a position-switch would keep Utley healthy.”

    It’s problematic because it works the other way too. We don’t know how much of a benefit (if any) moving to third base would be, and we don’t know the baseline pain/difficulty associated with him playing second. If the pain and wear is such that Utley and/or the medical staff feel that it’s inevitable that he’ll eventually break down at second, and can only give the team 90-100 games a year there, and if they feel that the potential decreased stress on his knees at third base will allow him to play 140-160 games a year, then that certainly might make sense, even with a slight uptick in the probability that he suffers an injury in the first 60 games or so next year.

    Further complicating the types of injuries we’re talking about. I don’t have access to Carrol’s entire because there’s no way I’m going to actually pay ESPN for access to insiders like Buster Olney (especially after the rapacious fees they charge my-and every other-cable company), but I question whether the injury statistics also take into consideration acute vs. chronic injuries. If a guy is more likely to break a finger/pull his groin/etc. at a new position, then that increased risk might be worth it if the alternative is a near-certainty of breakdown due to a chronic condition like Utley’s. I’m also a little curious as to the actual injury probabilities, as % increase is a little vague (ie. a 30% increase from a 5% chance of being injured to a 6.5% chance of being injured is a lot different than a 50% chance of being injured jumping to a 65% chance of being injured). Finally, we also need to consider selection bias, in that that there are going to be times when a player has changed positions due to injury or to mitigate potential injury concerns (like Chase), and so that player is already more likely to end up on the DL than a similar player who does not change positions. All of these concerns may be addressed by Carroll; I’m just bringing up the issues that I think are most relevant to the portion I have access to.

    A final consideration is Tango’s work that shows there is a “familiarity factor,” which shows a decrease in production associated with positional changes (IIRC his numbers for Pool 1 players (2B/SS/3B) are like 4 runs per season, and up to 8 runs per season for players making an IFOF switch). His take specifically on the Utley situation is similar to your thinking: http://www.insidethebook.com/ee/index.php/site/comments/utley_to_3b/

     
    • Posts: 0 George

      These are some very well considered questions about injuries, etc. Things are rarely as cut-and-dried as Seidman indicates.

      One other consideration which hasn’t been mentioned is that were Galvis to be moved to third instead of Utley, he would have the same potential for injury due to unfamiliarity with the position. He’s coming off a fractured back already, and so risk might even be higher due to the sometimes extended recovery time of such an injury.

      I have doubts about the possible move of either, but given that the switch was Utley’s idea to begin with, he should at least be allowed to try it out for a game or two.

       
  • Posts: 0 phil

    I see one and only one benefit of moving Utley to 3B. He can put on muscle mass because he doesn’t have to be as agile. This should give him more power and increase his bat speed. Having said that he would lose speed on the base paths. Utley should ultimately stay at 2B where he is still an elite defender and his slowly declining bat can be masked better. Utley isn’t one of the best hitters in baseball anymore but he is still a great hitter for his position.

     
    • Posts: 1135 EricL

      Avatar of EricL

      There’s no reason to think that increasing muscle mass increases bat speed. The speed at which muscles contract is more a function of genetics and muscle fiber type composition (Type I/IIa vs. Type IIx/IIb) than a function of muscle mass.

       
    • Posts: 0 George

      One problem with your thought is that it may actually take MORE agility to play third. The player is closer to the plate and so the ball reaches him much faster. That means that to get a hot grounder down the line, the third baseman has to make a really quick move. Same for balls toward the hole.

       
  • Posts: 0 TheDipsy

    He has one year left on his contract. Leave him at second. The article was way too long…couldn’t make it through.

    The Dipsy

     
  • Posts: 4527 Lefty

    Avatar of Lefty

    If it is Utley’s idea to make the move, and he believes that it will help him to play a full season of baseball, then I am all for it. I don’t know your friend Will Carroll from a hill of beans. What I know is that Chase Utley hasn’t played a full season in the last three.

    I am totally in favor of whatever makes Chase Utley feel comfortable enough to actually get on the field of play.

     
    • Posts: 0 EricL

      Lefty, just FYI, Will Carroll is a writer who has worked at Baseball Prospectus, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, etc. who’s covered the injury beat for something like 10 years in both baseball and football. He has fairly extensive contacts in the sports-medical community and has compiled a fairly comprehensive database on player injuries over the years. I would say he’s the best national writer on the injury beat, in terms of overall knowledge, inside-ish information, and providing estimated return dates for injured players.

      Basically, he generally knows his stuff.

      From what I understand it also seems there’s a segment of the internet sports blogger population that finds him a bit ornery and off-putting. (But you’ll have that with every crowd, I suppose.)

       
      • Posts: 4527 Lefty

        Avatar of Lefty

        Thanks EricL

         
  • Posts: 0 Bob in Bucks

    As Lefty says (beat me by a few minutes) this whole idea was Utley’s not the Phillies. Amaro is being polite since he has nothing to lose. Utley said it would provide more flexibility to the team. He is thinking about the FA market and possibility of getting a FA second baseman since getting a third basemen seems not possible.

    Personally I find it interesting but unlikely to pan out. The key question is not where Utley plays but, as always, what are the options. For me Fransden is better than Galvis. Fransden is a slightly below average fielder and appears to be a decent hitter although without power. Galvis is a top notch fielder but even with the juice he can’t hit.

    Problem with both of them is neither can hit with power and that is what the Phillies need.
    Unless the Phils make a miracle trade for Brandon Phillips or someone like that Utley will be at 2B.

    Also, expect Utley not to be a Phillie in 2014 if Amaro has the guts. Can you really sign Utley to a 4 year contract with full expectation that he may not play 50% of the time? Love the guy but his time is past.

     
    • Posts: 1135 EricL

      Avatar of EricL

      Galvis actually held his own against LHP. Against righties he was an automatic out, although his defense is top notch. Let’s remember that a good portion of this post-ASG Phillies resurgence occurred with Michael Martinez starting at third, who hits at a level actually lower than Galvis, which shouldn’t be possible, but there you go. And his defense isn’t as good as Taco13FG’s. Basically what I’m saying is that playing Freddy Galvis daily, while not ideal, wouldn’t prevent the team from winning.

      As for your last paragraph, it’s almost entirely wrong. First, Chase Utley is having a spectacular season. Here’s a little post that schmenkman wrote (partially) about Utley: http://www.thegoodphight.com/2012/9/24/3375906/phillies-stat-notes-utley-isnt-elite-hes-simply-the-best-howard . From that post: “Among second basemen with 200+ PAs, Utley has the highest OBP, 4th highest SLG, and 4th highest OPS (and wRC+).” And from the chart in that post, Chase Utley has the highest fWAR/game of all second basemen in the league, higher than even Robinson Cano. When he’s on the field he’s still the best second baseman in baseball.

      And to answer your other question, yes, you really can sign Utley–or anyone else for that matter–even if you only expect them to play 50% of the games (which is an absurd assumption, fwiw). It all comes down to price vs. production. The less you expect a player to produce, the lower his cost should be. Chase won’t see another contract like his last (and extremely team-friendly) one, but he’s still an elite infielder and most teams know that, despite his injury concerns. So I’d expect him to get less money/years than someone with no injury history, but more money/years than someone with a clean bill of health but who sucks (eg. Michael Martinez, Mike Fontenot, Ty Wigginton)

       
  • Posts: 0 Don M

    Once we’re officially eliminated, I expect the Phillies to try Utley at 3b in a game or two … regardless of who thinks they should/shouldn’t …. I don’t think they’d be working him out at 3b so often if there was no intention to try it

    and i fully expect teams to test Utley at 3b with bunts all the time… a guy with bad knees charging a bunt, and throwing off balance to 1b has the potential for throwing errors like whoa, bro

     
  • Posts: 105 pamikedc

    Avatar of pamikedc

    @Schnek the stat man- yes, great point, you are correct.

     
  • Posts: 105 pamikedc

    Avatar of pamikedc

    @TheDipsy, haha, yep, def too long :)

     
  • Posts: 0 phil

    Great post EricL

     
  • Posts: 0 phil

    Left field would be unwise

     
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