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April 4, 2007
In order for the Phillies to remain competitive in 2007, a lot is riding on Ryan Howard and Chase Utley carrying the offense. For the Phillies to have a shot at the playoffs, the right side of the infield will have to replicate their 2006 campaigns. In the case of Howard, he may not be Bonds in the long term, but he'll be taking ball four with regular frequency, making him a devastating on base threat. At the same time, there are some real questions concerning whether or not Utley will be able to sustain his 2006 level of production.
Chase Cameron Utley was originally drafted by the Dodgers as a shortstop in the second round of the 1997 amateur draft after a season where he was a Second Team High School All-American for Long Beach Polytechnic High School. Utley decided to go to UCLA rather than sign with the Dodgers, and before the Phillies selected him in the first round of the 2000 draft he had been named a Pac-10 Conference All-Star as both an outfielder and infielder, First Team College All-American as an infielder, and Oklahoma City Regional MVP for the College World Series on the strength of his 1999-2000 campaigns, where he hit .317/.380/.557 and .382/.448/.689, respectively.
The accolades continued to pile up for Utley when he made his professional debut, as he was named a Short-Season A-ball All-Star at second base during his time for Batavia in the New York-Penn League. Utley would wind up spending only two years in the low minors before a promotion to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2000 Batavia(A-) 153 .307/.383/.444 34% .137 14 10.3% 13.1% 2001 Clearwater(A+) 467 .257/.324/.422 36% .165 27 7.1% 16.8%
The first season looks fine, with solid patience and power displayed during his pro debut, but Utley didn't seem to fare well at the next level. Baseball America ranked Utley the #5 prospect in the organization after just the one half-season at Botavia:
At the plate, Utley needs to use the whole field more effectively. He's improving in that regard by staying inside pitches better and driving them to left-center. He's adjusting to the finer points at second base and will have to prove he can stick there.
His patience dropped a bit and his strikeouts rose at a rate inverse to that in High-A, but the drop in his batting average was due to a BABIP of only .287, whereas the league average for the Florida State League was .316 from 1996-2004. His Isolated Power increased by roughly .030 points, a boost to like when you're moving to higher levels.
Nevertheless, Baseball America ranked Utley #7 in the organization after his seemingly poor showing at Clearwater in 2001, but Utley's development was more obvious after he jumped all the way up to Triple-A from High-A without skipping a beat. The Phils would move Utley to third base in order to speed his progress through the organization and allow him to move on to Triple-A:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2002 Scranton/WB (3A) 464 .263/.352/.461 47% .198 40 8.9% 17.3% 2003 Scranton/WB (3A) 431 .323/.390/.517 33% .194 28 8.4% 15.3%
Baseball America ranked Utley #2 in the system after this impressive jump from High-A, and made it known that they thought he would make more sense at the keystone instead of the hot corner, especially after the Phils clogged up third base by signing David Bell to a long-term deal.
Utley began the 2003 campaign at Philadelphia, but got sent back to Triple-A before April was out. He hit many more singles in his repeat of the level, which contributed to both his lofty .358 BABIP and .323 batting average. This high BABIP also gave the Phillies a reason to call him back up in August, although his luck did not travel to the big league club with him:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2003 Philadelphia (MLB) 134 .239/.322/.373 41% .134 11 7.2% 14.5%
He maintained most of his strike-zone judgment and approach at the plate, but his hits and power were down significantly. His BABIP dropped all the way to .273; given his line-drive rate from his short time in the majors, that low figure is somewhat surprising, and likely didn't level out in the space of 134 at-bats. So a combination of an early call-up and some bad luck earned Utley another stop at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to start the 2004 season, before rejoining the big league club yet again. Baseball Prospectus 2004 saw this problem coming, and took the opportunity to praise Utley and condemn the Phillies:
The signing of David Bell by the Phillies was bad enough on its own, but it also blocked Utley, who had blossomed as a hitter at Scranton in 2002. That's how he found himself back in Triple-A in 2003, and at least he could go back to second base and stop pretending to play third. Utley proceeded to turn in an outstanding season in the International League, and was arguably the second-best hitter in the circuit after Fernando Seguignol. He didn't do quite as well in Philadelphia, though he still has a nice future ahead. But the biggest question for 2004 is again, where does he play?
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2004 Scranton/WB (3A) 123 .285/.368/.512 43% .227 9 12.5% 20.1% 2004 Philadelphia (MLB) 267 .266/.308/.468 37% .202 13 5.2% 13.9%
It was somewhat odd to see his plate patience improve at Scranton and then enter the Shawon Dunston Zone after his promotion, but that's just what happened. The only positive came in the form of fewer strikeouts, although this may have had to do with an overall aggressive approach at the plate. Once again, Utley was plagued by an abnormally low BABIP, finishing at .271 despite 22 percent of his batted-balls going for liners. Of course, a lot of that may have been because he also hit a ton of grounders, and he isn't exactly a guy known for his speed.
Even so, Baseball Prospectus 2005 liked Utley quite a bit for the future:
The Phillies are believers in Utley, citing his improved defense at second base and the ungodly number of RBI that he accumulated in the big leagues (57 in 267 at-bats, a rate that exceeded Thome's). We're believers too, though we could care less about the RBI and would like to see Utley refine his pitch selection. Utley is not going to be a star, but second base is a thin position and his extra-base power should provide the Phillies with a competitive advantage. Polanco's unexpected return might seem to cripple Utley's fantasy value, but it's not the disaster that it may seem; Utley should still get the lion's share of at bats against right-handed pitchers, and he's posted a pretty big platoon split in his brief time in the bigs.
One of the major knocks against Utley was seemingly solved during 2005, when his production basically pushed Placido Polanco first out of a job and then out of town, and Utley put up a great follow-up campaign in 2006. This one knock was his struggling against left-handed pitching.
Year AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% vs.LHP AVG/ OBP/ SLG 2005 543 .291/.376/.540 46% .249 45 11.3% 20.1% .219/.348/.469 2006 658 .309/.379/.527 37% .219 44 8.7% 20.1% .301/.394/.463
There was this perception that Utley could not hit lefties, even though he managed to slug .469 against them in 125 at-bats in 2005. Overall, that performance is the better season: Utley had three fewer extra-base hits and six additional walks in 111 fewer plate appearances, and his SLG and OBP were not supported by his batting average as much as in 2006. This is not to say that 2006 was a poor year; far from it, as Utley was more than likely the most productive second baseman in either league, but my point is that it was not as productive as the previous campaign. Now, to relate back to the initial question of whether or not Utley is capable of improving or matching 2006's production in order to keep the Philly offense alive, there might be a slight problem, which can be found in his batted-ball data:
Year P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Diff. 2003 3.8 36.3% 23.9% 39.8% 7.3% 4.9% .273 .359 +0.86 2004 3.9 34.4% 22.0% 43.6% 6.4% 16.7% .271 .340 +0.69 2005 4.0 41.8% 23.2% 35.0% 9.8% 15.2% .320 .352 +0.32 2006 4.0 43.5% 19.5% 37.0% 14.0% 14.0% .346 .315 -0.31
Small samples and high groundball rates are the reasons behind Utley's underachievement his first two years in the major leagues. As for 2005, his high flyball rate was part of the problem, as lofty flyball rates are not conducive to high BABIP. In 2005, Utley flew out 89 times just at Citizen's Bank Park, in 271 at-bats. He avoided this fate in 2006 by flying out five fewer times in 51 additional at-bats, which was great for the 2006 version of the Phillies, but bodes less well for the 2007 squad. If you subtract the .031 point difference from his 2006 line, you get .278/.348/.496, which is still fantastic for a second baseman, but not quite the same level of performance the Phils will need this year.
This actually compares incredibly well to his 25th percentile PECOTA forecast of .273/.349/.489, especially given his low Improve Rate of just 35 percent. The difference between the weighted mean and the 25th percentile is essentially the difference between one of the best players in the league, one who could fill in at first base even though he is a middle infielder if such a need were to arise, and a well above-average second baseman who should be the third or fourth best hitter in a top-ranked offense.
On a positive note, Utley has come a long way defensively since his time in the minor leagues as a defender struggling at two different positions. He's a bit above average at second according to David Pinto's Probabilistic Model of Range, finishing the 2006 season with a 105.46 Out Ratio, sixth best among qualifiers at the position. It's very cool to see a player outperform all of the initial projections for him as a defender, because he most likely worked hard to improve, and you can see it paying off. Utley was projected as an average defender at best, and it was mentioned in every edition of Baseball America he was in that he would not be a Gold Glove contender. He's now an above-average defender with a plus bat, enhancing his value to the Phillies.
The fact that Utley is the cleanup hitter at present might be of an indictment of the Philly lineup, as it is very top-heavy, and he profiles more as a #2 hitter in my mind, or possibly a #5. In order to compete seriously all season with the roster as it is currently set, Utley is going to need to hit like a cleanup hitter in more than a nominal sense, and based on the batted-ball data, that goal might not be as probable as many think it is.