2011 Spring Training

2011 Phillies Offensive Preview, Part 5: Second Base

In the week before Opening Day, we’re looking at each of the five offensive positions that are not known quantities.

Part 1: Intro and First Base
Part 2: Right Field
Part 3: Left Field
Part 4: Shortstop
Part 5: Second Base

Second Base: Chase Utley, Opening Day Age: 32
2010: 511 PA, .275/.387/.445, 38 XBH
2011 (Bill James-projected): 625 PA, .288/.387/.497, 26 HR, 99 R

First of all, that Bill James projection is almost certainly going to be wrong, because it was made before all this knee injury nonsense became public. Second, I think it’s time we stepped back and stood in awe of what a truly great player Chase Utley is. I’d argue, in fact, that he’s the fourth-best position player in the history of the Phillies, behind Mike Schmidt, Ed Delahanty, and Sliding Billy Hamilton. Of course, Hamilton and Delahanty were both 19th-century players in a game that bears only a passing resemblance to modern baseball, so depending on how you feel about Richie Ashburn and Dick Allen, a case could be made that Utley is second only to Schmidt.Chase Utley has been a full-time starter for six years. What follows are the best consecutive six-year spans, in terms of rWAR, for a Phillies position player not named Mike Schmidt since 1901.

1) Dick Allen (1964-69): 37.1 WAR
2) Chase Utley (2005-2010): 37.0 WAR
3) Richie Ashburn (1953-1958): 35.7 WAR
4) Bobby Abreu (1999-2004): 33.7 WAR
5) Sherry Magee (1905-1910): 32.9 WAR
6) Scott Rolen (1997-2002): 31.7 WAR

Hamilton (1890-1895) and Delahanty (any six-year span from 1892-1901) also beat Allen by some distance, but again, how high you rate those guys depends on how highly you regard the quality of play in the turn-of-the-century National League. The point of all this, apart from being just staggeringly interesting to a nerd like me, is that Chase Utley‘s impact on the field is best described as “historic” rather than “important” or even “irreplaceable.” This might come as a surprise to some of you, because Utley (as a result of being overshadowed by the inferior, but flashier Shane Victorino, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Jayson Werth for most of his career) has become one of the most underrated players in the game.

Not convinced? Here’s the complete list of players who, since 2005, have compiled 30 or more WAR in the National League: Albert Pujols and Chase Utley.

So when Utley goes down with a knee injury with unspecified consequences and an unspecified return date, I think it’s right that we, as a fan base, do a collective nervous shift in our chairs.

The purpose of that little historical exercise is that however long Chase Utley is out, and whoever replaces him (unless the Phillies manage to dig up Jackie Robinson or Eddie Collins), there will be a significant drop in production. Now, I’m sure there are worse things to have in your lineup than Luis Castillo and the Seven Dwarves. When I think of one, I’ll let you know.

In all seriousness, Wilson Valdez is very valuable as a utilityman: a great defender at multiple positions. But he’s a dreadful offensive player, as I’ve said many times. Give him three weeks to replace Utley? You’re fine. Give him 600 plate appearances, however, and he’s going to kill your lineup. Castillo, at one point, was a good player, even a very good player, a three-time All-Star who thrice stole more than 40 bases in a season, has hit .300 or better seven times and has a career OBP of .368. Now, however, it’s hard to be sure. A onetime speed guy, now 35 and coming off a season where he slugged .267 in 299 plate appearances and performed so badly that his team (the Mets) was willing to pay $6 million not have him play for their team.

Valdez, one would assume, would be a better defensive player than Castillo. Valdez has had 732 plate appearances, the equivalent of a season and change, over parts of six major league seasons, and over that time he’s been a 1.9-WAR defensive player but a -0.2-WAR offensive player. Castillo famously dropped a pop-up during one of the Mets’ September collapses, and over the course of his career has been a below-replacement-level defender. However, Castillo is on base much more (Bill James projects a .361 OBP for Castillo in 2011, .312 for Valdez), and while neither hits for much power, Castillo has grounded into 120 double plays in his 15-year, 7,471-plate appearance career, one ever 62.26 plate appearances. Valdez grounds into more than twice as many double plays; at his current rate of one every 25.24 plate appearances, it would take Valdez just over 3,000 plate appearances to ground into as many double plays as Castillo has in 2 1/2 times as many trips to the plate.

The result? Castillo is likely to be a mediocre offensive player and a bad defender. Valdez is a good defender and as bad an offensive player as you’d ever hope to see. I’d rather give Castillo (assuming he makes the team) Utley’s at-bats, and use Valdez as a late-inning defensive replacement and utilityman. At any rate, if Utley misses the season with his knee issues, you’d probably lose about five marginal wins if you played Castillo every day, compared to six or more if Valdez played every day. It’s really a case of pretty bad vs. awful.

The good news? The Phillies have been dead silent on Utley’s situation, so it is possible, if rather unlikely, that he won’t miss a ton of time. Even if he’s out until Memorial Day and misses 50 games, he still put up 4.2 rWAR in 115 games last year, so maybe it’s not time to panic yet. Of course, the lack of information about the UCLA product’s knee has led to wild speculation and a projected return of anywhere from Easter to Easter 2012. Until we get some concrete news, Castillo and Valdez will have to do the best they can.

I haven’t mentioned Pete Orr, Josh Barfield, or Rule V selection Michael Martinez here because, frankly, if any of them gets more than 150 plate appearances, I’d just as soon not be watching.

The takeaway lesson at second base? Pray that Utley comes back soon, but if he doesn’t, at least Castillo and Valdez aren’t totally without value.

Click to comment


  1. tavian

    March 26, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    Let’s face the facts, Utley is our MVP and we will really miss him. Pray that he comes back soon. There is no real replacement. He is the heart and soul of this offense.

  2. The Dipsy

    March 27, 2011 at 8:01 am

    Well, OK. Firstly, just for shts and giggles, here are some players I would take over Bobby Abreu, who, by the way, is a great example why WAR is not the end all and be all. Johnny Callison, Jimmy Rollins, Garry Maddox, and thats just off the top of my head. Bobby Abreu had GREAT stats and great talent. He also inspired no one and had no interest or inclination to try to make anyone around him better. Conversely, Chase, Dutch Daulton, Dave Hollins, etc, have “hidden value” that does not translate into numerical values. Example: player X knows that if he doesn’t run out a groundball hard, or hustle to make a catch in foul ground, that one of the aforementioned are going to place their foot squarely up player X’s ass. This makes his teammate try harder, which makes him play better. Bobby is actually player X. Hey, I like guys that take walks, a lot. But Bobby used to forego RBI situations in order to take that walk knowing full well that there was no one behind him to knock the run in, unless you count Jim Thome. And I like Bobby Abreu….but not as the focus of an offense. For this reason, mainly, you just can’t count Bobby Abreu as one of the best Phillies position players, regardless of his WAR rating.

    The Dipsy

    • Chuck

      March 27, 2011 at 9:25 am

      God help us if we would have chosen Bobby Abreu as a possible OF in the offseason when Burrell left and Raul came here.

      • Publius

        March 27, 2011 at 12:27 pm

        Yeah, we really dodged a bullet by signing the older, more expensive, and worse Raul Ibanez. Nice job Rube!

    • Ted Bell

      March 27, 2011 at 1:51 pm

      Publius, You do realize that since July 30, 2006 (the day that Gillick sent Abreu to the Yankees) the Phillies have had the best record in the National League?

      They gave away a lot in that WAR category, and received absolutely NOTHING back. They were 49-54 the day they traded Abreu, and then went 36-23 when they dumped Abreu and his precious WAR. The team actually got better. Go figure.

      Since 2006, no NL team has won more games.

      Yet, the teams that Abreu has ended up on seem to underachieve. Just a coincidence, I guess. I remember listening to WFAN the day that the Yankees acquired Abreu and his flashy stats. Francesa was practically giddy about the Yankees getting one of the best hitters in the game!

      After adding Abreu and his sabermetrician’s wet dream stats, the Yankees only won one post season game in 2006, one post season game in 2007, and failed to make the playoffs in 2008. They then let Abreu walk and won the WS in 2009. Just a coincidence, I guess.

      Maybe the guy’s just not a winner.

      I’m Ted Bell.

      • Publius

        March 27, 2011 at 2:21 pm

        That clearly has nothing to do with the fact that Utley, Howard and Hamels came up at that time, that Jimmy had some of his best years in that period or that management began to spend a lot more money on the team in those years. Neither does the fact that baseball is, at its core, a team game and that wins and losses reflect more on a team than any individual, have to do with the outcomes you mentioned.

        Nope, gotta be that Bobby Abreu is simply not a winner. Nice call. In the same vein, and to get us back on track, the Phils really need David Eckstein to take Utley’s place as he recuperates. The dude is a winner!

      • The Captain

        March 27, 2011 at 2:26 pm

        Ted, as a Yankees fan, I can tell you why the Yankees did not win the World Series those years.

        1. Pitching
        2. Pitching
        3. Pitching
        4. Random variance in the playoffs
        5. Injuries

        I guess you could say Abreu’s defense contributed a hair, but that’d be like reason #867 on the list.

      • Ted Bell

        March 27, 2011 at 4:56 pm

        Utley & Howard were already established contributors by 2006. Rollins had “some of his best years” after that??? It was actually just one year – 2007. He’s been in obvious decline beyond that.

        The point is that a sabermetrician would have rather taken a bullet than make that Abreu trade. You yourself “taught” us how to evaluate players by WAR rather than intangibles.

        Sometimes “old school” observations win out over numbers. The common thought at the time of the trade was that Gillick knew he had to change the clubhouse dynamics by ridding it of Abreu.

        In 2008, Milton Bradley had a 5.1 WAR and Ryan Howard had a 2.8 WAR.

        I guess you would have jumped at the chance of a Howard for Bradley swap after that season? As a good sabermetrician, that would have been the correct deal. Am I reading you right, or is there another secret in those numbers that we haven’t learned yet.

        There are intangibles in this game, whether or not you believe it.

        I’m Ted Bell.

  3. Chuck

    March 27, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    Well, if we’re choosing between Bobby Abreu and Raul Ibanez two offseasons ago…I’ll take Raul every single time.

  4. Lefty

    March 27, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    I often don’t agree with you, but I do respect that you are a sharp baseball person, and I think your analytical skills add a lot to this board. I like the back and forth banter about which stats best represent probability of an individual’s performance, etc.

    But I never thought I’d see you post this-

    “Neither does the fact that baseball is, at its core, a team game and that wins and losses reflect more on a team than any individual”

    I agree with that sentiment 100%. At it’s core wins and losses are about team. Team chemistry, clubhouse leadership, management leadership, fire in the belly attitude from every individual on the team at all talent levels, and tons of other intangibles that can’t easily be measured. There simply is no Sabermetric to help us gauge these things. That’s how teams like the Giants, or Marlins win the World Series some years. It’s why the Yankees don’t win it every year. IMO- It’s what makes the game fun and worth watching. Don’t misconstrue what I’m writing, I firmly believe the stats are important and hold meaning. But so too does the eye test, and the immeasurable intangibles of teamwork. Go Phils!

    • Publius

      March 27, 2011 at 4:00 pm

      Oh I wholeheartedly agree that there is only *so much* stats can tell us, but most of that lies in evaluating one individual player vs. another individual player, which honestly is what most of the content on this blog is about, be it in trying to gauge Chase’s upcoming year, to free-agent signings and trade possibilities. While I personally don’t believe that atmosphere/chemistry has anything more than a tiny effect on team performance, that’s simply an argument that cannot be proven one way or the other, since there is no way to measure it. I also agree re: Giants and Marlins WS wins. The playoffs are, if nothing else, a total crapshoot, which is what makes them so fun/infuriating.

      My goal when writing most comments on this blog is to try to make people think in new ways and prevent homerism from blinding some people to the actual talent that a player has. This is probably why I am seen as being so “negative,” but oh well.

      • Lefty

        March 27, 2011 at 4:28 pm

        So were you serious about Eckstein? Do you think he would be a better fit than Castillo at this point in their careers?

        I used to like Eckstein a lot. Big contributor to the Cardinals when they won it all.

      • Chuck

        March 27, 2011 at 4:29 pm

        You’re seen as so “negative” not because of what you say….but rather how you say it. I appreciate your thoughts and insights but not your tone sometimes. But, then, I’ve been accused at times of being sarcastic and condescending on here, so I get it. I think you definitely add something to the ongoing discussion so I commend you for that!

      • Publius

        March 27, 2011 at 5:06 pm

        David Eckstein is Exhibit A in my case against overvaluing “winners”. I was being facetious.

      • Lefty

        March 27, 2011 at 7:05 pm

        I suspected that. Just making sure, I’m with Chuck, I’d rather go with youth in a (hopefully) temporary situation.

  5. Chuck

    March 27, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    Honestly, at this point, I would rather have NEITHER. Some hungry combo of Valdez, Martinez, Orr, etc. might serve the team better. Besides, the argument is always being made about the old age of this team. Valdez in 32 (younger than Castillo or Eckstein), but the others would infuse a youthful exuberance that’s necessary.

    • Lefty

      March 27, 2011 at 7:02 pm

      You get no argument from me. But I fear that Charlie/RAJ are afraid of youth for some reason. I liked Barfield too. Castillo is a slap hitter with decent plate discipline, but I think old Charlie can hit a ball harder than he can. With this pitching staff I think you go for defense first, and that’s why I would start Valdez and pinch hit for him in the mid to late innings if we’re behind/ need the runs. I know that’s backward thinking, (defensive replacement late in a game) but not in this situation. And by that I mean, let’s face it we are NOT going to replace Utley’s bat, just not going to happen, so we better put guys in there that play good D.

      Orr acts like a pro and Martinez is seems too good to give back to the Nats. Those three in some combination can handle it pending what we learn about how long the Utley thing might take. If a move is needed at the deadline, maybe we do it then.

      But that’s not the way it’s going to play out, Ruben and Charlie think they need a veteran. So it might be 28 Y.O. D Young, or probably Castillo. Hope I’m wrong about this last part.

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