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.