Is Chase Utley Really Declining?

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.

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