Inside Chase Utley’s Slump

PHOTO: Billy Hurst/AP

PHOTO: Billy Hurst/AP

Slumps are a part of baseball. Heck, they’re a part of life. Only there aren’t usually TV cameras and thousands of people watching your every day life. So when Chase Utley began the 2015 season with a lengthy slump at the plate, I didn’t think much of it. “He’ll come around,” I thought. But so far he hasn’t. His slump has continued and continued, as we are in the middle of May and it still looks like Utley is having difficulty finding his swing–although he is four for his last eleven. But I’m not talking just statistics. Baseball is more than that. He’s looked decidedly un-Utley-like at the plate. And it’s even bled into his fielding and baserunning as well, because he hasn’t looked like The Man™ in any phase of his game. It’s been tough to watch at times. Let’s take a deeper look at his slump.

He started the year just 1-for-14, and his batting average reached the .200 mark just one time all season. One! That was after he went 3-for-3 with two home runs against the Mets on April 14 at Citi Field. Two of those hits and one of those home runs came off Matt Harvey. After that game, he was hitting .200/.267/.440. Since then, he’s hit .096/.183/.151 (not counting last night). Oof. Here’s a visual of how his batting average has fluctuated game-by-game over the last three seasons:

As you can see, his highest average so far this year is still lower than his lowest average from 2013-2014. It’s an extreme drop off.  So what causes such a change? First, I’ll take a look at his plate discipline. His walks are way down–6.9% is the lowest since 2004. And he’s actually seeing fewer pitches in the zone than he has over his career.

He’s swinging at pitches slghtly less than he has in the past. But according to FanGraphs, he’s swinging at more pitches outside the zone than usual, as well as not swinging at pitches inside the zone as often. His contact and whiff rates have been normal. Here’s a heat map on what pitches he’s swinging at (the top is 2015, the bottom is his career prior to 2015):

 Next, I’ll look at his batted ball data. He’s pulling the ball slightly more than normal–47.7% this year compared to 45.6% over his career. However, he’s hitting the ball to center a lot more than normal (38.6% compared to 33.1%), and hitting the ball the other way a lot less than normal–21.3% for his career, but just 13.6% in 2015.

Still, the big change, I think, is in the quality of his contact. He’s getting “hard hits” (according to FanGraphs) less than half of the time compared to his career average. He’s hitting less line drives and more ground balls as well. Here’s a visual on the types of hits he’s getting:

His ground balls and fly balls have generally fluctuated, but his line drives are clearly down. It’s a lot to digest, so, to summarize, Utley’s struggles are in all likelihood a result of a lot less hard hit balls, in addition to a lot less line drives. Other things obviously factor in, but those are the main issues. There’s no way to really tell if, or when, he will snap out of it. It’s not like he’s getting bit by the BABIP “luck” bug. His is absurdly low (.118), but there’s reasonable explanation with his batted ball data.

The longer this slump goes on, the worse it’ll get. He’s in his own head–it’s a bit different when you slump to start the year. When you slump mid season, your numbers will just dip a little bit. When you slump to begin the season, your numbers will go low and stay low. And we are seeing that with Utley. I won’t make any outlandish predictions based on this slump, because I seriously doubt this is what Chase Utley is anymore. But it is concerning, and something we all will be keeping an eye on as the season progresses.

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