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Chase Utley: I think there are a lot of benefits to analytics



Chase Utley is widely viewed as one of the greatest Phillies of all-time. (Keith Allison)

Before Chase Utley ultimately decided to return to the Los Angeles Dodgers for the 2018 season, there were mixed reports about whether the Phillies had interest in interviewing their franchise icon to be Gabe Kapler’s bench coach. Though it doesn’t appear Utley would have been especially interested in jumping straight from playing to coaching, Kapler’s analytically-driven approach wouldn’t have turned Utley off.

Utley, who hasn’t been on the Los Angeles Dodgers active roster at all this postseason, has likely played the final game in his illustrious 16-year career. The final three-and-a-half seasons of that career were spent playing for his hometown Dodgers, where Kapler served as the director of player development from November 2014 until being tabbed as the Phillies manager in October of 2017. Led by president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, general manager Farhan Zaidi and manager Dave Roberts, the Dodgers have reached the World Series in back-to-back seasons as one of the sport’s most analytically-driven teams.

“The Dodgers have really taken analytics to the next level,” Utley told the collective media, which included MLB.com‘s Todd Zolecki, earlier this postseason. “I think there are a lot of benefits to it. I think the most important thing though, from an organizational standpoint, is actually having the players buy in to the fact that it’s helpful. I think at times it might be the hardest part. If you have a complete buy-in by the players, I think on a day-to-day basis there’s a lot of advantages to using it.”

In Kapler’s first season, the Phillies at times seemed to struggle with getting players to buy into an analytically-inclined approach. After a tumultuous 1-4 start to Kapler’s first season at the helm, an anonymous player told Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports that the Phillies would be fine, but they needed “the manager to get out of the way.” Nick Williams, frustrated with a lack of early playing time, quipped to reporters that “the computers were making the lineup.”

As Zolecki noted, anti-analytics sentiment, at least among players, seemed to cool during the summer months, when the Phillies spent 32 days in first place. But after going 53-42 in the first-half of the 2018 season, the Phillies struggled to a 27-40 record after the All-Star Break, going from a team with a chance to reach the postseason to one that finished under .500. As the Phillies plummeted in the standings, criticisms of Kapler returned. Heyman said that there was “some disenchantment” among veteran players on how Kapler had managed the Phillies down the stretch. An anonymous Phillies reliever told Meghan Montemurro of The Athletic that he struggled with not knowing his role on a game-to-game basis, saying Kapler managed certain regular season games as if they were “Game 7 of the World Series.”

So at least to a degree, the Phillies struggled with getting veteran players to buy into their analytical approach. The recently-retired Sam Fuld, who interviewed for the Toronto Blue Jays manager, was tasked with being the go-between for players, the coaching staff and upper-management in his role as the player information coordinator. Andy Galdi is the Phillies director of research and development. General manager Matt Klentak was asked by president Andy MacPhail to help bring the Phillies into the 21st century in terms of using sabermetrics to gain a competitive advantage. Implementing analytics to attempt to gain said advantage needs to be an organizational process, but Kapler, who played 12 seasons in the major leagues, is the final messenger. And he’s the one ultimately tasked with using the information given to him to help the Phillies pull out close games. So when things don’t go the Phillies way, he’s going to receive a brunt of the blame.

It’s also worth noting that not all analytics are the same. Teams don’t log onto FanGraphs a few hours before the game to decide their most effective strategy to win the evening’s game. Organizations have their own propriety systems, which value varying metrics to different degrees. The Phillies, as Jake Arieta pointed out in June, used shifts more than ever in 2018, but weren’t particularly effective in saving runs doing so. Game 1 of the World Series offered a glimpse into how successful shifts can be, however, as Jackie Bradley Jr. hit a sharp ground ball up-the-middle with runners on first-and-third in the bottom of the second that normally would have brought home a run. Instead, with Manny Machado shaded up the middle, the Dodgers were able to turn an inning-ending double-play. Players aren’t stupid, when they see shifts work, they are more likely to buy in then when the shifts (and analytical trends in general) produce mixed or less-than-desirable results.

Utley went on to say that there will be times where analytics burn you. For example, if a team puts three infielders on the right side of the infield against a left-handed hitter that pulls the ball 85 percent of the time, there will occasionally be a time when he’s able to slice the ball to the left side of the infield. With no one at third base, the player would be guaranteed a single, if not a double, on what would be a routine ground ball with a traditional defensive alignment. But 85 percent of the time, that player is going to pull the ball to the right side of the infield, so accepting the occasional chance that they go the other way is part of the cost of doing business, because more often-than-not, they are going to hit the ball into the shift. And Utley says if you try to play baseball in 2018 without incorporating analytics, you aren’t going to have much success.

“Analytics are an advanced scouting report,” Utley said. “It’s like Chooch [former Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz] to the nth degree. Chooch knew what was going on in the game because he had seen so many games. And the way he could call a game – what did he catch, four no-hitters? – analytics is just extra. It’s not unnecessary. If you go back to the old-school way you’re going to lose games.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. jeffrey m orbach

    October 28, 2018 at 7:27 pm

    Some Managers in my opinion are good at using analytics and others are not. I don’t think ours is.

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