Healthy Utley showing why he still has trade value
Average exit velocity up over 5 mph since return from DL
We're nearly three-quarters of the way through the 2015 season, and the two numbers that jump out about Chase Utley are "36," his age, and ".213," his incredibly disappointing batting average. Along with yet another entry on a lengthy medical report, this time an injured ankle that cost him six weeks from late June to early August, it hasn't exactly been a memorable season for the legendary Phillies second baseman. If your reaction to the trade rumors swirling around him is, "How would he be even as good as what we currently have at second base, much less an upgrade?" well, your hesitation would be understandable.
It would also be underselling a player who has an outside shot at a convincing Hall of Fame case. If Utley isn't quite the superstar he once was, nor does it seem likely he's the catastrophe he's looked like for most of the season, and that's exactly the point. Even though Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. told Philadelphia radio station WIP on Tuesday that Utley "is likely to be with the Phillies for the rest of the year," teams sniffing around Utley don't think they'd be getting the April-through-July Utley, the one who put up a .179/.257/.275 first-half line that was the worst of the 243 players with at least 200 plate appearances. They think they'd be getting the Utley we're seeing right now, and there's reasonable evidence to back that up.
First, a brief reminder of how we got here, because it's important in understanding why there's still optimism. The surprising thing about Utley, in retrospect, isn't how ineffective he's been this season. It's how good he was over the last half-decade leading up to 2015. After a historic run of dominance between 2005-09, when he averaged nearly 8 Wins Above Replacement per season and was baseball's second-most-valuable player behind only Albert Pujols, the cumulative effects of age and injuries to his thumb, oblique, and both knees helped create the impression that he was broken-down and just hanging on.
It was never true, though. Despite the injuries and decline, he was still one of baseball's five best second basemen from 2010-14, and even at 35 years old last year, he put up a four-WAR season and was the starting second baseman for the National League in the All-Star Game, his first trip since 2010. So when he got off to such a brutal start in 2015, it seemed that there had to be a better reason than "well, he's 36 years old." It's difficult to fall that far, that fast.
As it turns out, there was a reason, and the Statcast™ data can show us not only what happened, but why it might no longer be an issue. During workouts in January, Utley badly sprained his ankle doing workouts when he stepped on a baseball. The ankle was still "visibly swollen" by the time he reported to Spring Training weeks later, and he didn't make his spring debut until March 13. Utley tried to play through it once the season started, undergoing an MRI in May to try and evaluate his continued issues, and finally went to the disabled list on June 22.
In case you're wondering if sitting out to get healthy made a difference: Yes. Yes it did.
Utley's average exit velocity jumped more than five full mph, and his average batted-ball distance increased more than 25 feet. In 28 plate appearances since returning, he's got 13 hits, including six extra-base hits. To put that into context, Utley has just 18 extra-base hits all year long; a full one-third of them have come in the last week.
It's important to note, of course, that "in the last week" is literally all we're talking about. We're constantly warning about small samples, and this is that. Twenty-eight plate appearances are absolutely a small sample. Utley's week off the disabled list has included a line of .500/.500/.808, which of course isn't a sustainable performance in any possible future.
Of course, compared to Utley's decade of production, three months of poor performance is kind of a small sample too, particularly since there appears to be a real, tangible health issue to point to. None of this is a guarantee that Utley would help a new team; we don't even know yet that he'll have a new team. But if you're simply evaluating him by a .213 batting average, look deeper. Utley's earned that, and now that he's seemingly healthy, he's proving why.