The Philadelphia Phillies fall from grace has been anything but graceful. Since winning a Major League Baseball-high 102 games in 2011 the team has failed to crack .500, and this season is shaping up to be the toughest one in years in the City of Brotherly Love. Once one of the most feared hitters in the National League, Ryan Howard is a shell of his former self; Cole Hamels is all that remains of the fearsome foursome of Hamels, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt; Carlos Ruiz is playing the way you’d expect a 36-year-old catcher with significant mileage to play.
The popular sentiment over the past three seasons has been that as the Phillies superstars have left, retired, or faded into obscurity, Chase Utley has still been one of the best players in the game. This season, that has changed. Utley has statistically been the worst position player in the MLB. He can’t even find the interstate, hitting a robust .116/.194/.221. Of course, his BABIP is an absurd .101, and it’s stating the obvious that it can’t remain that low. Small sample size aside, Utley appears to be a shell of himself at the plate. Here is Utley’s first at bat against Bartolo Colon Sunday in convenient video format.
In addition to looking lost at the plate, the drop off in Utley’s performance has coincided with a shift in the kinds of balls he is hitting.
His flyball rate has held relatively steady, but note the sharp drop off in line drives and increase in groundballs. Not only is Utley hitting far fewer line drives this season, but he is indeed experiencing some terrible luck. His BABIP on liners this year is just .385 versus the league average this year of .670. Things are just as bad for Utley when he puts it on the ground, producing just a .054 BABIP versus the .233 league average.
The drop off in line drives is not unprecedented in Utley’s career. From 2010 to 2011, Utley’s LD% dipped from 19.9 percent to 12.7 percent. His BABIP dropped from .288 to .269 between those two seasons, which is significant, but not the staggering drop being experienced in 2015. Fewer line drives and bad luck undoubtedly is a factor in Utley’s struggles, but it doesn’t explain the whole story of his season. For some more insight, let’s use the hard-hit ball data.
Here we start to see some of the underlying factors of some of Utley’s poor BABIP performance. His hard-hit rate is nearly half of what it was last season, and is nearly 20 percentage points off his career rate of 35.1 percent. While the information as to Utley’s BABIP on the different hardnesses does not exist, it stands to reason that this is affecting his performance. But since we don’t know the degree to which Utley is affected by this that is only an educated guess. Late last week Alex Chamberlain at FanGraphs calculated Utley’s xBABIP to be .256 – obviously better than where he sits now, but not something becoming of a the superstar he once was.
The years of injuries and plain old aging have certainly taken their toll on Utley, but his struggles do in fact partially stem from plain old bad luck from the BABIP gods. Chase Utley has been struggling this season, but it is not time to hit the panic button just yet. Almost symbolically of the Phillies team he has played for his entire career, Utley is a shadow of what he once was. But unlike the team, there is at least reason to believe that Utley should improve as the season goes along and his luck evens out. While his days as a star are likely over, Utley still has gas left in the tank.
All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.
Joe Vasile is the Assistant GM/Radio Broadcaster for the Fayetteville SwampDogs. Follow him on Twitter at Follow @JoeVasilePBP