Chase Utley has started to play well over his last seven games and caused some to hope that his putrid start to 2015 is over. Since May 15th, he's hitting .458/.536/.750 with a wRC+ of 245. Those numbers clearly aren't going to continue for an entire season, but could indicate that Utley has worked his way out of his slump. If he's back to his usual self, Utley is an incredibly valuable second baseman that's among the best in baseball.
Due to Utley's long career, and for the purpose of this article, I've restricted the data to the last six seasons as they better represents the player he's been recently. While he's been incredibly valuable since 2010, he was even more impressive during a five-year stretch in which he averaged 7.7 fWAR. At first glance, it seems that Utley has simply run into some horrible luck in 2015, and that he's destined for better days ahead. That's partly true but unfortunately doesn't tell the whole truth behind Utley's season.
His BABIP of .184 is the worst in MLB and represents a .080 point decrease from his career average. While his BABIP should rise over the remainder of the season, Utley's batted ball data is worrying to say the least.
His LD percentage has always been curiously low for someone with as much power as Utley has, but that isn't the culprit here. However, his GB and FB rates have definitely contributed to his struggles in 2015. Since last season, Utley's GB rate has increased by 18.1 percent, while his FB rate has fallen by 6.1 percent. Both of those changes negatively affect his ISO and can also be explained by his hard hit rate. It's fallen by 35.9 percent, and he's now making more weak contact than ever before.
These are the main reasons for Utley's awful BABIP and unfortunately make the low value more worrying. If his batted ball data had no signs of change, then unluckiness could be the sole reason for his struggles, but that's not the case here. Utley is also incredibly prone to the shift, as 85.8 percent of his batted balls go to his pull side of 2nd base or up the middle.
If Utley turns his season around and performs well for the rest of the year, the Phillies have an awkward situation on their hands. The team desperately needs to start rebuilding but still has a significant number of aging veterans on the roster, some with big money deals. In addition to Utley's contract, Philadelphia is paying Ryan Howard $25 million per season. Fortunately Howard's deal expires after the 2016 season (with a buyout of $10 million), and if the Phillies want, Utley's can end after 2015.
He signed a two-year contract for the 2014-2015 seasons that came with three vesting options. Should Utley reach 500 PA, the option will become guaranteed for 2016 and force the Phillies to pay him $15 million. That structure continues through 2018, which means the Phillies are potentially on the hook for $45 million over the next three years. With Utley's injury history, that probably wouldn't happen, but it's a risk they shouldn't take.
With Howard and Utley, the Phillies are paying a combined $40 million and could have to again in 2016 if they let the option vest. Utley has already said that he won't accept a trade out of Philadelphia, severely limiting their options. He's been one of the franchise's greatest players of all time and has a legitimate Hall of Fame case. He has a greater career fWAR than his manager Ryne Sandberg and is not far behind Roberto Alomar and Craig Biggio. He wouldn't be an easy trade anyway.
Knee problems limited his production from 2010-2012, but Utley has still put together a magnificent career. If he's healthy and can prove to be effective then he should undoubtedly play as long as he wants to, but it doesn't make sense for that to be with the Phillies. They're probably not going to contend for at least a few years, and paying $15 million to Utley seems like a poor allocation of funds.
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Matt Goldman is a Featured Writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheOriginalBull.