Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Man - Chase Utley

Well, here we are at the end of February and the beginning of spring training. It has been five long months since Ryan Howard snapped his achilles tendon as well as the Phillies three year streak of making it to the NLCS. We have said goodbye to some familiar faces; Ryan Madson (is a Red), Raul Ibanez (is a Yankee), and Brad Lidge (is a National). New and familiar faces have joined the team; Jim Thome, Jonathan Papelbon, Ty Wigginton, and Laynce Nix. Papelbon is certainly the biggest acquisition for the Phillies. He will take over the closer role that Ryan Madson performed so well in last year. While Papelbon and Madson are the same age (and boast the same amount of World Series rings), I am of the opinion that Madson’s career was trending up after last season, while Papelbon seemed to be trending down. I certainly do not follow the Red Sox with the same fervor I do the Phillies, but I was watching on the last game of the season when Papelbon blew a save and the Red Sox opportunity to make the playoffs. Hopefully, a new team and a new league will rejuvenate the quirky closer.

While Papelbon will certainly be key to the Phillies chances this year; I believe that the season hinges on The Man, as Harry Kalas liked to call him. As much as it pains me to say it, Chase Utley’s legacy and career are in limbo this season. Ryan Howard has long been my favorite player on this Phillies team. I gravitated towards Howard because he seemed flawed. He did not play great defense. He strikes out. A lot. He was visibly overweight in his early days. Aside from hitting home runs, things just did not seem to come all that naturally to him. Chase Utley was the opposite. I never worried about Chase. His baseball instincts and skills seemed so innate I started taking it for granted. He certainly put up numbers in 2007-2009 but it seemed as if he was always a bit dinged up while still displaying serious power at 2nd base.

2007: 132 G | 104 R | 176 H | 48 2B | 22 HR | 103 RBI | .332 AVG | .410 OB | .566 SLG |
2008: 159 G | 113 R | 177 H | 41 2B | 33 HR | 104 RBI | .292 AVG | .380 OB | .535 SLG |
2009: 156 G | 112 R | 161 H | 28 2B | 31 HR | 93 RBI | .282 AVG | .397 OB | .508 SLG |

The numbers he put up in 2006 were even more astronomical than these three stellar years, but it has been hard times for Chase of late. Obviously, since he was hurt for a large portion of both 2010 and 2011 the aggregate numbers he put up were way down. But look at the last three columns. Those are all averages, so we can judge his performance based on those a lot better than total numbers that are skewed by the amount of games he played.

2010: 115 G | 75 R | 117 H | 20 2B | 16 HR | 65 RBI | .275 AVG | .387 OB | .445 SLG |
2011: 103 G | 54 R | 103 H | 21 2B | 11 HR | 44 RBI | .259 AVG | .344 OB | .425 SLG |

As an everyday player, Chase set back-to-back career-lows in every category besides doubles. Like I said, the total numbers are way down for obvious reasons, but the last three columns are what are really troubling. Even when he is playing, he is not driving the ball for extra base hits, nor is he hitting for the average that he once did. Chase is 33 years old this season and the steroid era as we know it, is over in baseball (ask Manny Ramirez). The days of guys like Barry Bonds seemingly getting better as they enter their mid-30s should be over. It is reasonable to believe that Chase will never put up the kind of numbers he was once capable of putting up. In my head I can believe that, in my heart I can’t.

Chase Utley is not your every day average ball player. I have watched the guy play baseball day in and day out every summer for 7 years. Nobody is more intense and dedicated to what he is trying to accomplish than this man. You don’t see him smile. You don’t catch him sleeping. He doesn’t get picked off first base. He doesn’t make mental mistakes. I think the best way to describe Chase Utley on the diamond is that he does not have to think. In every single scenario he knows what he is going to do before he does it.

Situation: Slow grounder up the middle.
Chase’s Inner-Monologue: Catcher running, take your time.

Situation: Chase hits a gapper to right-center.
Chase’s Inner-Monologue: That’s Jeff Franceour and his cannon for an arm in right, pull up at 2nd.

It’s not only that this is what happens in his head. It is the fact that it comes so quickly and so naturally to him that he does things on the baseball field that most players are just not capable of doing.

I think the best play to describe the innate way Chase plays baseball occurred in the most pressure-packed situation. It was the second half of game five of the 2008 World Series, you know, when the Phillies and Rays started a tie game in the 6th inning due to a two day ran delay.

The score was tied at three in the 7th inning with 2 outs and a man on second. A slow roller was hit up the middle, Chase got to the ball but realized he did not have a play at first base. Knowing that the Rays would try anything to score the run from second, he faked the throw to first and held on to the ball. The runner on second rounded third and headed for home, Chase quickly flipped the ball home and nailed the runner easily at the plate. This was a game-changing play in a decisive World Series game. Check it out here.

This is the first full season in Chase’s career that he will start without Ryan Howard standing a few feet to his left in the infield. Howard’s injury places a large burden on Utley to carry this team while the Big Piece recuperates. Chase knows this. Charlie knows this. Jimmy knows this, and certainly the media will play it up as well. This is also the first season in years that he was healthy when the prior season ended, so he was able to do a full offseason training regimen. Barring anything unforeseen, he should be able to get his timing down at the plate in spring training and be ready to go come early April. Given his track record and overall demeanor, I believe Chase Utley is ready to have a monster bounce back season. Now he just has to go out and do it, so we can all take a day off work in late October and hear him say this again.