Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Man - Chase Utley

Chase Utley had plenty of broadcasters call his games during his 13 year career in Philadelphia. Two lines in particular stick with me.* In a 2006 game he was stealing 3rd when Ryan Howard hit a chopper to the right side. He ran through the bag and sprinted for home and beat the throw with a feet first slide. Harry Kalas was astounded at this, as were the rest of us, as he exclaimed “Chase Utley you are The Man!”

That nickname stuck, with good reason. It was the kind of heads up hustle play that defined Chase Utley’s run as the greatest 2nd baseman in Phillies’ franchise history. He had a knack for situational baseball that was innate. Chase knew what to do, when to do it, and how to do it better than anybody on the Phillies during their incredible streak to end the first decade of the century.

“Short, compact.”

That’s the other line that sticks in my head most about Chase Utley. Our old friend Gary “Sarge” Matthews liked to describe Utley’s powerful swing this way whenever he’d rip a ball in the gap or send one deep into the right field seats. My god was that swing a thing of beauty. I can’t recall watching anybody who had quicker or more powerful wrists than Chase. He would just turn on a ball and send lasers all over the diamond with remarkable consistency. He was a line drive hitter and that swing would go through the zone and have that signature abrupt follow through that almost recoiled after he’d make his contact. It truly was a thing of beauty that Philadelphia fans did not take for granted.

Utley was traded to the Dodgers today in an effort to give him another shot at winning it all while making room for younger players for the Phillies. So if you’ll just allow me to wax poetic for a bit..

I can remember very early on in his career catching a game at the Vet, so this had to be his rookie year of 2003. He still hadn’t quite broken through to playing every day and fans were growing antsy because they could see the talent. The Phils already had a pretty stellar 2nd baseman in Placido Polanco but Chase was not to be denied. I don’t remember the exact details of the game but Utley played and had an outstanding game and my father and I had sports radio on waiting our turn to get out of the damn parking lot. Every single call-in was more of the same. When are they going to play Utley every day? They have to start playing Utley every day! What the bleep is Bowa doing he’s gotta play Utley every day!

Well, by 2005 Chase was the every  day 2nd baseman and his 5 year run from 2005-2009 was arguably the best 5 year stretch put together by a 2nd baseman in the history of the game. I know WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is a tough stat to digest conceptually but it does generally list the best players in the game at the top of its rankings. Here is a list, and it’s a list that is actually unfair to Utley. I looked at the best 2nd baseman in the past 30 years by WAR and cumulated their top 5 seasons to see how Utley stacked up. The reason this isn’t quite fair to Chase is because his top 5 seasons all happened consecutively. The only other guy on this list to have his top 5 seasons come consecutively was Craig Biggio, anyway here’s how Chase stacks up.

Chase Utley
Robinson Cano
Ryne Sandberg
Roberto Alomar
Craig Biggio
Dustin Pedroia
Jeff Kent

So yeah, Utley was easily the best in the game at 2nd base for the second half of the Aughts. In fact, the only player who racked up more WAR in the same 2005-2009 timeframe was Albert Pujols (44.4). Chase Utley was the 2nd best baseball player in the Majors for that 5 year run and there’s not much of an argument against it. Also, for comparison sake, Ryan Howard’s 58 home run campaign in 2006 only warranted 5.2 WAR. This stat takes your defense into serious consideration obviously.

If we want to get technical, Rogers Hornsby, who once called Jimmy Dugan a talking pile of pig shit, was statistically the best 2nd baseman of all time. But he was playing when we still called World War I the The Great War.

The numbers are staggering for a second baseman. Five consecutive seasons over 20 HRs (3 of those were over 30), 4 consecutive seasons over 100 runs, 5 consecutive seasons over 100 RBI, and remarkably he is the all-time leader in stolen base percentage averaging 15 steals a season for his career.

But numbers tell maybe half the story of Chase Utley. 

In 2007, Utley was on his way to the MVP award when John Lannan broke his hand with a fastball. He missed a month in the second half of the season and this allowed Jimmy Rollins to step in and take the award. What I remember about this though was making it to the campus bar at Temple the night Utley returned from that injury. The Man went 4-4 the night he came back and we were all FREAKING OUT.** That’s the kind of stuff we’re talking about when we talk about Chase, his sense of the moment and owning that moment. From there the Phils took off and embarrassed the Mets to take the division. Howard won the MVP in ‘06, Rollins got it in ‘07, but the entire time we always knew that Chase Utley was the best player on the team. He was smart, he was clutch, and he did it with such a stoic no nonsense nose to the grindstone attitude you couldn’t help but think Chase Utley was basically the coolest guy alive. It didn’t hurt that he was easy on the eyes for the ladies either.

I’ve talked about this one before but it bears repeating. In the second half of the clinching game of the 2008 World Series he made the quintessential Chase Utley play to preserve a tie game and get out of a dangerous jam. With 2 outs and the game tied 3-3 with man on 2nd for the Rays a ball was hit up the middle and Utley got to it with little to no shot to get the runner at first. Still, he faked the throw to first and fooled the guy who was rounding 3rd at the time and the runner decided to head home. With the ball still in his hands Utley had the runner by a country mile and was able to almost lob the ball into Chooch to tag out what would have been the go ahead run. Maybe some other guys make the same play, but Chase Utley makes that play 8 days a week, inning over, and the Philadelphia Phillies are your World Champions of Baseball. Goosebumps.

Of course, he went ahead and pushed his cool up another few notches, as if it were possible, with his proclamation in Citizen’s Bank Park the day of the victory parade. I’ll let this video do the talking here.

Then, in 2009, still at the peak of his powers, he went full Reggie Jackson on us in the World Series against the Yankees. I can remember the stat now, he was the first left handed batter to hit two home runs off a left handed pitcher in a World Series game since Babe Ruth. Remarkable. He did that in Game 1 off CC Sabathia and that was probably the last truly great "we're gonna win this whole thing" moment for the near dynasty of the Utley era Phillies. His 5 homers in that series are tied with Jackson for the most ever in a World Series.

From there his health failed. Namely his knees. He missed significant portions of the next three seasons including essentially the first half of 2011 and 2012. He rebounded some in 2013 but things for Utley and the Phils were never the same. His peak was incredibly high, but like many players and the team in general, the run was cut a bit shorter than we all thought it should be. But I’m not here to remember the lean times.

I'm here to remember Chase Utley for being Brian Dawkins and Allen Iverson rolled in one, except he won a Championship. I will remember Chase Utley for that short, compact swing. I will remember him for being out by a step on any ground ball he ever hit to second base. I will remember him beating out double play balls because he willed beating out double play balls. I will remember him hustling and running harder than anybody else did because for him there was no other way. I will remember the way he put his head down and sprinted on every pop-up, knowing he was cursing at himself. I will remember the ease with which he flipped balls out of his glove to Ryan Howard. I will remember the greased back hair, the dry sense of humor, the power, the incredible instincts, the ability to come through more often than not, and perhaps most of all I will remember him for being a winner.

Thank you, Chase. For everything.

*I have to admit I’m tearing up as I write this.
**Tried to rely on just memory for this but on further review he went 3-5 and the Phils beat the Mets 9-2 in late August. Few drinks that night I'm sure.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

What The Cole Hamels Trade Means

That's Weird.

The inevitable happened this week. The man perhaps most responsible for the only championship for a Philadelphia sports team in my lifetime got shipped off to the Texas Rangers for a restocking of the Phillies farm system. The Phillies have needed to trade Cole Hamels for the past few years but as the dust is settling on this trade, early indications have you believing they may have sold him at near peak market value. No-hitters can help that. Here is the entire trade breakdown, which took almost two days to make official.


Cole Hamels (Phillies paying $9.5 million of the $82.5 million left on Hamels deal)

Jake Diekman


Matt Harrison – oft injured former All-Star starting pitcher. Think Chad Billingsley. The Phillies will pay out the $33.5 million left on his contract and he has back issues that make you think he may never start a game for the Phils.

Jorge Alfaro – Catcher – Minor League prospect.

Nick Williams – Outfielder – Minor League prospect

Jake Thompson – Pitcher – Minor League prospect

Alex Asher – Pitcher – Minor League prospect

Jerad Eickhoff – Pitcher - Minor League prospect

Alfaro and Williams are the keys to the deal for the Phils. While the Phillies did not land top Rangers’ prospect Joey Gallo (I said Jerry Gallo), Ruben, or whomever is making decisions in that muddled mess the Phils call upper management, did get the 3rd and 5th ranked prospects out of the Rangers system. Teams just don't give up their best offensive prospects these days, they're too valuable at too cheap a price.

Alfaro just turned 22 and has been hitting with consistent power and average at single A and double A levels. The same can be said for the 21 year old left fielder Williams. Most talking heads and people who know what they’re talking about, or at least  people who act like they know what they’re talking about, are saying that this deal is a win-win for both teams at this time. Of course, the Rangers have a proven commodity locked up for the next three years, albeit at a significant price, and the Phils have 6 guys that may or may not contribute in a big way.

Time will tell, but this deal certainly feels like it borrowed a bit of a Sam Hinkie way of thinking, or at least Billy Beane. The Phils got a diverse group of talent back that is giving them the best chance to find All-Star level or better players. With so many holes in the current lineup, the Phils can use all the talent they can assemble.

It feels like a smart way to go about rebuilding the franchise. The brass is giving the team a better chance to grow talent within the farm system that can eventually contribute to a winning ballclub. I still need some accountability for the current mess the Phils are in though. They hold the best record in Major League Baseball in the more than two weeks since the All-Star Break at 12-2. It’s astounding that they have been capable of this sustained amount of great play. Despite this miraculous run, they are still a game and a half worse than the Marlins for the worst record in baseball. They are +35 in run differential since the Break, tops in the Majors, and still -125 on the season. The next worst in the Majors is the Braves at -70. The NL East is pretty bad, huh? Well, the Phils are still the worst of the bunch.

This Hamels move, the shipping of Jonathan Papelbon out of town to the Nationals for staring pitching prospect Nick Pivetta - another guy with a chance to contribute, have been smart moves. Getting anybody to take Papelbon was a plus to get his contract and his attitude off the books. Even sending Ben Revere to the Blue Jays for a few more pitchers feels like it makes sense. Everybody saw Revere’s ceiling and said that’s fine we’ll see ya later, thanks for the memories Benny.

So what I’m trying to say is; all this wheeling and dealing is making the Phils seem like the future could be a little closer than we thought, but that is not a reason to grant Ruben Amaro a reprieve. A better GM would’ve diverted course when he saw that mountain in front of him rather than flying the plane straight into it, as has been discussed on this blog before.  I’m frightened his stench from the past trades, contracts and picks has stayed in a bed he shit long ago and could still rub off on these trades and any future transactions. I just need him gone and then I can start to feel good about this team and it’s future again. I don’t think that’s much to ask when the results on the field have been exponentially worse each year he has been the GM.

Go Phils.