Few teams could use a jump start more than the Philadelphia Phillies this season.
For the months of April and June, the Phils were not able to string together more than two consecutive wins. In the month of May, the Phils were able to win six consecutive games and four consecutive games on separate occasions. However, these two win streaks were eventually followed by four- and six-game losing streaks.
With consistency proving difficult to find throughout the first half of the season, the Phillies could use a way to jump start the team so that win streaks become more common and losing streaks occur less frequently.
Enter Chase Utley.
After missing 76 games, Utley has returned to the Phillies’ lineup at the most crucial point in the season.
Although Utley’s return will not single-handedly push the team to the top of the National League East, it will still give the Phils the boost they need while they await the returns of other players, such as Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay.
Here are five reasons why Utley’s return will jump start the Phillies.
From 2009-2011, Utley batted 1,231 times from the three spot in the Phils’ lineup.
In his absence this season, Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino were forced to bat in the three spot, and both put up respectable averages while doing so.
However, as a team, the Phillies are currently tied for last in the National League in terms of RBI from the three spot in the lineup.
The Phils are also tied for last in total home runs hit from the three spot, and rank 10th with a .276 batting average.
With Utley back in the lineup, however, Pence is able to move back to the fifth spot, where he batted .325 last season, and Victorino, who is batting .308 over the past week, can move to the six spot.
More importantly, Utley’s return gives the middle of the Phillies’ lineup a much needed jump start by keeping Carlos Ruiz in the cleanup spot for the time being, where he is batting .390. With the middle of the lineup featuring Utley, Ruiz and Pence, the team at least has a chance to stay competitive until Ryan Howard returns.
With all of the Phillies’ struggles this season, their offense has rebounded nicely since scoring the fifth fewest amount of runs in April in the NL.
However, with a shaky bullpen, the Phils’ offense needs to improve even more in order for the team to make up ground.
Utley’s return and having players in better spots in the lineup could be a start.
Although their offense has gotten better since the first month of the season, there is still one area that the Phils can’t seem to improve.
As a team, the Phillies have drawn just 204 walks this season, which ranks 14th in the National League.
Among players who have over 200 at-bats for the Phils this season, Pence currently averages the most pitches per plate appearance at 3.97.
No Phillie with over 200 at-bats averages more than four pitches per plate appearance.
The National League leader in pitches per plate appearance averages 4.57.
Pence has also drawn the most walks of any Phillies’ player this season. However, for his career, he has never drawn more than 58 walks in a season.
Meanwhile, from 2005-2010, the seasons in which he played in at least 115 games, Utley drew less than 60 walks just one time. In 2009, the last time he played in over 150 games, Utley walked 88 times.
2009 also saw Utley average 4.14 pitches per plate appearance.
For his career, Utley has averaged 3.97 pitches per plate appearance.
With Utley back and batting third, the Phils’ lineup has a better chance at wearing down opposing starting pitchers and getting to bullpens more quickly.
Additionally, Utley, along with Juan Pierre, gives the Phillies two difficult outs at the top of their lineup to prolong innings.
The biggest jump start that Utley will give the Phillies is in the number of runs he will create, especially compared to the second basemen used by the team so far this season.
As an article by David Schoenfield on the SweetSpot Blog on ESPN.com recently explained, the four players used by the Phils at second base have created approximately 27 runs this season; approximately 30 runs when Utley’s production through his first three games at the position is included.
However, as Schoenfield explains, if Utley performs as he did in 2010, the Phillies could receive a nearly 18-run improvement from the second base position.
In 2010, Utley created nearly 80 runs, after creating over 120 runs each season from 2006-2009. Last season, in 100 games at second base, Utley was still able to create over 60 runs.
This season, the Phillies’ second basemen with the highest runs created total is Freddy Galvis, with nearly 16 runs.
Schoenfield goes on to explain how the Phillies could get more run production from the first base position when Howard returns, and possibly from the center field position if Victorino improves.
However, second base could see the greatest improvement with Utley.
Again, Utley’s return will not push the Phillies to the top of the standings, but his production at the plate could provide the jump start the team needs.
(Note: All statistics involving runs created were obtained from ESPN.com)
The Phillies have been in the top five in the National League in terms of fewest amounts of errors in each season since 2007.
This season, however, the Phillies are ranked eighth with nearly 10 more errors than the team with the fewest amount in the NL.
Furthermore, Phillies’ second basemen are tied for the third-highest amount of errors in the NL this season.
According to fangraphs.com, besides Utley, only Galvis has a positive UZR this season.
With a UZR of 3.1, Galvis leads Phillies’ second basemen, ahead of Mike Fontenot at -0.7, Pete Orr at -1.3 and Michael Martinez at -2.2.
While Galvis’ UZR was solid among National League second basemen, it doesn’t match the UZR held by Utley in past seasons.
From 2007-2010, according to fangraphs.com, Utley never had a UZR under 10. His combined UZR values from those seasons were the best in the major leagues. In just over 880 innings last season, Utley had a UZR of 8.4.
Although this does not tell the whole story of a player’s defensive ability, Utley’s presence on defense will still be an improvement over the second basemen used by the Phillies this season following Galvis’ injury.
After being one of the league’s best defensive teams in recent seasons, poor defense at times this season has contributed to the Phils’ place in the standings.
However, Utley’s presence in the field will help limit the number of errors made at second base.
One of the things that the Phillies have lacked all season is consistency.
The season began with an offense that received much of the blame for early struggles. However, the blame for recent struggles as been placed more on the starting rotation and bullpen.
With new acquisitions on the right side of the infield, and younger players in the bullpen, the Phillies have seemingly been waiting on Utley’s, Howard’s and then Roy Halladay’s return from injury.
In the meantime the team’s lack of a vocal leader in the clubhouse may have, at times, been an issue.
An article by Jordan Raanan on CSNPhilly.com that appeared in May contained a quote from manager Charlie Manuel in which he said that, although the Phillies do not have a vocal leader, they have players who lead by example.
“I don’t think we’ve got a vocal leader on our team,” Manuel admitted Wednesday before the Phils closed out their three-game series with the Mets. “Since I’ve been here, the only guy I ever seen that would be a vocal leader was Aaron Rowand. He’s the only guy who was a vocal leader.
“But at the same time, we got guys in there – especially when they’re playing good – they lead by example, and who they are and their personalities and everything, they can lead that way. But that’s kind of how it is.”
Utley fits the leader-by-example mold, especially for a team that is currently in an unfamiliar spot.
Although this aspect does not involve at-bats or pitching performances, it is still one of the most important for this season.
If the Phillies are going to mount a comeback in the second half, they’ll need players such as Utley, who has been with the team since prior to their recent string of success, to lead the way.
It may not directly lead to more runs, but Utley’s presence in the clubhouse could be a jump start and one of the biggest factors in the team’s success going forward.