Philadelphia Phillies: Are the Phillies Better Without Chase Utley?
Bill Simmons calls it the Ewing Theory. Other sports fans have associated the phenomenon with Peyton Manning, Alex Rodriguez, Tiki Barber and Drew Bledsoe. But in Philadelphia, there is only one player who should come to mind:
As I will tell anyone who will listen, I moved to Philadelphia the night the Phillies traded Abreu. Being a "stat-head," I was a huge Abreu fan, and his being traded was, to me, just more evidence of the presence of dolts in major league front offices.
"Yeah, sure, go ahead and trade your best player," I thought, sarcastically. I was sure I had moved to Philadelphia just in time for the beginning of a low point in Philadelphia Phillies history.
Of course, we all know what happened next. Immediately after Bobby left town, the Phillies made an unexpected late-season run at the wild card, falling just short. The following season the Phillies won the NL East, and the year after that the World Series.
A baby dynasty was born, and we may be in the middle of a full-fledged dynasty that can trace its roots all the way back to that night I sweated my you-know-what off unloading my double-parked U-Haul in front of my first apartment north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
"But Asher, why are you bringing this up now? And what does any of this have to do with Chase Utley?"
The underpinning of Simmons' Ewing Theory is that, every now and then, a team loses its star player, and for whatever reason the team plays better without their star than it did with the star. It stems from the run that the New York Knicks went on in the 1999 NBA post-season after Ewing tore his Achilles tendon in the first round of the playoffs.
Without their star and future Hall of Famer, the Knicks ran all the way to the NBA Finals.
Other prominent examples include the Tennessee Volunteers winning the national championship the year after Peyton Manning's epic four-year career came to an end, the Seattle Mariners winning 116 regular season games the season after completing the dismantling of the Griffey-Johnson-ARod triumvirate and the 1999 St. Louis Rams dominating the NFL after losing starting quarterback Trent Green in the pre-season.
"But Asher, what are you trying to say?"
Has anyone around here noticed how well the Philadelphia Phillies seem to play when Chase Utley is not in the lineup the last couple of years?
As of Sunday afternoon's victory over the Florida Marlins, the Phillies are now 10-4 and are tied for the third-best record in all of baseball behind the Cleveland Indians and Colorado Rockies, two teams on amazing hot streaks.
Last season, Utley missed 47 games due to various injuries, chiefly a thumb he injured sliding head-first into second base. The Phillies went 97-65 overall on the season, for a .599 winning percentage.
With Utley in the lineup, they were 68-47, for a .591 winning percentage.
Without Utley, the Phillies went 29-18, for a .617 winning percentage.
If these numbers do not shock you, they should. Because they are shocking. Utley is roundly considered one of the best players in baseball, and generally speaking the best players in baseball—the Albert Pujolses, the Robinson Canos, the Joey Vottos, the Troy Tulowitskis—should be indispensable parts of their teams.
In a 21st Century sports world in which we are constantly pondering the meaning and measure of overall value and value to the team, how do we quantify the value of a player whose team can not only manage just fine without him, but whose team might actually play better in his absence?
There are a million possible explanations for an up-tick in a team's performance in the absence of their star player, whether it be the other players taking it upon themselves to step up, to a coach suddenly having to coach better in the absence of his star player, to other personnel changes on the team that would have led inevitably to better performance anyway.
In this specific scenario, Utley's absence the last couple of seasons seems to have caused a re-ordering of the lineup, which has had positive impacts upon the other hitters. In 2010, Raul Ibanez positively caught fire subbing for Utley in the three-hole ahead of Ryan Howard, and in 2011, the 1-2-3 combination of Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco and Jimmy Rollins has functioned well at the top of the order.
And there can be no doubt that, whatever his limitations at the plate, Wilson Valdez's glove had been a big part of the Phillies' ability to lose Utley and keeping winning.
For my part, sitting here on a Sunday afternoon having watched the Philadelphia Phillies get out to a 10-4 start on less than the dominant pitching we were all expecting and an offense that got off to a hot start but already seems to be showing signs of being capable of the same streakiness (and slumpiness) as last year's team, I personally would prefer to have Utley back.
This early in the season, we need all hands on deck, including the hands of one of this generation's finest second sackers.
Nevertheless, the lessons of the Ewing Theory and of Bobby Abreu loom large in my imagination as I ponder whether this Phillies team may discover that, going forward, the continuation of the Gillick-Amaro Dynasty depends upon not the ability to hold on to Chase Utley, but rather upon the ability to get value in return for him while they still can.
As Phillies fans have learned before, and as the sports world continues to make clear, sometimes getting rid of your best player can be the catalyst for greater success.
And frankly, the longer the Phillies All-Star second baseman stays out and the Phillies keep winning, the more convinced I will be that this has become the case with Chase Utley.
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