There have been few years where Phillies fans were as excited for Spring Training as they were for it this year. The Phils had just recently come out of nowhere to give their fans an early Christmas present in the form of Cliff Lee.
There were talks of an historic rotation. A team for the ages people would say. Then the news struck about Chase Utley. At first his injury was downplayed. Eventually the severity came out. His career was in jeopardy.
The Phils jumped out to great start this season despite the absence of their All-Star second baseman. They were able to overcome an anemic offense and have, for the most part, had the best record in baseball since late April.
After rumors that Utley would not be back until the All-Star break at the earliest, the hard-nosed infielder made his return on May 23rd. Since that point the Phils offense improved a run per game and has been the second-best offense in the National League.
As happy as people were for Utley's return, people soon began to grumble that he just was not the same player he used to be. The knee condition had seemed to sap his power. He was still a good ballplayer, just not the Chase Utley of old. Or so the narrative went.
But is this really the case? Is Utley truly not the same player he was from 2005-2009 when he was hands down the best second baseman in baseball? Looking at his numbers from last season and this season in comparison to his average year during that span would would seem to indicate that is the case.
A quick look at the numbers would seem to confirm the hypothesis. While Utley still manages to get on-base at a similar rate, he is just not hitting for the same power he used to.
However, there is more to the story than just those numbers. Utley did miss all of July with a broken thumb. He rushed back early from the injury and clearly was not healthy, as he had a horrible August before rebounding for an improved September. If you factor that in then his season looks much better.
That does not account for this year though. To explain that, there is a saying Charlie Manuel likes to repeat every year in spring training. He says that for a batter to be truly ready for the season, they need to get at least 70 or 80 at-bats.
Chase Utley missed spring training this year, so he had to collect those at-bats in the minors. But he never fully reached that plateau in the minors. It took 11 games in the major leagues before he achieved enough at-bats. Here is a look at his numbers broken down by that threshold.
|First 11 Games||41||.195||.298||.293||.591|
|Rest of Season||187||.310||.401||.535||.936|
It would appear that reports of Chase Utley's decline may be a bit premature. He may not be a 30 HR player any more, but he certainly appears to pack a lot of pop in that bat still. Once Utley got his Charlie Manuel endorsed 70 at-bats, he kicked it into overdrive.
Funny thing is it literally happened the game after he hit the plateau. Going into Game 11 he only had two extra-base hits and one multi-hit game. Game 12 he had a three-hit day. Soon thereafter he started hitting for extra bases.
All that is left is for Utley to manage his knee properly. To make sure he rests it occasionally to prevent future flareups. The real test will be next season. Can he play a full season? He has proven his bat is still as strong as it has ever been. Now he needs to prove he can stay on the field to use it.