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Chase Utley Showing MLB, Dodgers He Has More Left in the Tank

Seth Gruen@SethGruenFeatured ColumnistMay 26, 2016

Los Angeles Dodgers' Chase Utley, center, scores on a single by Justin Turner as Cincinnati Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart, right, takes a late throw while home plate umpire Bill Miller watches during the first inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, May 24, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Even without a career that includes six All-Star appearances, four Silver Sluggers and three seasons in which he finished in the top 10 in NL MVP voting, Chase Utley would forever remain in the baseball lexicon.

All because of one play.

Utley became infamous when he launched himself toward second base in Game 2 of last year's National League Division Series, breaking the leg of New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada leg but preventing a double play. This offseason, MLB legislated that kind of violent action out of the game, adopting what is known as the "Utley Rule."

The ultra-competitive, highly controversial play was thought to mark the end of an otherwise stellar career. That is, until Utley, thought to be dead weight on a talented Los Angeles Dodgers roster, trotted out to second base this season.

Nearly two months into the MLB season, not only is Utley a crucial part of the Dodgers lineup, but he's also proved that his latter years may yield some great baseball.

After a horrendous 2015 campaign in which he hit .212/.286/.343, Utley signed a one-year deal with the Dodgers. With the goal of chasing one final October, it seemed the 37-year-old was clinging to a talented team with World Series aspirations. That's not an uncommon storyline for a star player nearing the end of his career.

Utley is hitting .289/.379/.408 this season. Those numbers are better than his 14-year career average of .281/.365/.477. As of Thursday, Utley's WAR of 1.4 ranked seventh among all second basemen, according to FanGraphs.

He isn't writing the epilogue to his career, but an entirely new chapter.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

It's an unexpected turn of a events, given that a Philadelphia Phillies team beginning to rebuild traded him, with cash, to the Dodgers last year.

Think of it this way: Philadelphia had to pay Los Angeles to take him.

Apparently, the Phillies were right to do so. In his 34-game stint with the Dodgers last season, Utley hit .202/.291/.363. His one-year deal this seasonβ€”worth $7 million, according to Cot's Baseball Contractsβ€”was a low-risk move for the Dodgers. They took a flier.

For most teams, that much money is significant. But the Dodgers, with their mega-television contract, probably carry that kind of dough in petty cash.

Anything Utley does to help them win this season is a bonus, like ice cream on top of a brownie. But as it turns out, he was a necessary ingredient.

Given the talent in Los Angeles, the team's struggles are as surprising as Utley's success. The Dodgers rank 20th in batting average (.240) and 19th in on-base percentage (.313).

Utley ranks first on the team in batting average and OBP and fourth in slugging.

What's most impressive is that Utley is doing all this while playing his home games at Dodger Stadium, which ranks last in MLB in park factor, according to ESPN.com.

Credit a different approach at the plate for an uptick in Utley's offensive numbers. According to FanGraphs, 26.9 percent of the balls he has hit have been line drives, a career high. Only 24.4 percent of balls hit by Utley are fly balls, a career low.

While many players hit well in their twilight years, age has generally been a detriment to their performance in the field.

Utley, though, ranks sixth among second basemen at 2.8 defensive runs above average, according to FanGraphs. His 2.2 ultimate zone rating ranks him seventh among those at his position.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

To some extent, Utley is the last of a disappearing breed: a group of players who ran the bases with reckless abandon, aiming to win at all costs.

But in this new era of the Utley Rule, he has reinvented himself, and his career appears far from over.

He isn't clinging to a talented Dodgers roster, hoping to hang on for the ride.

Surprisingly, Utley is among those at the wheel.

Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Talk baseball with Seth by following him on Twitter and liking his Facebook page.

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