The Mystery of Chase Utley

There are many interesting storylines for the Phillies heading into the 2012 season.

What will the fallout be over Howard’s Achilles injury? Can he come back and hit for power? When will he come back? Can the guys who take his place help keep the offense afloat? Will the Phils sign Hamels to an extension before April? What will the three aces do this year? Can Victorino and Worley repeat their 2011 seasons? What if Mayberry Jr. stinks? Can Curt Schilling finally get on the Wall of Fame? And who will the Phillies receive in exchange for Domonic Brown in mid-July?

These are all fascinating questions that will help determine whether the Phils can win a sixth straight NL East title. But they don’t include what I think is the most interesting question of all…

What are the Phillies going to get out of Chase Utley?

We all know the back-story. From 2005-2009, Utley was one of the greatest second basemen in baseball history. During that five-year stretch, he had an OPS of .922, an OPS+ of 134, averaged 29 HRs, 101 RBIs, 111 runs scored, and played perhaps the finest defense of any second baseman in baseball. He capped it all off with a legendary performance in the 2009 World Series, hitting a record-tying five home runs against the Yankees.

Everyone knows what happened next. Injuries and general ineffectiveness crept into his offensive game. And while injuries were partly to blame, Utley’s struggles were not solely because he was hurting.

For the first 72 games of 2010, before he hurt his thumb and there were no injury issues that anyone was aware of, his offensive numbers were down.  In that time, Utley slugged only .466 and had an OPS of .849, hitting only 11 HRs and 37 RBIs.

While those numbers aren’t bad for most second basemen, they were way down from his previous numbers. Overall, Utley’s OPS dropped to .832 and he hit just 15 HRs in 2010.  The following year, it got even worse. He hurt his knee and played in only 103 games, where his line drive percentage fell off a cliff, down from 24.3% in 2008 to 12.7% in 2011 (LD% courtesy of FanGraphs).  His OPS dropped to .769, his lowest since his rookie season.

Utley became the master of the lazy fly to left, and when he did actually square a ball up, he usually only generated warning track power.

Which brings us to the most important question for 2012… what are the Phillies going to get out of Utley this year, and will we ever see anything close to the old Chase again?

It’s doubtful that, at 33, Utley will approach 30 HRs, a .330 average, or an OPS over .900 ever again. Those days are likely gone.

But Utley doesn’t need to do quite that much in order to succeed. Ideally, if Chase can hit 20-25 HRs and 90-100 RBIs, bat around .280-.290 with an OPS in the .850 range,  that would be money. When combined with his still-stellar defense and base-running, a season like that would once again make him one of the top players in the National League.

Of course, that’s all IF Utley has been able to strengthen his knee this off-season, while also avoiding injury.

Chase Utley is a great candidate for a comeback season. And while they don’t need Utley v. 2007, they certainly can’t afford Utley v. 2011 either.

They need Utley to perform somewhere in between. If he does that, (and I AM predicting an Utley comeback this year) he’ll still be considered among the top two or three second basemen in the game, and many of the Phils’ offensive problems will be eased. Outside of Rollins, Utley is the lynchpin of the Phillie offense. A return to form could mean great things for the Phils in 2012.

On the other hand, a continued Utley decline could once again make for some very frustrating one-run games this season.

Just call me Mr. Happy Guy.

You can follow John’s Phillies thoughts on Twitter @FelskeFiles and on Facebook.  He can also be emailed at [email protected].

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