Let me get this out of the way, second. I love me some Chase Utley.
Anyway, this past week on Philly.com, Marcus Hayes rightfully incited some rage when he equated everything Cody Asche and Chase Utley have ever done (off and, particularly offensively, on the field), and found some way to frame those things as selfless and heroic.
Just to give an example, he writes: “Both have short, violent, left-handed swings, which are designed to make balls scream into the alleys but can make balls travel 400 feet.”
This is a fundamental oversimplification of each’s power tool. In his peak, Utley was able to hit 30+ HR a year. At this point, no one is projecting Asche at more than 15 HR a season. In a simple sense, yes, that might physically happen for each, but it will happen much more frequently for Utley.
That’s nothing to scoff at, as Asche could very well be a respectable third baseman, but he’s not in the same conversation when it comes to tools or probable on-field production (Utley’s a Hall of Fame quality player; not many are in that conversation).
However, the idea of this article did inspire a interesting thought – to the vast majority of fans, Utley is loved equally (or more so) for his personality and attitude as he is his production. Tell me the last time the average fan mentioned a single stat related to Utley? I bet they could list Ryan Howard‘s home runs in a particular season, but nothing specifically about Utley.
For the most part it’s been noted that Asche has the same approach to the game, solid baseball instincts, and quietly goes about his business in the same way. People have been saying it for months. Why aren’t we looking at a possible Philly favorite in a similar (but smaller) vein?
Allow me, for a second, to elaborate on what I mean by Utley’s “immeasurables.”
Utley has the obvious monster statistical numbers the stat guys love – he’s got a higher career rWAR than Miguel Cabrera for crying out loud. Casual fans, however, speak about him largely with reference to either “intangibles”, or individual moments.
The logical argument against this is that Utley has earned it – he’s been an MVP-caliber player as many seasons as he’s been an All-Star, and he’s a World Series champion in a city where championships are few and far between. Those grand individual moments are a product of a player who is more likely, on average, to produce a positive outcome.
However, if we’re referencing the casual fans, then there’s the argument that’s already been had countless times on Philly sports radio – Rollins has been a mainstay longer than Utley, has accomplished the same things, PLUS has the MVP and Gold Glove accolades.
He doesn’t hold up as well sabermetrically, but he has the more obvious traditional Hall Of Fame case, and should be just as or more universally loved for every reason in the world, but isn’t (many would say it’s because of that perceived lack of hustle/intangibles/laziness/etc.).
Additionally, the problem with this argument is that this love affair didn’t develop after the team had massive success, like after they won 102 games. Or after they went to a second-straight World Series, apparently cementing a dynasty. Or even after winning ONE World Series. Or even after winning ANY division titles.
Back in August of 2006, two important things happened to cement Utley’s image in Philadelphia. First, Sports Illustrated proclaimed him “the dirtiest player in baseball,” in an article that described the fandom already developing around the second baseman.
Additionally, this play created a lasting nickname:
Stories like “Chase Utley Goes 0-5, Is Awesome in Debut” from 2011, or quotes like the one below from columnist David Murphy in 2010 illustrate Philadelphia’s at times illogical love for their most popular player.
I have a great appreciation for the type of player that Utley is … [but] it is still amazing to me how a sporting public that is considered among the toughest in the country is so quick to ignore the fact that Utley, like 99 percent of baseball players, will sometimes drop into a slump.
When Ryan Howard doesn’t hit, it is because he swings at bad pitches out of the zone. When Jimmy Rollins doesn’t hit, it is because he is impatient at the plate. When Jayson Werth doesn’t hit, it is because he is swinging for a new contract.
But, when Utley doesn’t hit, he must be hurt.
You’ve heard all the baseball anachronisms before: “He plays the game the right way,” or “he lets his play on the field speak for him,” and the old classic, “He hustles.”
That’s not old school, that’s good school. That’s the way you play the game unless you want to put some rouge and makeup and lipstick on.
Well. Ok, then.
Guess and Check
None of these arguments are particularly substantive in a baseball sense, but we get it – people like his style of play a lot. The point is, that when someone says someone is “like Chase Utley,” it’s broadly evoking a style, not necessarily quality, of play (although the quality tends to follow).
How does this apply to Asche? Well, just as a fun exercise, I want you to guess which of the following two reports refers to Chase Utley, and which one refers to Cody Asche:
It’s just a leave-me-alone and let-me-go-play-the-game mentality. He’s got that inner drive where he wants to play every inning and be in every at-bat. Not that a lot of guys don’t, but it’s really evident when you watch him.
…By all accounts it has been work. Simple, sweaty, willingness to work and hone the craft of fielding baseballs. It sounds cliché …for me to say that, but it’s true. Makeup isn’t the end all be all, but it is important and it’s a huge reason why [he] has become a better [player].
[He is called] “a baseball rat” whose mental makeup and quality ethics will fit right in with the hard-working, no-nonsense types like [veteran Phillies].
“I love to play baseball and work hard,” [He] said. “To succeed you have to give it all you have.” [He] is only average defensively. He has a plus arm and sure hands, but limited lateral quickness.
Got your guesses in? Ok.
The former two quotes were said about Asche. The first is by Sal Rende, who has been a Phillies minor league coach for ten seasons, and extensively coached each Asche and Utley for years (he directly compared them in the quoted article). The second was by Ryan Sommers of Crashburn Alley.
The latter, Utley quotes are from a Lehigh Valley The Morning Call article by Don Bostrom, in 2000 (shortly after he was drafted).
What’s not quite fair in this exercise is that Utley’s reputation wasn’t built on nothing. Quite the opposite; he had an MVP-caliber 2005, and was on his way to an even better 2006 when attention struck. He had a track record and had fundamentally stronger tools than Asche does.
Philly doesn’t rubber stamp approval just because you run out a grounder.
Again, this is examining the players from purely a make-up and personality standpoint. So what if Asche ends up as “only” a decent everyday regular? That’s better than 99% of all professional baseball players, and there’s a ton of value there. You also can’t say popularity in Philadelphia is reserved for elite talents – Randy Wolf had a pretty good following in this town, after all.
Additionally, any kind of “expectations” comp wouldn’t be fair to Asche – that’s an insane amount of pressure for someone who’s basically a rookie, and no one wants their career defined by those who came before them. I’m sure he wants to be his own player as much as Utley didn’t want to be Pat Burrell.
So, in this, I’m not proclaiming him “Utley, Jr.”, as much as to say that he maintains an approach to the game that has proven to be greatly admired in the infamously difficult city he plays for.
He’s set up for success. He has a strong work ethic, and a city inclined to support him. Despite comments about a “competition” in Spring Training, in reality it’s very much Asche’s job to lose. He’s firmly under the wing of veterans in the clubhouse, and in recent weeks Utley even predicted a breakout season for him.
Call it pressure if you want, but the reality is that the ball’s in his court, and he has every opportunity to succeed. The team’s ideal scenario is one where Maikel Franco impresses just as much as he did last year – but, with holes in his swing, varying reports on defense, and questions about if he’ll handle third base long term, Asche has at least plenty of time to prove himself.
So, chances are Asche bats around .260/.320/.430, with 15 HR/10 SB. He’ll beat-out the occasional grounder, or stretch a single into a double. He’ll make an occasional web gem, and his uniform will get a thick coat of dirt on it.
You’ll know he’s not getting to an All-Star game this year, but damn it, you’ll just like something about this kid, and you’ll just enjoy watching him play baseball. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
In fact, it’ll make complete sense.