Good news, everybody. The old Chase Utley and Ryan Howard may not be dead after all.
While Utley and Howard were on the disabled list during the first half of the 2012 season, there were many worries about the two former All-Stars. Would they be close to the same guys they were before their injuries? Could Utley figure out a way to strengthen his knees enough to make him a powerful second baseman again? Could Howard regain enough strength in his Achilles tendon to generate the kind of power everyone had seen in the past?
Or would both guys just be shells of their former selves?
So far, the results for both Utley and Howard have been mostly positive.
Through 35 games, Utley is hitting .246/.342/.484 for an OPS of .827 with 8 HRs. Through 28 games, Howard is hitting .216/.296/.433 for an OPS of .729 and 6 HRs.
Granted, both players’ batting averages leave a lot to be desired, especially Howard’s. And, Howard’s on-base percentage and slugging percentage aren’t where they should be either.
But the numbers that have me most enthused about both players are the home run totals.
If their numbers for the 2012 season so far were expanded for 162 games, Utley would have 37 HRs and Howard would have 35.
We’ve all known Howard can be a streaky player and that he struggles with left-handed pitching. The big concern is whether he would continue to be a streaky hitter with problems hitting lefties, without the power that can make those bad stretches tolerable. With another homer in Sunday’s win against St. Louis, Howard has 3 HRs and 8 RBIs in his last five games, hitting .368 in the process.
Howard’s cold streaks can be hard to take, but when he gets hot and starts hitting for power, he can be deadly. There’s reason to believe he’s still capable of those kinds of streaks.
As for Utley, one needs only look at last year’s numbers to see he’s in much better shape physically this year. In 454 plate appearances in 2011, Utley hit just 11 HRs. He already has 8 in 146 plate appearances this year. And, his OPS is 58 points higher entering Monday than it was last year.
Perhaps as important as the number of home runs both players are hitting is HOW they’re hitting them. Would Chase Utley have been able to hit this bomb last year? Off a left-handed pitcher? I doubt it.
And Ryan Howard is once again jacking balls to the opposite field, reminiscent of his glory days of 2006-2009. This first one, against Atlanta LEFTY Mike Minor was an especially good sign. His plate coverage and extension was a beautiful thing to see. Then, there was this opposite field blast against Tim Hudson, and finally, this solo shot off Lance Lynn on Sunday that also went to left-center. When Howard is hitting home runs the opposite way, you know his power stroke is back.
And in even better news, both guys are playing just about every day. Of course, it would be wise for Manuel to limit them to 4-5 games a week in September, considering these are two aging players coming off of serious injuries. Hopefully, the Phils will be in a pennant race in 2013, so it’s a good idea to save some wear and tear now while there’s nothing significant to play for.
One would also think that the batting averages of Utley and Howard would improve a bit as time goes on. Neither player is ever going to be a .300 hitter again, because neither player has figured out how to beat the shifts that opposing teams put on them. But Utley has hit into some bad luck this year (.230 BAbip), and has seen his line drive rate jump over last year’s (17.8% to 12.7%). Howard still is not selective enough at the plate, striking out way too much (37% of the time) and walking far too little (just 8.3% of the time). He’s also hitting the ball on the ground far too much so far this year (49.1%). But when he does elevate the ball and hit it in the air, the percentage of times it leaves the park (31.6%) is comparable to some of his biggest power years, the highest number since 2008. It’s unlikely Howard is going to continue to hit the ball on the ground as much as he has.
The main item from both players’ repertoire that most feared was gone was their power. The numbers seem to indicate that those worries should be lessened, even with a small sample size like we’ve seen in 2012.
This last month and a half of a disappointing and lost season will give everyone a better sense of what can be expected in 2013 and beyond.