Beerleaguer's first in a series of short, winter player valuations deals with the man voted 2009 Phillies MVP by readers of this space.
The problem with the offseason is that we spend so much time monitoring rumors, debating new acquisitions and projecting the value of peripheral players that superstars like Chase Utley are ignored for months. When was the last time we discussed Utley? Ages ago. So let's do this. In terms of baseball "aptitude," Utley will end his career graduating summa cum laude as a second baseman and base-runner, but only magna cum laude as a hitter.
Let's explain. Defensively, he's always in sync with the action on the field, as demonstrated by his World Series pump fake in the definitive play from the 2008 World Series. We all agree he's brighter than a lightbulb on the bases (some consider him the best baserunner in baseball). However, there's a general perception that he's the same student of the game at the dish, but I question that. I see a beautiful, compact swing, good for driving the ball hard and deep, but I don't necessarily see a grandmaster able to outwit opposing pitchers. Actually, the longer opposing pitchers were given to flash a couple of different looks, the more likely they were to turn him away.
That's obviously true for many hitters, but especially true for Utley. Like many of his teammates, Utley is an exceptional hitter early in the count. He wants to jerk a fastball or hanging curve into the right field bleachers. But once he sees more than four pitches, the results are generally terrible. According to Bill James, he hit .218/.399/.365 when he saw four or more pitches, and just .109/.397/.191 when the battle reached seven or more. I also wonder about all the times he's hit by a pitch. There was a study done recently by The Baseball Analysts that found was hit by pitches 449 percent more than the average hitter last season. In addition to crowding the plate, that tells me he's basically set to pull the string on that compact stroke, down and in, even as a baseball is about to burrow into his ribcage.
None of this is a complaint, mind you. Maybe his offensive genius is all in the repetition and mechanics of his swing. Whatever gets it done, and nobody's complaining.