Like a Wall Street analyst calling bottom in oil — $2.00 gallons of gasoline were fun while they lasted — I am ready to call another bottom. Chase Utley, the Philadelphia Phillies longtime second baseman, recently saw his 2015 batting average as low as .099. That’s right, a borderline Hall of Fame player’s batting average sat over 100 points below the dreaded Mendoza Line as late as May 8.
Since bottoming out, Utley has raised his batting average to .143. That Utley has raised his batting average nearly 50 points in a span of ten days shows just how badly he was struggling. It’s not like it even took an incredibly hot week to spike his batting average, either. Over those ten days, Utley is only batting .250. On a more positive note, he does have four doubles in that span, and has doubled in three consecutive games.
At 36 years of age, and with creaking knees, Utley is no longer the same player who once went to five consecutive All-Star games, but he is far from the worst player in the league as his numbers would lead you to believe. Utley has just been incredibly unlucky through his first 135 plate appearances this season.
Utley’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is an incredibly low .141 this season. Compare that to his career .305 BABIP, right in line with the league average, and it is clear that Utley has been plagued by some awful luck this season. A variation from that average by a few points is normal from season to season, but not by nearly 200 points.
The inception of MLB Statcast has also helped shed some more light on the plight of Utley this season. The geniuses over at fivethirtyeight.com used the batted ball velocity data tracked by Statcast so far this season to determine the most unlucky player in baseball today, and Chase Utley is overwhelmingly the most star-crossed player in the game.
Utley has an average batted ball velocity this season of 87.7 mph. While the number crunchers are still figuring out the best way to utilize batted ball velocity data, it doesn’t take fancy regression analysis to figure out that a ball that is struck with greater velocity tends to have a better chance of landing for a base hit. One mile per hour off the bat is worth roughly 18 points of OPS.
Based on the expected OPS from Utley’s batted balls, he is over 300 points below what the statistics predict. Over the course of an entire season, those little statistical anomalies begin to work themselves out. Very few judgments can be made about a slumping hitter after little more than 100 plate appearances.
That being said, Utley is definitely on the downslope of his career. He has made hard contact only 17.6% of the time this season, and his 87.7 batted ball velocity is nowhere near elite. In fact, it is slightly below average. There is still significant room for improvement based on luck alone, however.
Utley’s past ten days are likely the beginning of that statistical correction. Those repeatedly calling for the benching of Chase Utley are being incredibly short-sighted. While he is no longer an elite player, given time, his numbers will rebound, and he will continue being an above-average Major League player. That correction has already begun over the past few days, now let it run its course.