It has been a long season for Chase Utley owners. Projected as a no-doubt first rounder and the top second baseman heading into this season, Utley has struggled to a .277 AVG with only 11 home runs and 37 RBI. Now a bruised thumb has sent him to the disabled list and sent fantasy owners into a state of panic.
The thumb injury in one thing, but Utley owners have been frustrated for a while now. After a two consecutive 30-plus home run seasons, Utley has managed only 11 to this point in 2010. Interestingly enough, one of baseball's most consistent hitters has changed his approach a bit.
From 2005 through 2009, Chase Utley had held fly ball rates of between 41 and 47 percent. So far this season, only about 38 percent of Utley's balls in play have been classified as fly balls, an almost ten percent drop from last season's rate. That rate has also seen a dramatic drop every month this season. Even with such a drop in fly balls, his HR/FB ratio has only dropped by about one and a half percent. If his GB/FB rate holds, it will mark the first time since becoming a regular that Utley has hit over 40 percent ground balls and less than 40 percent fly balls.
Giving himself fewer home run opportunities by hitting the ball on the ground more often is likely a big reason we've seen a dip in Utley's power production (his current .189 ISO would be the lowest of his career).
Has Utley become a slap hitter?
The only reason I ask that question is because, along with the change in GB/FB rate, Utley has seen a dramatic drop in his strikeout rate to this point. Utley holds a career 18 percent strikeout rate. This season, he has only struck out 14 percent of the time while continuing a base on balls pace similar to last season.
If not a slap hitter, has he been hiding an injury?
I only ask that question for two reasons:
1. Utley exactly type of player that will play through injuries and has done so in the past.
2. His season splits show an increase in ground ball rate each month, most notably rising about ten percent from May through June.
Could his thumb have been bothering him for a while and last night's slide into second just pushed the pain over the edge?
The truth is that I have no idea and there seems like little chance that anyone would be able to get that information from Utey himself. Utley showed no signs of being hurt at the time the injury occurred. He simply got up and jogged back to the dugout.
This reminds me a lot of Derek Jeter back in 2008 when he had a down year across the board. Everyone thought that he was simply entering the decline phase of his career, but in fact he had been playing hurt (pretty badly hurt) for almost the entire season. Jeter's line drive rate fell to about 17 percent that season, which was his lowest since the stat was recorded in 2002.
At this point, what is done is done. Utley has underperformed based on expectations and is now out commission for at least 15 days. However, if this injury has been one that has lingered for a while, his time on the DL may indeed be a good thing.
At age 31, there is little reason to suspect a drop in skills as the reason for Utley's down year. If injury is the reason, we can expect a rested and healthy Utley to be much more productive once he returns to the lineup. That would be good news not only for this season, but for keeper league owners wondering whether to hold or sell.
For now, as is the case with Dustin Pedroia, there isn't much to do but stash Utley on the DL and hope he comes back sooner rather than later. I have a feeling that when he does come back, we'll see a much more productive hitter.