Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Giving up the Chase

I actually had tonight off from work and was willing to sit through the atrocious commentating of the Washington Nationals' broadcasters so I could see how much last year's No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg would live up to the hype in his major league debut. I was denied his seven-inning, 14-strikeout masterpiece against the Pittsburgh Pirates (yeah, I know, it may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but a big league hitter is a big league hitter), though, because none of the usual sports stations in Gettysburg showed the game. MLB Network also blacked it out, despite this inexcusable error. Eh, at least I'll have plenty of other opportunities this season to catch a glimpse of his 100-plus heat before his arm falls off.

I have no idea if tonight was a random flash of lightning, or the approach of that old Phillies storm that dominated the division last season.

Given the fight of the Phils in Tuesday's series opener against the Marlins, it seems like the latter. The big boys showed some life, and the offense battled back from three different deficits in the game. The 10 runs scored were more than double what Philly had managed in its entire three-game series in South Florida in late May, and the most runs the Phils had scored in a single game since May 17.

If this truly is a new beginning, may the red flood drown the rest of the East and cleanse us all.

One guy I wouldn't mind see returning to his old ways is Chase Utley, and I'm not referring to his recent performance. Since the start of the 2009 season, Utley has fundamentally changed his approach at the plate.

The difference is noticeable when comparing Utley's stats from '08 to '09. He clearly made a concerted effort to be more selective at the dish, as his walks shot up from 64 to a career-high 88. That's usually a good thing for a hitter, but it wound up hurting Utley's production. His OPS remained steady in the low-.900s, but consider the significant drop in other areas: hits (177/161), doubles (41/28), total bases (325/290) and RBI (104/93). Utley's totals in all of those categories except hits were career lows since he became a starter in 2005, as was his .282 batting average.

It seemed like Utley's search for the perfect pitch inhibited his overall ability to hit. He also struck out 110 times in '09, which was six more than he had punched out in '08 in 36 fewer at-bats. Stealing a career-high 23 bases helped maintain his runs scored, but 2010 paints a much drearier picture for the Phillie second baseman.

We all know that Chase will snap out of the team-wide funk, and his two hits tonight were a good starting point. But heading into the second week of June, Utley has swiped just two bags on the year, which aren't nearly enough to account for his deficits in other areas. He's on pace to set a new career high in walks and maintain his above-average power, but the projected 74 RBI fall well below Utley's standards and aren't adequate in the 3-hole of such a potent lineup.

Though most guys would be happy with 150 hits and 30 doubles, this isn't the Utley we're used to seeing.

It's especially key for Chase to abandon his present tactics in order to step up in late-game situations against left-handed relievers. Of the three lefties in the Phillies' lineup, Utley has the most success against south paw hurlers with a .283 average. He can't be content for them to pitch around him, so they can go to town on Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez with a steady diet of breaking balls. Jayson Werth could conceivably save the day with a big hit in between them, but only during the eight random weeks of the season when he catches fire.

I'd love to see Utley recapture his past aggressiveness both at the plate and on the bases. The team needs that spark from him now more than ever.

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