Chase Utley and Purpose Pitches

Chase Utley gets hit by a lot of pitches. Pretty much always been that way. Over his career, about 8% of the time Utley has reached base, he’s reached base on a hit-by-pitch. He led the league in hit-by-pitches for three consecutive years between 2007-2009. Utley ranks fourth among active players in career hit-by-pitches, and he ranks 21st all-time, sneaking up quickly on Brady Anderson and Fred Clarke. Since 2000, 676 different players have batted at least 1,000 times in the major leagues. The average player got hit in 0.9% of his plate appearances. Utley has gotten hit in 3% of his plate appearances, ranking near the very top of the list (albeit well below Carlos Quentin). Utley gets hit, and people have noticed.

Now, usually, people try to stay away from making direct accusations. There’s often the suspicion of an intentional hit-by-pitch, but it’s usually just alluded to, rather than stated outright. On the matter of Chase Utley maybe getting hit all the time on purpose, Charlie Manuel follows the pattern:

“They like to throw at our left-handed hitters,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “They throw at Utley and Ryan Howard. Anybody in the National League — if they’re going to send us a message, they go after those guys.”

Oh, right. Okay.

I don’t know why Manuel chose to include Ryan Howard. Howard’s career HBP rate is right about average. He’s never been hit more than nine times in a season. But Utley, as noted before, gets hit often, and Manuel seems to think a lot of that is due to message-sending. People have been hitting Utley on purpose, in other words, in order to, I don’t know, establish dominance. Intimidate.

This is something that can be examined, quickly or in depth. One notes that, as a minor leaguer in 2002, Utley was hit 20 times in 125 games in triple-A. That was his first exposure to triple-A, and he wasn’t yet a top prospect with much of a reputation. Utley demonstrated that he would get hit by pitches before there was a reason to believe he’d get hit by pitches on purpose, and, why might this be? Utley crowds the plate, see.

utleyhbp

That’s just the way he bats. The way Utley stands in there, it makes him unusually prone to getting hit, because he’s closer to the strike zone than most other hitters. Which means the ball has to miss by less in order to make physical contact with Utley’s form. I’m not going to say Utley has never been hit by a purpose pitch, but I think odds are the majority of what we observe is due to Utley and not due to malicious pitchers. It works to Utley’s advantage, provided he doesn’t get hurt. Take away all the hit-by-pitches and Utley’s career OBP drops 19 points.

But for purposes of further examination, let’s go to the video. I’ll apologize now for all of the browsers I’m locking up with this onslaught of .gifs. Last season, after returning from injury, Utley was drilled by a dozen pitches in 83 games. Let’s look at those dozen pitches, and try to spot signs of whether or not they might have been intentional. Nothing here is conclusive — we can’t crawl into the pitchers’ heads, no matter how much we try — but, is anything really conclusive? Think about it.

HBP #1

Utley1.gif.opt

For one thing, it’s an 0-and-2 count. The catcher sets up inside, and then look at Hudson’s body language after Utley gets hit. Hudson isn’t pleased, and presumably Hudson isn’t acting. At the time, the game was close, and Hudson was just trying to lock Utley up with a running fastball on the inside edge. Conclusion: probably unintentional.

HBP #2

Utley2.gif.opt

Two-strike breaking ball that gets Utley on the foot. If that’s a purpose pitch, that’s a stupid purpose pitch. That’s an attempted strikeout pitch. Conclusion: probably unintentional.

HBP #3

  • August 8
  • vs. Tim Hudson again

Utley3.gif.opt

Another breaking ball that gets Utley in the foot. When trying to hit a batter intentionally, what pitcher ever opts for something offspeed? That isn’t how you’re supposed to send a message. Conclusion: probably unintentional.

HBP #4

Utley4.gif.opt

Again, look at the body language. The body language makes for a good indicator — at least, the immediate body language, the unfiltered, instinctive body language. Lynn hits Utley, and then is clearly upset with himself. Maybe Lynn was upset he didn’t hit Utley somewhere else. Probably, Lynn was upset that he hit Utley. Conclusion: probably unintentional.

HBP #5

Utley5.gif.opt

This pitch only very barely grazes Utley’s uniform. Of note is that Utley actually made an attempt to get out of the way! Not shown is that Bailey was upset with himself when the ball was returned to him, shortly after this .gif cuts off. The game was close at the time, and there wouldn’t have been any reason for Bailey to try to stir things up. Conclusion: probably unintentional.

HBP #6

Utley6.gif.opt

Clue 1: body language. Clue 2: close game, late. Clue 3: Burnett had just entered to pitch to the Phillies’ heart-of-the-order lefties. This would’ve been a dumb time to send a message. Conclusion: probably unintentional.

HBP #7

Utley7.gif.opt

Interesting! First pitch, early, in a game between division rivals. Fastball that badly misses the catcher’s glove. No clear sign of distress or frustration on Harvey’s part. Conclusion: possibly intentional.

HBP #8

Utley8.gif.opt

Niese was ahead in the count, and if you look at him right after he plants, he jumps a little bit, like he didn’t expect the ball to get away. He doesn’t look at Utley, and Utley doesn’t look at him back, and it isn’t a direct blow. Conclusion: probably unintentional.

HBP #9

Utley9.gif.opt

Breaking ball that gets Utley in the leg, and clear frustration on Johnson’s part immediately afterward. Easy one. Conclusion: probably unintentional.

HBP #10

Utley10.gif.opt

This pitch barely even grazed Utley, if it grazed him at all, and consider the context. This is Dallas Keuchel and the 2012 Houston Astros. Why would they try to send a message to Chase Utley and the Philadelphia Phillies? What purpose would that serve, in the short-term or the long-term? It doesn’t pass any sort of test of logic. The burden is not on proof of innocence; the burden is on proof of guilt. Conclusion: probably unintentional.

HBP #11

Utley11.gif.opt

The situation would’ve been right. This was late in a game between division rivals, with the score out of hand. Edgin was behind in the count, and at 11-1, it wouldn’t have mattered much that the bases were loaded. Utley got drilled by a fastball, square in the back. The pieces are there, except: Edgin’s body language. That’s not how a pitcher responds to an intentional hit-by-pitch. That’s how a pitcher responds to something he didn’t intend to do. Conclusion: probably unintentional.

HBP #12

  • September 23
  • vs. Tim Hudson again!

Utley12.gif.opt

Breaking ball to the foot. Body language. We’ve already dealt with this before. Conclusion: probably unintentional, but, really? Hudson, three times?

We’ve looked at a dozen pitches that hit Chase Utley in 2012. This is not a thorough examination of every pitch that has ever hit Chase Utley, and it wouldn’t surprise me if a few of those pitches were intentional. In 2012, though, at least 11 of the 12 pitches were probably unintentional, leaving us with one where we can’t be clear. And the absence of proof of innocence is hardly proof of guilt. If pitchers were targeting Chase Utley in 2012, they were either targeting him weirdly, or they kept missing him when they were trying to hit him, because the pitches that hit him were generally accidental.

What Charlie Manuel wants to believe, Charlie Manuel is free to believe. He might not even believe his own words; he might just be trying to rally the troops, which is one of the responsibilities of a major-league manager. This could simply be a team-building exercise. But, do pitchers go out of their way to throw at Chase Utley? Our evidence suggests that, no, they do not, at least not particularly often. If anything, Utley wants to get hit by pitches more than pitchers want to hit Utley with pitches. This isn’t strategy on the pitchers’ part; this is a proven skill, on Utley’s part. Because hit-by-pitches are basically walks, and walks can lead to runs.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


49 Responses to “Chase Utley and Purpose Pitches”

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  1. Dan Rozenson says:

    Superb. Strasburg’s pitch fits this same mold: low pitch, supposed to be inside, no reason for him to start anything. Don’t understand where Roy Halladay and the other Phils got the idea he was under attack.

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  2. CircleChange11 says:

    Can we also say that Utley rarely, if ever,attempts to actually get out of the way.

    Don;t get me wrong, he does what he’s supposed to do, he turns and lets the pitch hit his cheek or lat, but he could get “out of the way” if he wanted to. He doesn’t want to.

    The 0-2 pitch from Hudson is classic college baseball. Inch closer to the plate and anything close “turn into it”. While it looks like you’re evading or bracing for impact, the batter may actually be taking his hip closer to the plate and into the pitch. It’s a frustrating move as a pitcher when you’re looking to back someone off in order to throw something offspeed low and away on the following pitch.

    Chase Utley has an incredibly short, powerful swing and he crowds the plate because the swing doesn’t exactly have a ton of coverage. In other words, a swing cannot be both long and really quick at the same time (relatively speaking). By being willing to be HBP, he effectively takes away the inside part that batters have difficulty dealing with (corner to belt buckle), while maintaining his integrity to be able to deal with anything inner half.

    Unlike Quentin, Utley is smart enough to protect his hands. I also noticed that the one time Utley moved his hips out of the way instead of turning into the pitch and brace for impact is when the pitch may have hit him in the kidney/lowback … good move, those are tremendously painful places to get hit … right cheek and right lat, not so much.

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    • Bip says:

      A batter doesn’t get awarded first base on a hit by pitch if he doesn’t “try to get out of the way.” Utley doesn’t try to get out of the way, but he does “try to get out of the way.”

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      • paperlions says:

        According to the rules, yes. But in practice, 100% false. When was the last time a batter didn’t get 1B because he failed to try to get out of the way? Plenty of batters don’t even flinch and are immediately awarded 1st base….and the only way many others move is to stick part of their body out into the path of the pitch rather than for avoidance.

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        • Cidron says:

          Not sure if it was the most recent, but, 1920, Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Naps stepped in against the NY Yankee pitcher Carl Mays, took a pitch to the temple of his head, fell unconcious, never to wake up, and died appx 12 hours later. Gonna guess that ‘he’ didnt get awarded first base. Closest thing I could find to “last person to get hit and not go to first base”.

          (notable, also being the only player ever killed on the field of play, though an umpire (john mcsherry had a heart attack while calling a game, and died calling pitches in 1996)

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        • snoop LION says:

          Nyjer Morgan on a absolute terrible call. I’ll try find the clip.

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        • snoop LION says:

          http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=16111651&c_id=mlb

          Here it is. Worse than I remembered! Sveum and Roenicke got tossed

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        • Dag Gummit says:

          I vaguely recall a play some years ago when I believe Dave Hollins, while playing in a game with the Anaheim Angels against the Mariners, didn’t make an appropriate attempt to avoid the pitch. Again, if I recall correctly, the pitch was even called a strike.

          While I am much less sure of it being called a strike, I’m quite sure about all the other details.

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        • Brent says:

          99.99%, yes. 100%, no. I’m old enough to remember Drysdale’s scoreless inning streak that was extended by a Giants player being hit by a pitch with the bases loaded and the ump did not award first base (and the subsequent run scoring) by stating the batter did not attempt to get out of the way.

          There isn’t, in my opinion, any problem with Utley doing what he does. Don Baylor did it that way. Utley crowds the plate, yes. He also usually just turns his back and lets it hit him, and the act of turning his back is enough to signal the ump that Utley “tried to get out of the way.” He doesn’t just stand still and let it hit him, he does move. A little. The thing I do give Utley credit for is that he isn’t doesn’t appear to wear much, if any, protection on that leading elbow, and just takes his base, doesn’t go into a bunch of histrionics, and seems to feel that getting hit has done his part for his team. As opposed to Barry effing Bonds who wore more armor on his right arm than a knight in a jousting contest, and pitched a fit if a pitcher dared to assault his royal personage.

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        • jreckste says:

          Happened to Joe Crede with the White Sox a few years ago, but I’d have to look to find the actual game

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      • David says:

        Barry Bonds used to regularly get hit IN THE STRIKE ZONE! and was awarded a base every time

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    • Travis says:

      He spent significant amount of time on the DL after being hit in the hand during a possible MVP-type season. It’s not surprising his number one priority when a pitch is coming at him is to protect his hands.

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  3. lorecore says:

    Any Phillie fan over Utley’s career is well aware that almost none of his HBP are intentional, save for new teammate John Lannan.

    Utley earns his reputatoin as doing all the little things right, which includes turning his front shoulder and arm inward towards the plate when the pitch is inside. He acts like he is turning away from the pitch to protect himself, but he is actually widening himself over the plate during the time when the ball reaches the batters box. Utley has had a few over the years where he tips forward on his toes when the ball doesn’t hit him, showing the intent to rock towards the ball rather than turn away.

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    • Well-Beered Englishman says:

      Do you really believe John Lannan would voluntarily get ejected from his MLB debut, in front of his family, to “send a message”?

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      • Justin says:

        He didn’t get ejected for hitting Utley, he got ejected for following it up by hitting Howard too.

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        • PMac says:

          not possible at all a rookie lefthander might just have nerves and trouble spotting a mediocre fastball to the 3 and 4 hitters of the dominant team in the division in a hostile environment. Also can’t imagine the message a 42-58 Nationals team would have to send.

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      • that guy says:

        How does “in front of his family” matter? I fail to see the relevance. Because people act better when they know they’re being watched? Typical British logic.

        IMO, it seems entirely plausible to take the contrarian point–that given the enormous financial incentives surrouding being and *staying* in the MLB–both in the form of current paychecks but also in accruing service time towards a pension–he would do anything to impress management. Given the way the Phillies rolled the (horrible) Nats back then, isn’t is possible he did that to curry favor with mgmt, the manager, his teammates?

        I dare say, his parents would approve of that logic.

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  4. Name says:

    I really wish a HBP had to occur inside the batter’s box. Lean out and get hit by an inside pitch not inside the batter’s box? Tough, deal with it.

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  5. georgmi says:

    I think the real question here is, does Tim Hudson have a particular skill at hitting batters in the foot? Seems like bruising a guy’s foot would be a sneaky way of both sending a message and limiting his ability to do you extra damage on the basepaths, without risking getting thrown out of the game, because as you point out, who expects a headhunter to go there?

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  6. Victor says:

    Interesting piece, and the gif’s tell a good story, but a couple of things I’d take issue with.

    1) A pitchers reaction and body language may not be the best indicator of intent. If he is throwing at Utley, but hopes not to get ejected, he knows the umpires will also be watching the pitchers reaction and judge intent partly based on it. We see hitters fake getting hit convincingly or infielders using body language to try to sway an umpire into thinking they had tagged a runner out, so aren’t pitchers also capable of throwing a bean ball and planning to react as if they are frustrated?

    2) While its mentioned in the piece, I think Utley not getting out of the way plays a huge part in his HBP numbers. Yeah, he crowds the plate, but if a slow curve comes inside, or even a fastball with the possibility of a soft deflection (as opposed to drilling him square), he doesn’t move. If anything, he leans toward the plate as he turns away. Its part of what makes him a fan favorite in Philly – he’ll do anything to get on base.

    Thanks for the article.

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    • cass says:

      The only reason a pitcher would hit a batter would be to send a message. Convincing everyone that it was unintentional would nullify that message and produce only a baserunner. No point in that.

      Notice that although Halladay denied throwing behind Moore on purpose, he smiled and talked about defending his player. He made it very obvious that he threw behind Moore on purpose even while technically denying it. If he only said it was an accident, then there’d be no effect.

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    • prs130 says:

      As a phillie fan, I can attest to the fact that utley struggles with fastballs high and inside. Years ago, he could spoil them foul (usually line drives toward the ballgirl), but lately he’s been struggling to catch up.

      So opposing pitchers are targeting that top inside corner of the zone. In a typical AB, you’re aiming at that corner with a fastball at least once. That and Utley’s willingness to take it in the back are why he gets plunked so often. There’s a 3-inch difference between a strike and a HBP.

      So does this mean he’s not entitled to gripe about getting plunked so often? And his boys are not allowed to return the favor? Open question…

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  7. cass says:

    Utley is a cheater. He clearly isn’t trying to get out of the way and he should not have been awarded a base in about half of those. Really awful umpiring. If a batter doesn’t attempt to avoid a pitch, he isn’t entitled to a base.

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    • Bip says:

      That rule has never been enforced that way ever. It’s only ever applied to guys who just stand there and have no reaction.

      Utley isn’t even close to the only guy who turns his back to a pitch while not actually moving out of the path of the ball.

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      • cass says:

        Utley is definitely exceptional, as indicated by his incredible HBP stats quoted in the article. His lack of getting out of the way combined with his crowding of the plate lead to a huge number of HBP. The umpires need to start enforcing the rules on Utley and everyone else who does it.

        Honestly, with the way he puts his hands over the plate, I don’t know how pitchers refrain from just throwing at his hands every time.

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      • brendan says:

        I agree that umpires should enforce the rule more aggressively. guys should have to move away from the pitch, not just turn their backs to the pitch.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Don Baylor never moved, and he was always rewarded 1st base.

        As a former pitcher, I don’t think a batters should be compelled or required to move. We’re supposed to be skilled pitchers and if we can’t get the ball out of the batter’s box, then the batter deserves 1st base.

        However, I would strongly prefer to see batters penalized for “moving into the pitch”, with their front shoulder, front elbow hanging over the corner, or hip moving toward the plate.

        —————————————

        Why would pitchers throw at batters?

        Simple, and it’s not always anger. It’s about intimidation and effectiveness. Batters try to keep their front shoulder “in” and “let the ball travel as deep as possible” (non-technical terms, just words batters use). Pitchers don;t want this, they want batters to decide earlier (easier to disrupt timing), and pull off the ball.

        So, you pitch “inside” or throw at batters to disrupt their desire and will to “stay in”. With some batters it works, because well, getting hit with a hardball at 85-95mph hurts, and if it’s up around the head it can shake you up for some at bats … just as a pitcher getting hit hard with a comebacker can affect their desire to really follow through and finish their pitches.

        So yes, even “nice guy pitchers” will throw inside and hit batters intentionally, because sometimes you need to in order to maintain effectiveness.

        I’ve said it before but what has really changed the dynamics of hitting over the last 20-30 years are batters understanding that they can obliterate the outer half pitch, and we see more and more batters being able to do that and dive over the plate, etc. With HBP’s often leading to warnings to both teams, there is no longer a “pitcher’s half” and a “batter’s half” to the plate, and pitchers are desperate to maintain their integrity.

        With the slider becoming such an effective pitch, particularly starting in and ending up down, pitching inside effectively really helps batters hesitate on recognizing and reacting to the pitch.

        Lots of good reasons to pitch inside, and even occasionally throw at batters.

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        • prs130 says:

          No doubt! You can’t throw it over the middle, and that only leaves two places you can throw it…

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  8. Bip says:

    I wonder if the added benefit of a HBP over a walk is that it gets the other team in trouble with the umpires, meaning future HBP and other conflicts with the ump are more likely to result in ejections for that team. In any of those three games, did Tim Hudson get ejected for related reasons?

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  9. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but #11 does seem like he has the body langauge of someone who just intentionally hit a dude, fist shake followed by looking at the scoreboard given the bases were apparantly loaded.

    ALso, #8 looks like a pretty direct body blow to me.

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  10. DD says:

    Jeff, curious what you make of Jimmy Rollins then, as he also crowds the plate much like Utley (especially when batting lefty), but without getting hit nearly as often. He would be a guy I think Cholly would expect to get beaned, but it doesn’t happen. Is it just that Rollins gets out of the way better, or he gets pitched to differently? Of course, when batting lefty, he is being pitched to by a righty, which I would guess mitigates the potential for a HBP (total guess).

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    • Ian R. says:

      Actually, I would think switch-hitters would be more likely to get hit than anyone else. Having the platoon advantage means most breaking balls (especially sliders) curve toward rather than away the batter.

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      • Schuxu says:

        But they are not thrown in as much. Breaking balls that break in are not very effective, exactly what gives the platoon advantage.

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  11. DD says:

    Utley also doesn’t wear any shin or elbow guard, further proof that he is “The Man” (Per Harry K).

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  12. MrMan says:

    I don’t think Charlie Manuel believes for a second that his guys are being pitched at more often. He just doesn’t want to admit that his guy technically cheats and gets on base quite a bit as a result.

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  13. Bip says:

    How does this interact with the difference in strikezone for lefties and righties? I remember that the strikezone for a left-handed hitter extends farther into the outside part of the plate than for righties. Does it also extend farther inside for lefties?

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  14. AJT says:

    My favorite is when Utley was “hit” in the postseason by Chapman in 2010.

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  15. shthar says:

    Your apology came too late.

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  16. Brandon T says:

    Hmmm… maybe the book on Utley is to bust him inside as well? Might help explain why he gets hit so much…

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  17. Chris from Bothell says:

    At least Utley isn’t wearing more armor than a medieval knight, like Bonds used to. I’m actually ok with some borderline cases of really not trying to get out of the way, or even blurring the line to get HBP on purpose, if the batter is trying to take one on his actual flesh and not on several inches of kevlar and molded plastic.

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  18. supershredder says:

    What?!? No mention of the great Craig Biggio? He was doing what Utley does before Chase was even in diapers…

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