How Will Chase Utley Age?

The Phillies got some bad news over the weekend, as Chase Utley‘s lingering knee soreness resulted in him getting an MRI. While no structural damage was found, you can now add his knees to the ever-growing list of body parts that the 32-year-old has had problems with. As noted in the linked article, he had surgery for a broken hand in 2007, hip surgery following the 2008 season, and then had to undergo surgery on his thumb last summer.

From the quantity of health problems he’s had in the last four years, it might appear that Utley’s body is just beginning to break down. Given that there are a number of examples of second baseman who fell off a cliff in their early 30s – see Roberto Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Chuck Knoblauch, and Brian Roberts, among others – it could be natural to assume that Utley’s headed for a steep decline. In fact, the rate of aging among second baseman has been so severe that it has become a truism in baseball that players who man the keystone position simply don’t age well. Theories on the causes of this phenomenon often hinge around the beating second baseman can take while turning the double play, as they often have to guard the bag with their back to an oncoming baserunner intent on breaking up the twin killing. Is Utley yet another example of the wear and tear of second base causing a premium second baseman to break down earlier than he would have otherwise?

I’m not so sure. Instead, I’m wondering if our perceptions of early declines from second baseman aren’t actually the result of selection bias. It’s no secret that most second baseman are players who, for one reason or another, were determined to be physically incapable of staying at shortstop. Often the problem is a lack of arm strength, but you also see guys with below average range at short getting moved to second base where their defensive issues won’t be so exposed. Either way, second base is mostly a land of players who have already been deemed to be less than top-shelf physical specimens, and as such, it’s a position that generally doesn’t have many truly elite players manning the position.

Look through the list of best individual second base seasons in the last 50 years – with the exception of Joe Morgan (who dominates the top of the list), there just aren’t many other names who have multiple 7+ WAR seasons. Here’s the list of guys who have had more than one season at that level:

Joe Morgan: 5
Chase Utley: 4
Bobby Grich: 3
Ryne Sandberg: 2
Bret Boone: 2
Jeff Kent: 2

Boone’s the odd duck who doesn’t fit here. He was essentially a nothing player through age 31, then had two monster seasons at 32 and 34. His career-arc was nothing like the others, so we’ll toss him out as not that instructive of a comparison. How did the other four guys age?

Sandberg fits the narrative, as you can see his line flatten out after his age 32 season – after posting a +7.6 WAR season that year, he compiled just +7.4 WAR total from age 33-37. He’s another example of a second baseman declining early, but it wasn’t injuries that took him out, but fluctuating desire on whether to keep playing. His semi-retirement after the 1994 season makes his latter years a mediocre comparison, as we don’t know how he would have performed had he not pulled a Brett Favre. The other three actually stayed rather productive.

Kent (Ages 32-40): +39.0 WAR
Morgan (Ages 32-40): +37.8 WAR
Grich (Ages 32-37): +23.3 WAR

If we lower the bar to guys who had multiple 6+ WAR seasons, that introduces a few more of the early decline guys like Knoblauch and Alomar, but we also find Rod Carew, Craig Biggio, and Lou Whitaker, all of whom were highly productive players in their mid-30s. While it could still be true that the physical toll of playing second base does cause players at the position to break down faster, we see something of a different story if we limit ourselves to just looking at players who were truly elite players in their prime to begin with.

My guess is that what is perceived as premature aging at the position is really just decline from a lower pedestal to begin with. Since second baseman are primarily selected based on a flaw in their physical abilities, I’m not all that surprised that the general population of those players would contain guys whose bodies didn’t hold up as long as those at other positions. Utley’s not just a normal second baseman, however, and when we look at how the few premium talents at the keystone position performed, we don’t find the same kind of early-30s collapse that is regularly associated with the positional aging curve.

Utley is not as good as Morgan was, and Kent’s late-career success would look like the exception at almost any position, but I’m not ready to throw Utley into the Alomar/Sandberg bin just yet. Yes, the aches and pains are starting to add up, but a broken thumb is not the kind of injury you expect to be a lingering problem, and his 2007 problem was caused by getting hit by a pitch. The nagging hip and knee pains are problematic, certainly, but given that he was still an elite player with both problems last year, I don’t think we can claim that either has demonstrated enough severity to cause his skills to diminish all that quickly.

Will Utley average 150 games per year going forward? I’d call that unlikely at best, but the Phillies shouldn’t be too overly worried that he’s going to stop producing when he is on the field. It’s quite possible that they won’t get any more +7 WAR seasons from their second baseman, but there is enough precedent to suggest that he can still be quite useful for many years to come.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

44 Responses to “How Will Chase Utley Age?”

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  1. Brad Johnson says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    You should take a look at Utley and Chipper Jones because it “feels” similar to me (and I’ve been too busy the last week to do it myself).

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    • Brad Johnson says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      I took a quick look at the War Graphs. Ages 28-31 for Utley and Jones are roughly parallel (with utley being slightly better). I haven’t gone back to look through Jones’ injury list so I don’t know in what physical condition Jones was in compared to Utley for those seasons.

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  2. CircleChange11 says:

    Theories on the causes of this phenomenon often hinge around the beating second baseman can take while turning the double play, as they often have to guard the bag with their back to an oncoming baserunner intent on breaking up the twin killing.

    I would also add all of the ground behind 1B and foul territory that they have to cover. They aren’t usually nonchalant going near the wall or toward the right-fielder.

    My guess is that what is perceived as premature aging at the position is really just decline from a lower pedestal to begin with

    Without a doubt. 2B has often been a place on the field where you could “hide a weakish player”.

    Less range than a SS, less power than a 3B, less arm strength that both.

    As you pointed out, the number of 2B’s that have put up multiple 7 WAR seasons are 6 guys, with only half of them doing it more than twice.

    If we need to examine why so few 2B’s are in the HoF, then this would likely be why. While that is a secondary topic, it goes along with your conclusion that 2B’s start from a lower pedastal.

    Brad already beat me to the Chipper comparison. Unfortunately for Chase, he’s more tough than smart. In other words, when he should take a day off, he won’t.

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  3. Kevin says:

    When doing these kinds of analyses, does that fact that Knoblauch, Roberts, and Kent having been linked to steroids have any effect on how much you actually believe your studies? Do you try to avoid using them as comparisons?

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    • Look says:

      When you say “linked” – what concrete evidence are you using?

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      • Nick Smith says:

        Roberts was implicated by Grimsley. McMamee and Radomski fingered Knoblauch, as related by the Mitchell Report. Kent hasn’t been publicly connected to PEDs.

        That’s not “concrete evidence” of the sort that would get you convicted in court, but if you’re looking at it from a historical perspective, trying to figure out what happened in an era, it’s certainly worth including in the discussion.

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      • Chops says:

        Also, importantly, what concrete evidence is there to suggest that steroids make you a better player?

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      • mister_rob says:

        chops – that has to be dumbest question ever asked

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        The same place as the concrete evidence that shows steroids aid recovery, increase speed, increase strength, etc.

        A BETTER question is, “How COULDN’T they make you a better player?” Just the increased recovery will improve performance (or stated in another way, slow the decline of performance over a long season).

        Seriously, what possible way would steroids NOT help you improve?

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      • mister_rob says:

        Barry Bonds
        Career through age 35 – 289/412/567
        4 yrs from ages 36-39 – 349/559/809

        Most players in their upper 30’s struggle to maintain their earlier production. This guy became literally twice as good. This is completely unnatural and not explainable in any other manner. I do not understand why so many folks here refuse to acknowledge the OBVIOUS impact PEDs played during that era

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        To be contrary.

        We can look at:

        [1] Bonds 2004 on.
        [2] McGwire’s 3 seasons in StL.
        [3] Caminiti’s MVP season.
        [4] Canseco’s MVP season (40-40).

        All have admitted or have had serious evidence pointing at those years of PED usage.

        Certainly 4 guys aren’t “everyone”, but they do illustrate something. Either PEDs help performance or PEDs are really lucky.

        The problem is that we cannot place a certain % of performance increase on the usage of steroids due to individual difference, differences in compounds, etc.

        So, until we can say “Steroids improve baseball performance by 11.762%”, there will be a group out there that elects to question whether steroids help performance. In the meantime, the rest of the athletic world will keep using them to smash world records.

        Personally, I think any objection to the basic premise is just to be contrary … or it could be some sort of flat-earth thing.

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  4. John DiFool says:

    Ryno declined partly because he took a year and a half off due to personal issues. Not surprising that he would struggle trying to regain his form in the middle of what would have been his down years anyway.

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    • Jack Nugent says:

      Very good point, IMO. Can’t just ignore his semi-retirement.

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      • Salt-n-Pepitone Loc says:

        Yeah but you can ignore the article apparently.

        “He’s another example of a second baseman declining early, but it wasn’t injuries that took him out, but fluctuating desire on whether to keep playing. His semi-retirement after the 1994 season makes his latter years a mediocre comparison, as we don’t know how he would have performed had he not pulled a Brett Favre.”

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  5. Bill says:

    Dave, while Utley’s 2007 injury was caused by HBP, considering the fact that he is usually at or near the top of HBP/season, is it wise to automatically discount such an injury? It would seem getting hit as much as Utley does is bound to cause injury sometimes (not sure if anyone has done anything on HBP’s and DL time or something similar…).

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    • Dave Cameron says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      This is something that is fixable, though. If Utley continues to sustain injuries via HBP, he can stop crowding the plate to the same degree. That’s less true of something like a weak hamstring that keeps giving out, where you don’t have much control over that kind of thing recurring.

      Now, perhaps a non-crowding Utley would be less effective at the plate, so we do have to account for that, you’re right. But I think you’re better off betting on that kind of adjustment than you are betting on a guy who has a bunch of nagging injuries.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        CAN and WILL are two completely different things. Bagwell had similar issues, particularly with his hands.

        Utley has a very short and incredibly compact, yet powerful, swing. Really, I can’t think of another player who had the same type of swing, yet drove the ball as well. I don’t think his swing would suit being furth4er off the plate. Not sure his swing distance and arm length could manage it.

        He likely needs to be close to the plate in order to protect middle out. Anything inside, he either takes it or literally “takes it”. He’s the polar opposite of Darryl Strawberry.

        Once you figure in personality type, there’s no way in Hellville that he’s backing off the plate.

        My concern would be the willingness to hide injuries and play through them. So rather than taking a few days off early, it’s weeks off later.

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        I don’t know. Watching Utley fairly often, his crowding the plate definitely plays a significant part of his strategy. He seems to thrive on turning on the inside pitch, and anything too far inside will hit him. Anything away he can take to the opposite field. This gives pitchers very little room for error.

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  6. Gen3blue says:

    What does hi blood pressure have to do with it?

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  7. Albert says:

    Man, Brian Roberts has been written off already? He lost a season to injury! He’s one year away from an .807 OPS and leading the league in doubles! Harsh.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I noticed that when looking at his 2011 projections. Almost everyone has him down, significantly, on everything.

      I wonder if his position, 2B, and what David is writing about have something to do with it? Or if it is just the weighted yearly average factoring in the lost season?

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      • Brad Johnson says:
        FanGraphs Supporting Member

        From a purely subjective stand point, the information regarding his back problems is extremely negative. It reminds me a little of David Bell (though Roberts is a far superior player). The back is already acting up in camp and I’m personally not expecting many more seasons with 100 games let alone full time reps.

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      • Tito Landrum says:

        Roberts back is not acting up again. He’s had a stiff neck, completely unrelated to his back. Roberts looks to be completely healthy. We’ll see. It’s way to soon to write him off.

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  8. mister_rob says:

    Sandberg’s decline was not due to injuries
    He retired halfway through his age 34 season and stayed retired for his age 35 season due to problems at home
    He then tried to come back at age 36 after sitting out almost 2 years

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  9. Steve says:

    So uh, does this mean the Braves are screwed w.r.t. Uggla?

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  10. TK says:

    Maybe I’m missing your point, but Utley does fit the pattern of other 2B who were moved there as prospects, since he came up as a 3B. So he presumably did have that flaw in his abilities that you ruled out in his case, or at least was perceived to. Am I missing something?

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  11. Dan in Philly says:

    Guys, I know the thumb wasn’t a predictable injury, and likely doesn’t predict anything, and so on and so forth, but has is occured to you that when you get older, your body has a harder time healing, and is more likely to sustain an injury from trauma, than when you were 20?

    I’m currently in better shape than I was at 30, but I’m 40 now and let me tell you when I bang my hand it hurts longer than it used to, and it seems as if things i used to “shake off” linger more now. The plural of annecdote is not data, but still it seems foolish to dismiss Utley’s increasing injuries on simple luck. IMHO, it’s simple luck to stay healthy after 30, and as the body starts to decline you have to be luckier and luckier to prevent those bumps and bruises from lingering and sidelining you longer and longer.

    As an aside, I’ve always maintained that the major advantage of steriods was not really getting stronger which may or may not allow you to hit a ball farther (which has not been proven), but the PROVEN fact that steriods allow your body to recover from workouts and injury faster, which minimizes injuries.

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  12. Dan Beachler says:

    “Often the problem is a lack of arm strength, but you also see guys with below average range at short getting moved to second base where their defensive issues won’t be so exposed. ”

    Another way to test a potential “selection bias”:
    Run a regression model to see whether UZR in late 20s/early 30s predicts future performance for second basemen, adjusting for other factors.

    Lets say there are two types of second basemen . Type 1 are guys that are relatively poor defenders who were moved there so they wouldn’t be as exposed – they would likely have poor UZRs (or range or some other defensive measurement). Type 2 are ones like Utley who are more natural second baseman who have always been at second and have a good UZR/range. If your hypothesis is true then the Type 2 second basemen should be more likely to be productive in their mid 30s than the Type 1 guys.

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  13. Basil Ganglia says:

    I’m not sure Carew fits the discussion either. Carew essentially stopped playing second base after his age 29 season, and for his career Carew logged more innings at 1b than he did at 2b.

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  14. Matt says:

    With Utley’s bat, wouldn’t he still be very valuable at first base or left field if his injuries necessitated a move?

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    • cplayo says:

      Well first is out of the question for a while..

      He would still be valuable in LF, but their isn’t a replacement for him really anywhere in the organization now or in the immediate feature.

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    • fredsbank says:

      assuming he could stay a productive hitter despite hip, wrist, thumb, and knee injuries is a bit risky, wouldn’t you say?

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      • Matt says:

        I suppose so. But there are plenty of examples of extremely talented players who continued to be valuable with the bat despite reductions in role/playing time. Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, and Kent (near the end) come to mind. Even if in a few years he were reduced to playing 120-140 games per year, he could still put up valuable offensive numbers. I think with players as gifted as Utley you kind of have to throw out the book.

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  15. Kyle says:

    I don’t think his body is breaking down just yet.

    The broken hand resulted from a HBP from John Lannan in a game versus the Nationals, so it was kind of a freak accident. The torn thumb ligament was also sort of a freak accident. To me, at least, injuries like these don’t necessarily indicate a body’s breaking down.

    The hip injury, however, was a different story, and as a Phillies fan I miserably watched it derail his MVP-caliber 2008 season. But by now, that’s no longer an issue.

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  16. Matthias says:

    Dear Dave,
    I’m glad you took a second to consider conditional probabilities and expected outcomes. There’s reason to believe that the probability that a player at a given position ages well (especially second base) is different than that same probability GIVEN he’s been a stud vs. an average player.

    Also, how much do we know about those types of injuries he has sustained? Are they lingering-type injuries, or flukes? You might have to condition on that, too….

    Thanks again!

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  17. Klatz says:

    I see some flaws in your analysis. If 2nd basemen are taking more of a beating than any other position besides catcher, you really don’t need to make a WAR cutoff, and just compare all 2nd basemen pre and post 32 years (using your age cutoff). Otherwise you’re artificially limiting your sample size.

    Also why not compare 2b to SS? If your hypothesis is true than SS should age better assuming they are better athletes to start with. And, depending on numbers you could take a look at all SS who had to transition to 2b. They should also do worse than pure SS.

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  18. The most instructive comp here is Biggio. That guy took his knocks, too, and often unwisely played through things that slowed him down for parts of seasons. He also had Utley’s penchant for getting the way of the ball.

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  19. Greg H says:

    I think the data would show that elite shortstops do not age any differently than their double-play counterparts. Perhaps the notion that second basemen are failed shortstops needs to be revisited. Perhaps a more reasonable conclusion is that middle infielders, due to the unique demands their positions require, do not age well, as opposed to the notion that 2B do not have as far to fall.

    Just a quick-and-dirty analysis reveals the following SS with multiple seasons of 7+ WAR in the last 50 years:

    A-Rod (6 times, and 2 additional times after moving to 3B)
    Ripken (4 times, none after age 31)
    Trammell (2 times, none after 29)
    Garciaparra (2 times, none after 27)
    Hanley Ramirez (2 times)
    Jeter (2 times)

    Unless I’m overlooking something, that’s the entire list; not any longer than the list of 2B Dave used in his essay.

    We aren’t sure how A-Rod would have aged had he stayed at SS instead of moving to the less demanding 3B. I believe his numbers would have been very similar. But his production has been in decline since he turned 32, and if that trend continues, as I suspect it will, he would fit the pattern shared by elite second basemen. Ripken and Trammell both saw rather steep declines in production after 30, especially Trammell.

    Ernie Banks had five seasons of 7+ WAR as a SS, his last time coming in 1960. He moved over to 1B after 1961 and was never as productive a player. Banks also showed a drastic dropoff in production after the age of 30 although he had stopped playing SS.

    Jeter seems like an outlier, as his two 7+ WAR seasons were ten years apart, the second one coming in 2009 when he was 35. Perhaps Jeter is the George Brett of shortstops, minus the injuries. The jury is still out on Hanley Ramirez since he is still in the prime of his career.

    Notable shortstops who never had 7 WAR seasons include Ozzie Smith and Barry Larkin. Smith aged very well and became a far more productive hitter after the age of 30 (the Warren Spahn of shortstops?), although his range declined as one would expect. Larkin, perhaps laregely due to injuries, did not age so well. Robin Yount could be included as a two-timer if his 6.9 WAR in 1983 is rounded up to 7. He moved to the outfield at the age of 30 after his range at SS and production at the plate had substantially declined.

    I’m not sure what, if anything, this proves. But I think there is a reasonable conclusion to draw that 2B and SS age similarly.

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  20. gradygradychase says:

    No problem.

    Chase is sooooooo underrated that a few accidents would never diminish his value completely.

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  21. wobatus says:

    I don’t know that I’ve heard much evidence that a player’s tendency to be injured is related to his physical talents. Eric Davis was one of the more physically gifted players of his era but injured all the time. Harmon Killebrew was a bit more of a sloth and didn’t last all that long, but for his era was normal, and he still was playing relatively full season at 36 (ok, he didn’t play 3rd by then, but in his prime he wasn’t injured at the rate Davis was). Sure, a real fat out of shape guy won’t be able to play 2b at 35, but most of the guys we are talking about here were not out of shape (maybe Baerga-I have a friend who claims Bobby Valentine told him baerga’s slide was indeed because he stopped juicing; apologies if that is hearsay twice removed from a perhaps unqualfied source and thus inadmissable). Alomar didn’t seem to lose skills due to injuries and seemed in relatively decent shape at the end, just not productive.

    For 2b, you do bring up where agility is relevant, in getting out of the way of an oncoming runner with your back turned. It still seems to me like 2b, like c, is a relatively more taxing position than others. This is something Bill james remarked upon in one of his early ’80s Abstracts. I’ll have to thumb through and see if I can find it. I don’t think he studied it, but gave a list and maybe was just passing on received wisdom. Unlike him though and if he said it he likely believed it.

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