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Chase Utley’s Last Stand?

Before the season began and we were doing our Depth Chart Discussion series, I drew the Phillies infield as one of my assignments and had a chance to take a closer look at second baseman Chase Utley. I’ll admit that, in preparation, there was, and probably still is, a bit of fanboy inside me with regard to him as I was a proud owner in my primary keeper league from 2005 through 2009. However, for the sake of trying to be a reliable source of fantasy information, I had to face the harsh reality that those days were long gone and the man playing second base for the Phitin’ Phils right now may wear the same jersey and have the same slicked back hair, but he was not the same player he was during that five-year stretch. My concerns were high and my expectations were low, but after three straight years of decline and injury, Utley surprised us all with a season reminiscent of the good ol’ days. He hit for power, he hit for average and he stayed relatively healthy. Now the questions is, is he still capable of doing it again or did we just witness Utley’s last stand?

Let’s just recap some of the numbers that had those who bargain-shopped for Utley dancing over the fantasy grave so many of us had already dug for him. While he failed to hit more than 20 home runs for the fourth consecutive year, he posted his best ISO (.191) since 2009. His 18 home runs had him tied for fourth amongst second basemen and he ranked just inside the top 10 in both runs scored and RBI. He was also in the top 10 for batting average (.284) and OBP (.348) while also ranking third in slugging percentage (.475). Considering what he cost fantasy owners on draft day, this was one heck of a return, despite missing 31 games.

On the surface, one might surmise that his numbers still fall in line with those fruitful days of old. His stats look fairly comparable to his 2007 season where he played a similar number of games. But while the ISO in 2013 is significantly lower we can also see, as we look closer into some of his plate discipline numbers, that there’s probably more evidence of this being, not so much a fluke year in a sea of injury-riddled seasons, but more of a last gasp for an aging superstar; that one final surge where everything looks great before ultimately going into the tank for good.

What seems to stand out most for me here is the increased swing percentage driven mostly by an increase in swings outside the zone. He was making less contact, striking out more and, worst of all, saw a major spike in his swinging-strike rate to seven-percent, the highest it’s been since 2006. Now obviously his swinging-strike rate is still below league average, but for Utley, it’s a pretty significant jump. His bat speed isn’t what it once was and for the first time, it really looked like he was having trouble seeing the ball at times.

How Utley opens the 2014 season should be more telling of what’s left to come. A hot start would certainly dispel some of my thoughts that his time has come and gone. But is that really a risk you’re going to want to take when drafting next season? Some may inflate his his price next season based on the surge in power, but for the most part, his price tag shouldn’t change all that much from where it was in 2013. But even if you consider that a bargain rate, are you going to be so willing to accept the risks that come with him? It’s hard to imagine that you would set out to do something like that. Perhaps maybe if you missed out on your first few choices at the position and he fell into your lap at an uber-baragin price, but he just doesn’t seem to be a player you seek out anymore.