September 19, 2018

The Chase-inator and his Double-edged Sword

July 1, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

When Hanley Ramirez limped jogged casually strolled after a baseball that he had Pele’d down the left field line on May 17th, my first reaction was to cover the eyes of my two kids, who are young ballplayers. I didn’t want them to think that what Ramirez did was even possible. Saying that he dogged that play is an insult to our dog Scrufty, who chases every worn tennis ball like it’s his last.

Hanley Ramirez

Ramirez eventually manned up and sent apologies around the Florida Marlin’s clubhouse. He even told his teammates he would never do it again.

Nine days later, Hanley did it again. Unless I’m being fooled by some trick of cinematography that makes objects appear to run slower than they appear, my take on this play (go 20 seconds into the video) is that Hanley the baserunner was more worried about over-taxing his deodorant than getting his team an extra base on an errant throw. I don’t watch all of the Marlin games, but from these plays I can’t help but conclude that Hanley Ramirez is missing a few links of the hustle gene in his DNA.

Baseball players can be misunderstood because the signs of hustle aren’t universal. One man’s crazed dash with arms flailin’ and spit flyin’ is another man’s quiet but effective sprint. Ichiro Suzuki—who reminds me of Rod Carew from over 30 years ago—is so smooth rounding the bases that it seems he barely breaks a sweat racing from home to third base, yet gets there in less time than it takes to mark that triple down in the scorebook.

The lay out dive works for some players while fast footwork is just fine for others. Mike Schmidt’s Cobra-quick hands and all-around athleticism usually trumped any need for him to dirty his uniform as he vacuumed rockets at the hot corner that would have left most other third basemen waving their glove in surrender.

Baseball players also play injured, which—I guess—sometimes works as a convenient excuse for not going all out under certain circumstances. I had the perfect vantage point from the left-field stands at a Phillies game earlier this year to see Jimmy Rollins decelerate well short of first base on a popup that had yet to descend into a glove. While Pirate shortstop Ronny Cedeno was navigating wet conditions on his way into the outfield in the 8th inning of the 2-1 ballgame, it was disappointing to see Jimmy shuffle step and give the first base bag a love tap just as the out was made. My immediate reaction was “didn’t Charlie Manuel bench him for doing the same thing two years ago?” Four days later, Rollins re-injured that dreaded calf of his and was back on the DL for a second time this season. On one hand, I thought maybe it made sense for him to ease up on a “99%-it’s-an-out” popup if he was still on the slippery slope health-wise. On the other hand, it just looks bad. J-Roll’s game is speed, and if he can’t play at full-bore…

George Brett

Not that there were any misinterpretations for Hanley’s kick-and-jog. Even his (then-)manager Fredi Gonzalez isn’t that gullible—he pulled Ramirez from the game the very next inning. But watching a player abuse the privilege of playing baseball for a living gives me a greater appreciation of those willing to eat dirt to benefit the team. I always thought it was extra cool to see the great ones tear around the bases turning doubles into triples, like Pete Rose, George Brett, and Kirby Puckett. Talk about good role modeling. It was sort of like seeing the popular kid in school saying no to a smoke or a Michelob. (“Hustling is cool!”) Those guys were already so good they would’ve become very successful—and very rich—whether they ran their motors at 120% or 85%. But they pinned it anyway because that’s how they always played the game.

Which brings us to Chase Utley, today’s premier hustler, who goes airborne more often than an airline pilot. With Chase, you get the feeling he’s been treating his body like a stunt double since he was ten years old leaping for Wiffle balls in his backyard.

Chase Utley in his usual horizontal position

But going “all in” while diving for a baseball or a bag is a true sacrifice that comes with great risk—and possibly a separated shoulder, jammed wrist, or at the very least some ripped skin. In a typical Utley effort this past Monday, he used a head-first slide to try to take an extra base that wasn’t his. The cost was a sprained ligament in his right thumb, a trip to the DL, and a very sketchy rest of 2010 for the Phillies.

For the time being, the Phillies season has been struck down by the double-edged sword of Utley’s hustle. As fans, we’ve questioned the lack of effort from Hanley Ramirez and other players from time to time…here is an opportunity to challenge the opposing view. Utley was called out as the leadoff hitter in the 4th inning of a 0-0 game. Maybe he snuck his hand underneath the swiping glove of Brandon Phillips and the ump blew the call; but you could also argue that he never should have put that call in the umpire’s hands at that moment of the game.

But really, the fate of Utley’s dash to second base Monday night was simply a roll of snake eyes in a game Chase Utley knows only one way to play. “I don’t understand how not to play hard,” Utley said a few years ago. “It’s not a concept I get. By hustling, you make a lot of things happen.”

Utley had already gone through some tough times this season before that damaging 8-4 putout. His mysteriously shrinking batting average was a major reason for the Phillies’ “Great Scoring Drought of 2010.” Since Utley shields his aches and pains like an international spy would his identity, the “what’s wrong with Chase Utley” debates kicked up a storm of theories and conflicting opinions, even among the team’s coaching staff and front office. Maybe he was hurting. Maybe not. But Utley has bounced back from his share of 2-for-29s and 6-for-50s in his career—and he was on his way back this time, having just raised his batting average 20 points in ten games before jamming his thumb into the dirt infield at Cincinnati.

Baseball's Dirtiest Player

It remains to be seen how long it will be before Utley can resume his 2010 resurrection. Unfortunately, this Phillies crew sans Utley is like a cheese steak without the cheese—and maybe a season without a World Series appearance. He’s that good. Here are some reminders why Chase Utley is still the man.

Historical Offense

For the past few seasons, the game’s top offensive second basemen were divided into two camps: Chase Utley and everyone else (although Robinson Cano is threatening a reorganization). With 172 career home runs and career averages of .294/.380/.518 (AVE/OBP/SLG), Utley is a good bet to join Rogers Hornsby (301 HRs/.358/.434/.577) and Jeff Kent (377 HRs/.290/.356/.500) as the greatest slugging second basemen ever, with no one else even close to their muscular productivity.

Baserunning Wizard

There might be at least 100 major leaguers who could beat Chase Utley in a 90-foot dash. But when it comes to smarts on the base paths, few can wear his spikes. According to the online world of Bill James, Utley’s overall baserunning efficiency ranked second in all of baseball last season, sandwiched between speed merchants Michael Bourn at #1 (NL leader with 61 steals in 2009) and Jacoby Ellsbury at #3 (AL leader with 70 steals in 2009).

Call it instincts, prescience, whatever. My only explanation is that when Chase takes his lead off first or second, his brain catalogs a snapshot of the fielders and their locations like a cyborg surveying its field of view. Before a hit baseball even reaches the outfield, the Chase-inator has already projected the ball’s flight and calculated its destination. If his projection says the ball will hit turf, he’s off in a panic and in third gear in a moment of time when other speedsters might still be craning their neck trying to make sure the ball lands safely before turning on their own jets. This is how Utley grabs bases others don’t.

Ultimate Defender

As ESPN’s Chris Berman might say, “Oh, by the way, his glove ain’t too shabby either.”

For most of baseball history, reputations of fielding mastery have always been vulnerable to cloudy recollections and undeserved labels that stuck because of part laziness and part oversight, mainly because defense in baseball has traditionally been statistically challenged. Today, we’ve got the highly respected Ultimate Zone Rating (“UZR”) as our measure of choice, thanks to creator Mitchel Lichtman, co-author of “The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball.” (If you are unfamiliar with this complicated defensive metric, think of it as the opposite of the Gold Glove awards in terms of adding insight to valuing defensive performance.) The UZR numbers tallied at Fangraphs tell us that Chase Utley has been the #1 or #2-ranked defensive second basemen in all of baseball for every year he’s been a starter, except 2006 when he placed 5th. So far in 2010, he’s #1 again.

And we know he brings that glove to the big stage, a la Brooks Robinson. Here are two video clips of the smartest plays ever pulled off by a second baseman in World Series history.

Utley tricks Bartlett in 2008 World Series

Utley rolls two the hard way in 2008 World Series

Plate Manners

This is just a smidgeon of what makes Utley special, but I consider it an important intangible to his ballplayer makeup.

When a batter is unhappy with an umpire’s call, he’s got to be careful of his body language or else his strike zone might stretch even wider. With Chase at the plate, you need a psychology degree—or watch at least two episodes of the show “Lie to Me”—to figure out his reaction. Stoic? Some have used the word statuesque to describe his expressions.

After watching many of Utley’s at bats over the years, here’s what I’ve got: If he doesn’t agree with the call but it’s one he can live with it, he’ll either scratch his jaw, pick at something from the corner of his eye, or re-orient his dip/chew/gum. If the ump really blew it, he’ll look down and excavate the batter’s box like he’s mining for some beach change. On rare occasions, he might even tilt his head toward the ump—without actually facing him—to check why the strike was called. He just won’t ever look at or bark at the ump. You’ve gotta respect a player who refuses to point fingers or make excuses.

Flawed Diamond

Utley may have been the #1 pick for the Phillies in the 2000 amateur draft, but he wasn’t exactly ushered to the majors on an Egyptian carrying chair while being fed plump and juicy grapes.

The so-called “king of UZR” was more like the king of the E-4 not too long ago. The Phillies once tried him at third base during a minor league adventure called “The Utley Experiment” because of the boatload of errors he was making at second. During his very first season in the majors, an anonymous scout told The Sporting News, “Chase Utley is not a second baseman. He doesn’t have the agility to play that position. I don’t know where he’s going to play, honestly.”

Utley hit a grand slam in just his third major league at bat, but that didn’t stop a local Philly paper from summing up Utley’s first season as a 24-year-old by referring to him as an “American League, bottom-of-the-lineup hitter.”

Utley didn’t become a starter until he was 26 years old, and that was only after the Phillies finally eliminated the “Chase Utley or Placido Polanco” conundrum by trading Polanco. This is amazing considering that practically every other superstar in major league history “made it” by their early twenties.

As a prospect, Utley was projected to “max out” at just 15 to 20 homers a season. He’s now expected to slam at least 30 to 35 bombs as the #3 hitter in one of baseball’s most potent lineups, and no one would be surprised if he tripped 40 one year soon.

It sure took some polishing to get Utley’s game to shine brilliance.

Bargain Superstar

When Utley signed for a seven-year, $85 million contract extension before the 2007 season, it was obvious to most connoisseurs of baseball talent that he probably left tens of millions on the table. But by publicly announcing the deal the day after his wedding, Utley showed that he preferred stability—not just in his personal life but with his professional one with the soon-to-be world champion Phils. Maximizing his earning power was not on Utley’s list of priorities.

The Speech

Okay, so it was the R-rated expletive that made Utley’s speech at the Phillies championship parade such a popular video feed, right up there with the “Charlie bit me” kid. But that whoops moment resonated like an earthquake with so many Phillies fans who had grown weary of watching the baseball universe revolve around the chronicles of Yankee tradition, Sox Nation, and Dodgertown. The so-called “land of the boo” that is Philadelphia had reached the top of the baseball mountain once again, and it was fitting that the team’s scrappiest player punctuated their world title with a little South Philly sauce.

***

Utley’s style of play seems to fit the dirt-covered gamer type, like a Phil Garner, a Craig Counsell, or a David Eckstein. Except Chase isn’t about maximizing minimal skills like those other guys—he maximizes his maximal skills. The guy’s got some serious tools, as you would expect from a first rounder—Charlie Manuel thinks his hand speed ranks right there with that of Billy Williams and Wade Boggs, two players who made the Hall of Fame strictly for the damage they did with their bats. But it’s Utley’s desire and workmanship that fueled his rise from the depths of a flawed prospect to the gold standard for all second basemen.

Next time you hear someone talk about how the game “used to be played,” know that they are probably referring to a time before money and greed distorted the pure motivations for playing baseball…and that they are probably referring to a player like Chase Utley.

—John Cappello

To see more of John’s baseball research and postings, go to www.baseballengineer.com.

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