Buy or Sell: Chase Utley

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Simply speaking, Chase Utley has been one of the best hitters in baseball so far in 2014. The Philadelphia Phillies veteran second baseman has discovered the fountain of youth and he’s looked more like the top-second-baseman-in-fantasy-baseball-Utley from 2005-2009 and not like the broken-down-declining-Utley from the past few seasons. Utley is currently on pace to finish the season with a .333 batting average to go with 13 home runs, 93 runs, 83 RBI and four steals.

Is he capable of reaching those numbers? Or is now the time to sell high?

This might sound confusing for a minute — trust me, by the end you’ll understand — but I am buying what I’ve seen from Utley so far this season and I’d try to sell high.

First I’m going to break down why I’m believing in Utley and then I’ll get to why I’d sell high anyways.

Reasons I’m a Chase Utley Believer

1). He’s hitting left-handed pitching.

Charlie Manuel used to get beat up all the time for refusing to separate Utley and Ryan Howard in the Phillies lineup because they’re both left-handed and the assumption was that late in games teams could bring in a left-handed reliever to shut down the heart of the Phillies lineup. What those critics failed to realize though was that Utley was actually quite good against left-handed pitching, for most of Manuel’s tenure.

From 2006-2010 Utley hit .295 against left-handed pitchers with a .222 ISO; from 2011-2013 though, he hit just .219 against lefties with a .153 ISO. Utley isn’t hitting lefties like he was during that five year stretch of brilliance but he is hitting them much better than he has the past few seasons, so far in 2014 Utley has a .277 average against left-handed pitching to go with a .200 ISO.

2). He’s making some of the best contact of his career.

When Utley’s at his best he’s usually doing two things: hitting line drives and pulling the baseball.

From 2005-2010 (what I would call his prime), 24.4 percent of the balls that Utley hit to the right side of the field (his pull side) were line drives and his batting average on balls hit to right field was .408 over those six seasons. From 2011-2013 just 18.2 percent of the balls he pulled were line drives and as a result his batting average on balls hit to right field dropped down to .326.

This season, 27.1 percent of the balls Utley has pulled have been line drives and his average on balls hit to right field has shot back up to .414. Utley’s overall line drive rate this season is 24.1 percent (second highest of his career); he owns a career .745 batting average on line drives so at this rate he’s in line to have a very successful 2014.

3) When you look at his overall profile there really isn’t a whole lot to suggest that his early season success is a mirage.

  • He’s walking less than he has throughout his career but he’s striking out less too.
  • His general contact rates are all at, or right around, his career averages (he’s chasing a few more pitches than he typically has throughout his career but he still has a very good chase rate and he’s also making more contact outside the strike-zone than he has throughout his career too).
  • He’s hitting line drives at the second highest rate of his career (career high is 24.3 percent back in 2008).
  • His .401 wOBA is the highest it’s been since 2007 (and currently the 12th best in MLB) and his .213 ISO is the highest it’s been since 2009.
  • His 6.9 percent HR/FB rate is 5.5 percent below his career average and 3.1 percent below the current league average. HR/FB rate is something that typically normalizes so if anything, we should expect a power uptick from Utley over the rest of the season.
  • Yes, his .370 BABIP is unsustainable. That being said though: he has an above-average career BABIP of .308, he has two seasons under his belt in which he finished with a BABIP of .343 or higher (he had a .362 BABIP in 2007), and if he continues to hit line-drive after line-drive there’s a strong chance he finishes with a BABIP well over league-average (23 out of the top 30 guys in terms of line-drive rate currently have an above-average BABIP and 16 of them have a BABIP at least .30 points higher than league average). I don’t think he finishes the season with a BABIP in the .360s but it wouldn’t shock me if he finishes 2014 with the third highest BABIP of his career (between .315-.343).

I think what we’ve seen from Utley so far is legit and moving forward he’s easily a top-ten second baseman.

Why I’m Selling Chase Utley

There are two reasons why I’d be looking to sell the Phillies second baseman.

1). I always believe that the best time to sell a player is when their value is at it’s highest; I’m not sure if Utley’s value is ever going to be as high as it is now (barring a crazy, unforeseen power outburst and if that happens you should definitely sell).

2). He’s always going to be an injury risk. Utley looks phenomenal at the moment, easily the best he’s looked in years. That being said, he’s 35 years old and from 2010-2013 he averaged just 108 games played. I have no doubt Utley is dialed in at the plate, if he gets hurt though it won’t matter how hot his bat is.

Now, I’m not suggesting you go out there and look to take even 90 cents on the dollar for Utley. But if you get the chance to fill some needs on your team by trading the veteran I suggest you pounce all over that opportunity.

I’m a believer in what we’ve seen from Chase Utley at the plate in 2014, my only question is if he can remain healthy. Unfortunately, I don’t even think Chase Utley himself would be capable of answering that question.