Chase Utley’s Not Dead Yet

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The Los Angeles Dodgers recently re-signed Chase Utley, giving the soon-to-be 37-year-old  a one-year, $7 million deal to serve as an infield insurance if (when) Howie Kendrick departs via free agency, youngsters Enrique Hernandez and Jose Peraza prove in need of more seasoning, or Justin Turner takes an extended period of time to recover from offseason knee surgery. At first blush, Utley — who led all second baseman in Wins Above Replacement (61) from 2005-14 and and ranks 14th all-time in WAR among keystone players — looks like he’s on his last legs. But, once he recovered from an ankle injury that hampered him during the first half of the 2015 season and regained his base, Utley looked like a productive big league hitter, if not his old All-Star self.

Utley was a wreck at the plate before the Midsummer Classic last season, posting a .174/.253/.271 triple-slash in 249 plate appearances. His .524 OPS was second-worst among all hitters getting at least 200 first-half, PA, besting only Seattle Mariners (and soon to be Tacoma Rainers) catcher Mike Zunino. After a DL stint to heal his ailing right ankle in late June, however, Utley slashed .258/.328/.439 in 174 PA. His .766 OPS ranked in the top eight among second baseman.

A large part of Utley’s offensive resuscitation can be traced to better luck, as his batting average on balls in play increased by more than 100 points between the first half (.181) and second half (.298). But part of the reason that more balls fell in the second half is that the potential future Hall of Famer started putting more force behind his hits

Before his DL stint, he hit fly balls an average of 258 feet — about five feet fewer than the MLB average and a far cry from Utley’s 272 foot mark over the previous three seasons. His Well-Hit Average, or rate of hard-hit balls divided by all pitches put in play, was .207 (.226 average from 2012-14). With two functional ankles during the second half, Utley’s fly ball average increased to 274 feet and his Well-Hit Average spiked to .274. Utley’s second-half Well-Hit Average was 20th-highest among MLB hitters, just ahead of Bryce Harper.

Given Utley’s age and injury history, it’s possible that some other ailment makes him look like the Punch and Judy hitter on display during the first half of 2015. But for a modest dollar figure, the Dodgers retained a guy who figures to be a better hitter in 2016 (a .694 projected OPS, according to Steamer) than Hernandez (.682) or Peraza (.643), if not Kendrick (.753). Utley might be in the twilight of his career, but let’s not write his obit just yet.