Tuesday, April 19, 2005
This is a lesson Ed Wade, Charlie Manuel and the rest of the Phillies brass evidentially never learned when they were growing up. Otherwise, I can't explain or justify their decision to demote Chase Utley to a platoon with Placido Polanco at second base.
Let's start at the begining: the Phillies have been grooming Chase Utley to play second base for them for some time now. Utley, who played sparringly in 2003 and 2004 thanks to injuries to incumbent 2B Placido Polanco, was essentially given the job of being the Phillies second baseman in the 2004-2005 offseason. The team assumed Polanco would leave as a free agency and offered arbitration, expecting to get draft picks as compensation when Polanco signed with the Cardinals or some other team. To everyone's surprise Polanco re-signed with the team and expressed displeasure at being the Phillies 5th infielder during preseason. To split the difference the team has gone with a platoon at second base, playing Utley and Polanco. The compromise satisfies neither player, both of whom want to play every day.
The conventional wisdom on Polanco & Utley is that are basically different players: Polanco the two-hole hitter, solid on defense, but with a light bat. Utley is more like a junior slugger, decent defensively, but his strength is in hitting home runs rather than fielding or getting on base. Conventional wisdom is wrong: Utley is a strong fielder (according to Dave Pinto's Probalistic Model of Range, PMR, and last year's Zone Rating numbers), and Polanco has some bite in his bat (17 home runs in 2004).
While both players are good and help the Phillies when they are on the field, the Phillies need to junk the platoon and acknowledge what we all know: Chase Utley is the Phillies second baseman now and in the future.
Defensively I think there is a good argument to be made that Utley is better than Polanco: he had a better Zone Rating (.864 v. .816) than Polanco and PMR ranked him first amongst all second basemen. Anecdotally, we all saw his spectacular catch against the Braves saturday. Utley is younger and hasn't had the nagging injuries which have hampered Polanco.
At the plate he is a more explosive bat: last year he had a much higher ISO (.143 to .202) than Polanco. While he isn't the OBP guy Polanco is (.308 OBP to .345 for Polanco in '04), this is a skill Utley needs to develop and playing him sparringly isn't helping: when Chase is at the plate he probably feels a need to make the most of his AB's and put the ball into play, rather than being patient and letting the game come to him. So far this season Utley hasn't walked in 22 plate appearances. (Polanco has 4 in 29.)
The Phillies need to augment their sluggers right now. Thome is off to a slow start. Abreu is hitting o.k. Burrell is on fire, but he can't continue to carry the team. Whether the blame lay with tough pitching or bat hitting, I note that the Phillies have the 15th best slugging percentage in the NL right now. Fifteenth! Through 12 games the Phillies have hit 8 home runs, and half of those were courtesy of Pat Burrell. The Phillies need some ommph in their lineup and soon.
Speaking of the lineup, another flaw with the platoon is the Phillies shifting lineup. When Polanco is in the Phillies bat him second and Kenny Lofton sixth or seventh. When Utley is in he hits sixth and Lofton hits second. I'm not a big fan of fiddling with lineups: too much change tends to frustrate the players from getting comfortable in their roles.
If the Phillies want to play Placido Polanco, then my suggestion is to sit David Bell for a while. Bell, simply put, is awful this year: .174 BA, .255 OBP, .196 slugging percentage. Bell's .023 ISO is laughably low, a product of one extrabase hit (a double) in 47 plate appearances. He's not getting on base, he isn't hitting for power. The Phillies would be better off sitting Bell and using Polanco at the hot corner.
So free Chase Utley!
What the stats mean:
ISO (Isolated Power): .SLG - .BA = .ISO. Measures a player’s raw power by subtracting singles from their slugging percentage.
OBP (On-Base Percentage): How often a player gets on base. (H + BB + HBP) / (Plate Appearances)
ZR (Zone Rating): Is a stat which measures a player’s defensive ability by measuring plays they should have made. Admittedly, this is a stat left open to subjective opinions.
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