With as good as Chase Utley has been these past five years, many people have been assuming that he can’t really get much better. After all, this is a player who did not break through to become a full-time starter until he was already 26 years old, and is currently playing in his age-30 season.
However, so far this season, Utley is proving everyone wrong with a breakout year, and is currently on pace to set new career highs in OBP, SLG, homers, walks, and RBI.
The primary reason has been Utley’s increased patience at the plate. Although Utley has always had high on-base percentages because of his high batting averages, this is a player who consistently walked only about 50-60 times a season.
This season however, is on pace to walk exactly 100 times, which at least in my book, is pretty much the magic number that can be most easily used to distinguish superstars from stars when it comes to hitting.
Indeed, looking at the numbers, Utley has become significantly more willing to work deeper into counts and wait for “his” pitch. His swings on balls outside the zone have dropped from a previously established career norm of about 22% down to 19%, and he is even swinging less at pitches inside the zone, waiting for one that he likes. Meanwhile, his contact rates, which have always been astonishingly high, have remained right at career levels.
What makes this all even more notable is how consistent Utley’s numbers have been in the past. Utley’s swing and contact rates have been pretty much like clockwork until this season, so while it’s still within the realm of possibility that this is just some sort of fluke, it may also very well be a real change in approach. Moreover, increased patience at the plate is known as an “old player skill” and is therefore one of the few improvements that may be more likely to be made at age 30 than at age 25.
Assuming that Utley’s increased patience is a permanent improvement and that he remains in good health, there’s no reason why he can’t consistently put up totals of 100 walks, 40 homers, 120+ RBI, and 1.000 OPS’s over the next few seasons. In other words, Albert Pujols/A-Rod in his prime type, annual MVP contender type numbers.