Lingering questions regarding the sharp second-half decline that capped Chase Utley's sixth all-star season were tempered in spring training. Despite easing into camp because of a swollen right ankle, the 36-year-old second baseman left Clearwater swinging, by far, the hottest bat on the Phillies.
But the first 30 games of the season have sharply accentuated the doubts that arose after last May, when Utley followed a torrid first month and a half with a .244 average from June through September. His mighty 2015 struggles reached a nadir this past week, when manager Ryne Sandberg sat him for the final two games of a 10-game road trip for a "mental break."
While Utley has seen an abnormally high rate of balls in play result in outs, the early-season advanced metrics help explain some of the other factors in his major-league-worst .099 average through Friday.
According to FanGraphs.com, Utley's percentage of line drives on balls in play is considerably down - from 24.6 percent last season to 15.4 percent through Friday. And his percentage of ground balls is much higher - from 39.3 percent to 47.4 percent.
Last season, 30.4 percent of balls in play off Utley's bat were considered hard hit, according to Baseball Info Solutions. His career average is 35.2 percent. His 2015 clip through Friday was a mere 15.2 percent.
Pitch selection has been a problem. Utley is swinging at 29.3 percent of pitches he's seen outside of the strike zone (about 2 percent more than he did last year) and at 55.5 percent of pitches in the zone (about 6 percent less than last year), according to Baseball Info Solutions. However, his contact percentage (how often he makes contact when he swings) is up 0.9 percent from 2014. He's seeing fewer pitches in the strike zone; in a Phillies lineup scoring the fewest runs in the majors, Utley is still the player pitchers don't want to let beat them.
"He's hitting the ball hard right at people," said Phillies hitting coach Steve Henderson, echoing sentiments voiced by manager Ryne Sandberg and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. "Anybody that has been watching the games, you have to notice that. He hasn't had any breaks. He's been hitting the ball hard right at people. That's it. It's simple."
Although not to the extent the Phillies have leaned on the theory, there is merit to the argument that Utley has experienced some bad luck. Look no further than his major-league-worst .079 batting average on balls in play. The major-league BABIP average is .294.
But even Utley, who has not spoken to reporters since his lineup absence began Tuesday, said after the April 30 series finale in St. Louis: "I don't think I've swung the bat as poorly as my numbers show, but by no means have I swung the bat to the best of my capabilities."
Following the off day Thursday, Utley was back in the lineup Friday night for the series opener against Mets star righthander Matt Harvey, against whom Utley hit one of his three 2015 home runs. He went 0 for 4 with a strikeout.
"They're going to start falling in," Henderson said during the series in Atlanta. "It's tough. I'm watching it day in and day out, and he's hitting balls hard at people. You can't do anything different. What else could you do different?"
Sandberg spoke in spring training about giving Utley more days off this season. Before Tuesday, the first day of his three-day break, Utley had started 23 of 27 games.
Regardless of whether Utley breaks out of his prolonged slump, the Phillies might benefit from giving him two or three games off per week. Cesar Hernandez has earned more playing time after an impressive road trip during which he walked seven times in 21 plate appearances. The 24-year-old entered the weekend with a team-leading 10 walks in just 54 plate appearances. His nine hits gave him as many as Utley in half the at-bats.
Utley very well may swing his way out of this woeful start and finish the season with respectable numbers. His extremely low rate of balls in play falling for hits certainly will not persist throughout the 162-game season. But it's the other stats that should be more disconcerting for the Phillies.