Saturday, July 19, 2014

Chase Utley as a Non-Phillie

Now don't get too dramatic here, this isn't about the possibility of Chase Utley getting traded away from the Phillies in the coming weeks.  Not to say that I'm not considering it, but that's something that I'm not quite mentally prepared for, so I will not cross that bridge until we come to it.

No, this post is more of a hypothetical spawned from a frequently occurring but rarely acted upon thought that I have had during Utley's career in Philly.  I'm not alone in thinking to myself, "Man, he sure does hit a lot of home runs into short right / right-center field," and I've heard it referred to as "Utley's Corner" at times.  What isn't really discussed as much is how well-suited that stroke is to the ballpark that Utley plays half his games in, Citizens Bank Park.  That scoreboard wall that extends from the right field foul pole nearly to center field is awfully easy to get to at times, and Utley certainly knows how to make that happen.  That and the fact that he almost exclusively pulls the ball when he gets a good piece of one.

Here's a cursory Photoshop effort in overlaying images of his home runs since 2006 (they weren't all at Citizens Bank Park, but I threw on the dimensions just to give an idea):

All images and data come from the ESPN Home Run Tracker, which doesn't have data before '06, so that's not ideal, but the rest is pretty useful.

Anyway, that's an awful lot of homers to right.  In fact, if you use the horizontal angle measurements (pictured in the image but also stored in a table), if 90 degrees is dead center, Utley has hit 117 of his 182 homers since '06 (64%) at angles up to 78 degrees, which is about where that scoreboard wall ends in right-center.  By comparison, another lefty that's hit a few homers for the Phils, Ryan Howard, has hit just 75 of his 302 homers since '06 (25%) within that range.

But I don't really care much about the direction, so much as the distance.  If the right field wall at CBP is so shallow, don't you wonder how well Utley would do in a less friendly hitting environment?  I suspected that he has received quite the boost from his home park, so I did some digging.

What would Utley's power output look like on another team?  Well, let's not pick any specific stadium. I'll set the bar evenly -- if the ball would have gone out of at least half the parks in the league on an average weather day (yes, I have that stat), then we'll call it a "legit homer" (young people speak).  We'll compare Utley's home run production home and away, and within range of that right field wall at CBP or not.

Legit Total Percent
CBP 77 104 74
Others 65 78 83
CBP, < 78 degrees 48 66 73
Other, < 78 degrees 44 51 86

Here's what I'm seeing from this table:

  1. Utley hits more balls out of the park at home than away.  Not news.
  2. Regardless of which direction the ball is hit, Utley hits about 10% more "legit" homers at home than on the road.  This is accentuated when the ball is hit to right field (13% more "legit" homers).
  3. Stated differently, about 1 of every 4 home runs Utley has hit at Citizens Bank Park wouldn't be a home run in half the other stadiums in the league.
So, for completeness, I sought to determine if that "1 of every 4" is unique to Utley.  While it's not a perfect comparison because of the strength of the two players, Ryan Howard actually has very similar percentages of "legit" homers at home.  Counter to my expectations, the difference between the two is on the road, where Howard's homers are more often "legit" than Utley's.  And Howard has more power to all fields, so there isn't any "Howard Corner" to speak of.

Well, that's kind of a downer from the perspective of "the point" of my post.  It seems like Citizens Bank Park is bolstering power across the board to the tune of basically adding to its inhabitants' home run output by 1/3, not just Chase Utley.  I will point out that the shallow right field fence does bring about more homers than an average stadium would allow (4% more for Utley, 6% more for Howard), but it's not like Utley's exploiting this nuance more than other players because of his pull-heavy stroke.

While this didn't exactly work out as hoped (and you can tell I didn't plan ahead, I just did the analysis while I wrote this), it is interesting to think about how Utley's career credentials would look if he had a few fewer home runs (and a few more long outs) each season by virtue of playing in a different park.  Now that his career is coming close to ending, there is some discussion about his Hall of Fame credentials, and I wonder if his hitting environment will be brought up as part of the conversation 7 or so years from now.

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