Chase Utley gets hit by a lot of pitches. Pretty much always been that way. Over his career, about 8% of the time Utley has reached base, he’s reached base on a hit-by-pitch. He led the league in hit-by-pitches for three consecutive years between 2007-2009. Utley ranks fourth among active players in career hit-by-pitches, and he ranks 21st all-time, sneaking up quickly on Brady Anderson and Fred Clarke. Since 2000, 676 different players have batted at least 1,000 times in the major leagues. The average player got hit in 0.9% of his plate appearances. Utley has gotten hit in 3% of his plate appearances, ranking near the very top of the list (albeit well below Carlos Quentin). Utley gets hit, and people have noticed.
Now, usually, people try to stay away from making direct accusations. There’s often the suspicion of an intentional hit-by-pitch, but it’s usually just alluded to, rather than stated outright. On the matter of Chase Utley maybe getting hit all the time on purpose, Charlie Manuel follows the pattern:
“They like to throw at our left-handed hitters,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “They throw at Utley and Ryan Howard. Anybody in the National League — if they’re going to send us a message, they go after those guys.”
Oh, right. Okay.
I don’t know why Manuel chose to include Ryan Howard. Howard’s career HBP rate is right about average. He’s never been hit more than nine times in a season. But Utley, as noted before, gets hit often, and Manuel seems to think a lot of that is due to message-sending. People have been hitting Utley on purpose, in other words, in order to, I don’t know, establish dominance. Intimidate.
This is something that can be examined, quickly or in depth. One notes that, as a minor leaguer in 2002, Utley was hit 20 times in 125 games in triple-A. That was his first exposure to triple-A, and he wasn’t yet a top prospect with much of a reputation. Utley demonstrated that he would get hit by pitches before there was a reason to believe he’d get hit by pitches on purpose, and, why might this be? Utley crowds the plate, see.
That’s just the way he bats. The way Utley stands in there, it makes him unusually prone to getting hit, because he’s closer to the strike zone than most other hitters. Which means the ball has to miss by less in order to make physical contact with Utley’s form. I’m not going to say Utley has never been hit by a purpose pitch, but I think odds are the majority of what we observe is due to Utley and not due to malicious pitchers. It works to Utley’s advantage, provided he doesn’t get hurt. Take away all the hit-by-pitches and Utley’s career OBP drops 19 points.
But for purposes of further examination, let’s go to the video. I’ll apologize now for all of the browsers I’m locking up with this onslaught of .gifs. Last season, after returning from injury, Utley was drilled by a dozen pitches in 83 games. Let’s look at those dozen pitches, and try to spot signs of whether or not they might have been intentional. Nothing here is conclusive — we can’t crawl into the pitchers’ heads, no matter how much we try — but, is anything really conclusive? Think about it.
vs. Tim Hudson
For one thing, it’s an 0-and-2 count. The catcher sets up inside, and then look at Hudson’s body language after Utley gets hit. Hudson isn’t pleased, and presumably Hudson isn’t acting. At the time, the game was close, and Hudson was just trying to lock Utley up with a running fastball on the inside edge. Conclusion: probably unintentional.
vs. Matt Cain
Two-strike breaking ball that gets Utley on the foot. If that’s a purpose pitch, that’s a stupid purpose pitch. That’s an attempted strikeout pitch. Conclusion: probably unintentional.
vs. Tim Hudson again
Another breaking ball that gets Utley in the foot. When trying to hit a batter intentionally, what pitcher ever opts for something offspeed? That isn’t how you’re supposed to send a message. Conclusion: probably unintentional.
vs. Lance Lynn
Again, look at the body language. The body language makes for a good indicator — at least, the immediate body language, the unfiltered, instinctive body language. Lynn hits Utley, and then is clearly upset with himself. Maybe Lynn was upset he didn’t hit Utley somewhere else. Probably, Lynn was upset that he hit Utley. Conclusion: probably unintentional.
vs. Homer Bailey
This pitch only very barely grazes Utley’s uniform. Of note is that Utley actually made an attempt to get out of the way! Not shown is that Bailey was upset with himself when the ball was returned to him, shortly after this .gif cuts off. The game was close at the time, and there wouldn’t have been any reason for Bailey to try to stir things up. Conclusion: probably unintentional.
vs. Sean Burnett
Clue 1: body language. Clue 2: close game, late. Clue 3: Burnett had just entered to pitch to the Phillies’ heart-of-the-order lefties. This would’ve been a dumb time to send a message. Conclusion: probably unintentional.
vs. Matt Harvey
Interesting! First pitch, early, in a game between division rivals. Fastball that badly misses the catcher’s glove. No clear sign of distress or frustration on Harvey’s part. Conclusion: possibly intentional.
vs. Jon Niese
Niese was ahead in the count, and if you look at him right after he plants, he jumps a little bit, like he didn’t expect the ball to get away. He doesn’t look at Utley, and Utley doesn’t look at him back, and it isn’t a direct blow. Conclusion: probably unintentional.
vs. Josh Johnson
Breaking ball that gets Utley in the leg, and clear frustration on Johnson’s part immediately afterward. Easy one. Conclusion: probably unintentional.
vs. Dallas Keuchel
This pitch barely even grazed Utley, if it grazed him at all, and consider the context. This is Dallas Keuchel and the 2012 Houston Astros. Why would they try to send a message to Chase Utley and the Philadelphia Phillies? What purpose would that serve, in the short-term or the long-term? It doesn’t pass any sort of test of logic. The burden is not on proof of innocence; the burden is on proof of guilt. Conclusion: probably unintentional.
vs. Josh Edgin
The situation would’ve been right. This was late in a game between division rivals, with the score out of hand. Edgin was behind in the count, and at 11-1, it wouldn’t have mattered much that the bases were loaded. Utley got drilled by a fastball, square in the back. The pieces are there, except: Edgin’s body language. That’s not how a pitcher responds to an intentional hit-by-pitch. That’s how a pitcher responds to something he didn’t intend to do. Conclusion: probably unintentional.
vs. Tim Hudson again!
Breaking ball to the foot. Body language. We’ve already dealt with this before. Conclusion: probably unintentional, but, really? Hudson, three times?
We’ve looked at a dozen pitches that hit Chase Utley in 2012. This is not a thorough examination of every pitch that has ever hit Chase Utley, and it wouldn’t surprise me if a few of those pitches were intentional. In 2012, though, at least 11 of the 12 pitches were probably unintentional, leaving us with one where we can’t be clear. And the absence of proof of innocence is hardly proof of guilt. If pitchers were targeting Chase Utley in 2012, they were either targeting him weirdly, or they kept missing him when they were trying to hit him, because the pitches that hit him were generally accidental.
What Charlie Manuel wants to believe, Charlie Manuel is free to believe. He might not even believe his own words; he might just be trying to rally the troops, which is one of the responsibilities of a major-league manager. This could simply be a team-building exercise. But, do pitchers go out of their way to throw at Chase Utley? Our evidence suggests that, no, they do not, at least not particularly often. If anything, Utley wants to get hit by pitches more than pitchers want to hit Utley with pitches. This isn’t strategy on the pitchers’ part; this is a proven skill, on Utley’s part. Because hit-by-pitches are basically walks, and walks can lead to runs.