CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) — Chase Utley’s batting average and slugging percentage have dropped each season since 2007. He’s played in fewer games the last two years and spent more time on the disabled list.
Is the five-time All-Star on the decline?
“I’m always looking for ways to improve. I haven’t come to the conclusion that I need to change things,” Utley said after the Philadelphia Phillies practiced on Thursday. “I think what I’m doing now is putting me on track to contribute like I have in the past.”
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The biggest question surrounding Utley is his health. The second baseman missed the first 46 games last season because of a right knee injury. Though he returned in late May, Utley clearly wasn’t himself. He batted just .259 with 11 homers and 44 RBIs in 103 games.
Utley’s knee problem is tricky. There’s no definite solution to fix it. He was diagnosed last February with patellar tendinitis in the knee, bone inflammation and chondromalacia, which is pain due to irritation under the kneecap. Surgery didn’t guarantee a cure, so he opted for rehab instead and played through pain when he came back.
Utley is much further along this spring.
“It feels significantly better. Last year it was very uncomfortable, especially the first week,” Utley said. “Right now, I think I’m in a good place. The goal for me is to kind of stay in the same place and improve in small increments and not try to irritate it to the point where I’d have to slow down.
“So, we’ll see how it goes.”
The 32-year-old Utley once was one of the best all-around players in the majors. He batted .301 and averaged 29 homers and 101 RBIs between 2005-09. Those numbers dipped to .267, 14 homers and 54 RBIs in the last two seasons. Of course, injuries have played a role in the slippage. He missed 47 games in 2010 when he had hand surgery, and 59 games last year.
A hard-nosed, gritty player, Utley doesn’t plan to change his all-out style on the field. He’ll rest a lot more this spring training and will accept taking some days off during the season. But he’ll hustle the way he’s always done it when he plays.
“I think I can overcome this without a doubt,” he said. “I have pride in how I play and the way I play and that’s not going to change.”
Utley’s knee injury affected his ability to exercise his legs last year. He couldn’t do various strengthening exercises such as squats, and that reflected in his power drop-off. Utley focused more on stretching, lighter weight lifting and strengthening his glutes and hamstrings to take some pressure off his knee.
“I think there’s no doubt that the things I was doing didn’t allow me to strengthen my legs,” he said. “But this offseason, I was able to strengthen them, maybe not quite as much as in the past, but they’re definitely stronger than they were going into last year. My goal now is to maintain that. Ideally, it would be nice to make them stronger, but at the same time, I have to keep them loose and take it easy.”
Utley hit a career-high .332 in `07, but hasn’t even reached .300 since then. A fixture in the No. 3 spot in the lineup for years, Utley moved up to No. 2 and was replaced by Hunter Pence in the three-hole down the stretch and in the postseason last year.
Manager Charlie Manuel prefers hitting Utley third, but Pence might be a better hitter at this stage.
“I’m all for the team,” Utley said. “No. 1 goal for the game is to win that game, so whatever Charlie thinks best, I’m going to do it.