Thoughts on Chase Utley, Eric Sogard, and Middle Infield Upgrades

USA TODAY Sports

There's been a lot of talk recently about how much sense it would make for the A's to acquire Chase Utley. Let's get deeper into it, though--what effect would this move have? Are there other possibilities for Oakland to pursue?

Yesterday, Fangraphs' Dave Cameron posted an article--one I'm sure most of you have read--entitled "The Most Obvious Trade That Needs To Happen." In the piece, Cameron opines that the A's should pursue a trade for Philadelphia second baseman Chase Utley. "The A's need a second baseman," Cameron states, "...a guy who could make a real difference and push them over the hump as a legitimate World Series contender. But...they also need that player to come at something of a discount."

Cameron goes on to discuss Utley's late-career prowess on both sides of the ball and how he is far superior to current Oakland second baseman Eric Sogard. Utley's expensive contract and injury history should make him come at something of a discount, and the A's may not need to surrender all that much to get him. Certainly, he would upgrade the spot. It's quite a sensible proposal, assuming that Ruben Amaro will play ball on it (which, with his track record of loving veterans, is anyone's guess).

So, I'm not really opposed to such a move, provided that the A's aren't surrendering much for Utley. The most common deals people are speculating about involve Oakland surrendering either Grant Green or Jemile Weeks, picking up most or all of Utley's contract (he's owed $15MM for the season, so depending on when the trade is executed, there will be between $5MM and $7MM left), and maybe throwing in a low-level prospect as well. None of the three components of such a deal really set the A's future back in any way--there are still plenty of fringe middle infielders in the upper level of the organization even if Green or Weeks is let go, a few million dollars isn't impossible for even the small-market A's to swallow, and a low-level prospect is a low-level prospect (Mind you, I'm not talking about Raul Alcantara, Michael Ynoa, Chris Bostick, Matt Olson, Daniel Robertson, etc. Somebody like Seth Streich).

If the A's can indeed acquire Utley for a group of players who aren't in their future plans, that's great. But what if they can't? Is it worth sacrificing an Ynoa or a Bostick, let alone a significant multi-prospect package, for Utley?

In order to answer that, we need to figure out exactly how much better Chase Utley is than Eric Sogard, over, say 50 games of play.

Utley vs. Sogard

Let's start with defense. In a way-too-small sample, Eric Sogard has a +3.3 UZR/150 at second base in his career. While it's, again, way too small a sample to be airtight, that seems a fairly reasonable assessment of his defense at the spot--he's fundamentally sound in all areas, but doesn't have huge athleticism or arm strength that really makes him a superb gloveman. If he's worth 3.3 runs over 150 games, then he's worth 1.1 over 50. Utley, meanwhile, has a career 13.9 UZR/150, and has actually been above that number for three straight years. Let's say he's a +15 defender over 150 games. That's five runs in 50, or roughly four runs better than Sogard.

Then there's the matter of offense. While the statistics for both players here are more extensive, it's also a bit tougher to settle on how best to attain a precise measurement of offensive ability.

Utley's hitting .266/.335/.462 this year. Sogard is hitting .272/.342/.347. The players both have solid walk rates (7.8% for Sogard, 8.7% for Utley) and low strikeout rates (12.4% for Sogard, 14.6% for Utley) that lead to above-average BB/K ratios (.63 for Sogard, .60 for Utley). Of course, the main difference is power, where Utley has a .196 ISO to Sogard's .075. That's not insignificant.

However, Sogard only plays against right-handed pitchers--he has just 34 plate appearances against lefties this year. So perhaps we should just compare the two against righties. .287/.352/.364 for Sogard; .295/.358/.500 for Utley. Both have 8.8% walk rates, while Sogard has a 10.1% K rate to Utley's 13.5%. Again, Sogard has the slightly better approach and Utley has far superior power. We certainly knew the second fact; the first may come as somewhat surprising.

We could also extend the data out to the past three years to get a better picture of the players. Here, Utley wins in a landslide.

Player AVG OBP SLG BB% K%
Eric Sogard .226 .283 .322 6.4% 14.4%
Chase Utley .259 .350 .434 9.8% 11.7%


And just against righties:

Player AVG OBP SLG BB% K%
Eric Sogard .239 .293 .345 6.8% 12.0%
Chase Utley .287 .370 .478 10.0% 10.2%


Now, if these numbers reflect the true talents of the players involved, Utley would be a massive upgrade. Sogard's been worth -13.3 batting runs since the start of 2011 in 308 PA, while Utley has been worth +17 in 698 PA. Let's say we're talking about 200 PA the rest of the way--Sogard would project for -8.6 batting runs, while Utley would project for 4.9. That's a difference of 13.5 runs. Add in the 3.9 run difference defensively and you're talking about nearly a 2 WAR difference, which is big.

There's a problem with using that data though. Can you spot it here?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Let's take a step back for a second. I want you to forget everything you know about Eric Sogard. Forget the recent baserunning gaffes, the ineptitude of 2010-12, the surprise solid play of 2013...heck, forget the guy wears glasses.

Done? Okay, good. I want to present a train of evidence to you.

Eric Sogard was always a good minor league hitter. Just look at his numbers. He was startlingly consistent. He got on base at at least a .370 clip in each of his last five minor league seasons, walking more than he struck out each time. He only hit double-digit homers once, but power isn't a big necessity for a second baseman anyway, and he hit enough doubles to consistently post Isolated Power marks north of .100 and slugging percentages north of .400. In those five years, he was always an above-average hitter overall (his worst wRC+ was 101 in 2011).

Of course, none of that made or makes Eric Sogard a guaranteed successful hitter in the major leagues. Just look at what's happened to Daric Barton for evidence of that--sometimes, it doesn't translate. But I think you have to say, judging by that minor league track record, that it would be quite reasonable to expect Sogard to evolve into a solid hitter at second, with few strikeouts, some walks and singles, and the occasional double. Let's work from the assumption that Sogard is indeed that hitter--he's a guy who puts the ball in play, albeit without much over-the-fence power, and has the discipline to work a walk if it's given to him.

So, the first (and main) thing we're confronted with that calls that projection/opinion into question is that fact that Sogard went out and hit .190/.237/.302 in 191 PAs with the A's across 2010-12. This is the stretch of play, of course, that had so many A's fans writing him off following the 2012 season. If Sogard is indeed this solid contact/discipline hitter, why was he suddenly hitting .190 with a .237 OBP?

I'll admit, the 5.8% walk rate and 16.2% strikeout rate in that stretch is quite disappointing. However, 16.2% is still a fairly low strikeout rate, hardly one that portends such offensive ineptitude.

No, the real culprit for Sogard's early struggles is exactly what you'd expect--bad luck. Anything can happen in 191 plate appearances. As A's fans, we should know that--guys like Jack Cust, Josh Reddick, Coco Crisp, and Josh Donaldson have contrasted long streaks of dominance with bouts of ineptitude in the green and gold for the past several years. Such an amount of plate appearances--particularly when scattered about in uneven playing time, as Sogard's were--mean little, but because they were Sogard's first 191, a lot of people took them to mean everything.

But Sogard just had the misfortune of having a .208 batting average on balls in play in that stretch. There's nothing in Sogard's batted ball history that would portend that--his BABIPs his last five years in the minors ranged from .311 to .348. Line drives fall for hits over 70% of the time, and Sogard had a tremendous 24.4% line drive rate in that stretch and still couldn't get the hits to fall in.

This year, Sogard has a .313 BABIP, which seems much more in line with what you'd expect. In fact, if we plug in his career batted ball numbers into the xBABIP calculator, we get a very solid .323 mark. He may or may not reach those heights, but I do think his pre-2013 defense-dependent data should essentially be thrown out when discussing Sogard's true value.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Let's return to that batted-ball comparison between Sogard and Utley, 2011-2013. Utley has the higher BABIP (.268 overall, .291 vs. RHPs vs. .257 overall and .262 vs RHPs for Sogard), but his line-drive rate is far lower. Among second basemen with at least 350 PA in the last three seasons, Sogard has the 11th-highest LD% of 60; Utley ranks a dismal 57th.

Using Utley's batted ball splits for the past three years, the xBABIP calculator pegs him at a .297 BABIP to Sogard's .323. Both of those figures seem a bit high, but the difference between the two seems about right--Utley's at .277 this year, whereas Sogard's at .313, so the actual difference is just .01 greater than the hypothetical difference.

If that's true, then the 2013 data is a better representation of the players' respective batting abilities than anything prior. This year, Utley's been worth 4.7 batting runs over 206 PA, whereas Sogard's at -1.5 in 193, so we're talking about a six-run difference or so across 200 PA. Combine that with the four runs on defense, and you have a 1 WAR difference the rest of the way, not two.

Contextualizing Utley's Addition

Alright, so Utley's worth a win over Sogard the rest of the way. That's great. Look, I like Sogard (as I'm sure you can tell), but I won't shed any tears if the A's bring in a legitimate upgrade.

But what happens to the team if Utley arrives? He's a lefthanded hitting second baseman, so the logical move for the A's would then be to option Sogard to the minors rather than designate Adam Rosales and his sub-replacement level performance for assignment. Sogard is clearly the superior player, but he'd have zero use on a team that starts Utley at second, Jed Lowrie at shortstop, and Josh Donaldson at third base. It's not like he's going to pinch-hit or pinch-run for any of those guys, and the only one who could ever really need a defensive replacement is Lowrie, who plays a position that Sogard is stretched at. For all his flaws, Rosales makes more sense on such a roster.

And so, while it's nice that Utley would bring an extra win to the A's, I can't help but feel like it's a bit of a wasted effort to replace the solid half of the Sogard/Rosales platoon with a really good player rather than replace the poor half with a solid player. It's a good move, and an upgrade, but if it's going to take a significant prospect cost to acquire Utley (and again, one can only speculate as to what the cost is), perhaps there's a more efficient way to upgrade the middle infield situation by upgrading on Rosales instead of Sogard.

Alternatives To Utley

If we're going to replace Rosales, first we have to identify what needs replacing. Rosales, of course, plays mostly short (28 starts at the spot so far, in addition to two bench appearances at short and 13 at second). Unless you're comfortable with Sogard as the backup shortstop (I'm on the fence about that, and I think most fans are more negative about it than I am), Rosales' replacement needs to be able to play short, preferably well.

For what it's worth, Rosales is a dead-average fielder for his major league career, though that's across all four infield positions and left field. At short, he's got a -4.8 UZR/150--like Sogard, it's way too small a sample to generalize from, but it doesn't seem far off what the eye tests tells me. He is +11.1 at second, though he's -9.5 at third.

Rosales is hitting .195/.272/.333 this year, albeit with a .225 BABIP. Now, he has nearly three times Sogard's career plate appearances and just a .260 BABIP to show for it, so it's safer to say that he has below-average BABIP ability than it is to claim that about Sogard. Still, one can probably expect him to snap back to something like his career .221/.290/.336 line, which is at least a slight improvement. He's also a career .243/.306/.375 hitter against lefties, and since a potential replacement would mostly face lefties, that's really the line to keep an eye on.

So, here's the question: What players, over the last three years, have played shortstop to at least a neutral UZR while having at least a .300 wOBA against LHPs (Rosales' career mark)?

Here's the list, 18 players strong:

Player wOBA vs. LHP, 2011-13 wRC+ vs. LHP, 2011-13 SS UZR/150, 2011-13
Mike Aviles .334 108 3.9
Erick Aybar .309 96 1.0
Jamey Carroll .346 121 0.7
Ronny Cedeno .312 96 2.3
Zack Cozart .305 88 10.3
Yunel Escobar .339 114 5.1
Danny Espinosa .343 116 21.8
J.J. Hardy .335 108 9.5
Jose Iglesias .397 147 31.1
Pete Kozma .320 104 13.4
Jordy Mercer .445 193 0.5
Jhonny Peralta .340 112 10.3
Nick Punto .346 121 13.9
Alexei Ramirez .311 89 9.1
Cody Ransom .393 149 14.9
Marco Scutaro .330 104 0.9
Troy Tulowitzki .398 142 8.0
Ben Zobrist .360 132 3.1


I think we can rule out a few of these guys. Hardy, Peralta, Scutaro, Tulowitzki, and Zobrist are all excellent players who would come at huge costs. Aybar, Cedeno, Cozart, and Ramirez would be fairly minimal upgrades on Rosales, particularly with the bat. Espinosa is having a terrible season.

So, that leaves us with Aviles, Carroll, Escobar, Iglesias, Kozma, Mercer, Punto, and Ransom.

Let's figure out the scope of what we're dealing with. Let's say the acquisition would start 30 games. Rosales' SS defense, as I stated earlier, is -4.8 UZR/150, which means he's about one run below average in 30 games. In order to gain four runs defensively, as they would by switching from Sogard to Utley, the A's would need to find someone at +15 over 150 games, which would be +3 over 30 contests. Ransom, Punto, and Iglesias are all in or above that vicinity, so it's possible.

Ransom is a fascinating player. He's a 37-year-old who was overlooked for about a decade as he slugged away in Triple-A, only to finally be unearthed last year for his first extended MLB run at age 36. His age-36 and age-37 seasons are the only two in which he's received 100 PA or more, which I imagine is quite rare. The thing is, he's just now being used, and he's clearly on the downside of his usability, as he's amassed 146 strikeouts in just 390 plate appearances in the past two seasons, a strikeout rate of 37.4% that makes Jack Cust shake his head.

And yet, Ransom's made it work, amassing 2 WAR in those 390 PA. He's not going to hit much over .220, but half of his hits the past two years have gone for extra bases, and he's walked 10% of the time in both campaigns, allowing him to at least get on base at a clip over .300.

Oh, and there's this:

2012-13, vs. LHP: .270/.349/.622
2012-13, vs. RHP: .186/.282/.309

You have to figure that a 37-year-old infielder on a noncontending Cubs squad is easy to pry away, and it does seem like he's a good fit to replace Rosales. If he produces at the rate he has in 2012-13, he should be 0.7 batting runs above average in 120 PA, while Rosales projects to be 4.2 runs below average in that same span if he's at his career rates, or 4.4 below average if he stays at his 2013 rates. Either way, Ransom replacing Rosales for 30 games looks like a half-win upgrade offensively and could be a defensive upgrade as well.

Punto is another interesting option. He's a totally different type of player from Ransom--really, he's Sogard with fewer limitations. Punto switch-hits, and he's been a better hitter against lefties (.262/.329/.330) than righties (.241/.323/.320) in his career. He's also a very capable defender not only at second base, but all over the infield--he has a career +7.0 UZR/150 at second, +20.8 at third, and +17.0 at shortstop. He hasn't played much short of late, but his defensive production in his limited recent opportunities shows little evidence of a dropoff.

While Ransom's recent defensive numbers say he might be a three or four run upgrade on defense over 30 games, I feel more confident in bestowing that designation on Punto than Ransom, since there's a much bigger volume of data on his defensive capabilities.

What about offense, though? Punto is slugging just .324 this year, which is...well, exactly what his career slugging percentage is. He's hit exactly one home run for five straight years (and seven of the last eight, which is actually pretty incredible).

His career split is slightly better against lefthanded pitchers than righties, but over the past six years, the differences have been amplified--he's hit southpaws better every year. Over that span, he's hit a Sogardian .277/.347/.345 against them in 508 PAs, compared to .240/.330/.320 against righthanders.

If Punto hits at that .277/.347/.345 pace over 120 PAs in Rosales' place, he'd be a little better than a run below average, as opposed to the -4.2 to -4.4 expected of Rosales, a 3.5 run difference or so. That means he'd be about a 3/4 of a win upgrade overall, with three to four runs added on each side of the ball, with the added benefit of being able to spell Sogard occasionally or even give Donaldson a day off against a righthander. Being able to man all the spots Rosales can, with better defense, a better bat, and switch-hitting capability, would really help out the A's in a lot of ways.

The A's could also go after Iglesias or Mercer, who are both hitting out of their minds right now for no apparent reason. Both would also be upgrades on Rosales, though it's tough to say exactly how much because of their inconsistent small-sample performances. They would probably cost more in a trade, however, due to their youth, team control, and current hot streaks, and it's not clear that they would be any more effective than Punto or Ransom, though they would come with the added benefit of possibly being part of post-2013 plans.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Overall, it seems the idea of acquiring Utley is a sound one, but depending on the price the Phillies ultimately require, it may or may not be the most effective way for the A's to upgrade their middle infield. If the A's can swing a deal for the erstwhile All-Star without parting with any significant future-oriented players, I'm all for the move; however, be aware that such a trade is not the only potential route to significant middle infield improvement down the stretch. Ransom, Punto, and some other options could improve on Rosales' troubling performance by nearly as much as Utley could on Sogard's mediocrity, and perhaps for a far lower cost. Here's hoping the A's make a sound, effective acquisition to bolster the situation without losing any long-term pieces of even remote significance. I think it can happen; time will tell if Billy Beane makes it happen.

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