Lost in the midst of yesterday's Phillies comeback was a routine single by Chase Utley in the sixth inning. This one seemingly insignificant hit showcases an important yet largely overlooked fact: he hit the ball to the opposite field.
See, prior to this season Utley was slowly becoming a dead pull hitter. Teams noticed this and started putting on a Howard-esque shift. It's one thing when a slugger like Howard gets the shift, but quite another when more of a contact hitter like Utley sees the shift.
Hitting third in the lineup, Chase Utley is expected to have a decent average with a high number of doubles and 20-30 homers. In order to be productive with 30 or less home runs, Utley cannot afford to lose hits due to a shift, but that is exactly what happened since he was pulling balls at a high rate.
This year has been a different story. Utley is hitting the ball to left field more routinely. The more he hits the ball to the opposite field, the less of a shift he sees, the higher his average becomes, the more he produces, and the better the Phillies will be. Maybe it's not that dramatic, but you get the point.
I went to fangraphs.com to see just how much has changed. The below graphs show Utley's percentage of hits to left, center, and right field for his career and in 2011.
Prior to 2011, over half of Utley's hits (52%) were pulled and only 16% went to the opposite field. In 2011, Utley's pull percentage has decreased by 5 points and his opposite field percentage has increased by 8 points.
The following graphs show a slightly more significant change when you compare 2010 vs. 2011.
In 2010, 57% of Utley's hits were pulled and only 15% went to the opposite field. Utley's pull percentage in 2011 has decreased by 10 points and his opposite field percentage has increased by 9 points.
That means roughly 10 less hits out of 100 to right and 10 more to left. Teams are going to notice a change like that and it will force them to play more of a standard defense, opening even more hits to right field. Essentially, hitting more balls to the opposite field allows Utley to pull MORE balls.
It also tells you that Utley is staying on the ball longer and taking what the pitcher gives him. That formula should lead to even greater success down the road....