Regression Report: Utley in MVP Form

How well will Chase Utley perform from here on out?

Regression, defined as a return to a former or less developed state, is a word thrown around a lot in baseball. When a season is so long – when there are thousands and thousands of data points to collect – there’s no reason for fans and analysts of the game to jump to early-season conclusions about a batter or pitcher, only to see those same players regress to their mean.

Sometimes though, things change. Sometimes a return to former play doesn’t occur because a player developed, hitting the ball well or throwing it with more velocity. Good numbers from a surprising source doesn’t always mean regression is about to occur. Perhaps that player is in store for a good season.

We’re only a couple of weeks into the MLB season, so, naturally, we’re seeing plenty of numbers that would be nearly impossible to sustain over the course of the season. Chase Utley’s not going to hit .500, and I’ll bet my dog – my loving, little Henry – that Emilio Bonifacio isn’t going to see an average over .390. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be good this year, outperforming their original season-long expectations. Regression doesn’t have to equate to worthless performance.

Each week the plan with this article is to look at a handful of guys who are outdoing themselves. While these players are sure to regress, some are bound to do so more than others. And that’s what I’m looking to figure out.

Chase Utley, Philadelphia Phillies

We all know what the Phillies second baseman is capable of doing – between 2005 and 2010, Utley made five All-Star games and was a top-15 NL MVP vote getter in five of those as well. He just, you know, hasn’t been that Chase Utley since 2009 or 2010.

This year, the man is going bonkers. On 46 plate appearances, Utley’s seen 20 hits, 3 home runs, 10 RBI and a ridiculous .500 batting average. His wOBA currently sits at .607, and his OBP at .565.

Aren’t early-season numbers fun?

Utley’s been fortunate given his .486 BABIP, despite having a solid batted ball profile. Though 23.7% of his hits are line drives and his GB/FB rate sits at 1.42, those numbers aren’t nearly dramatic enough to comprehend his near-.500 BABIP. No numbers are, really.

Utley’s 35 years old, and hasn’t been the All-Star caliber player he was 5 to 10 years ago. While his start is good, our numbers are still showing him finishing the season with a .278 average and 15 home runs. For you fantasy folks, he’s ranked as our 16th-best second baseman from here on out. Perhaps it's already time to try and sell.

Everth Cabrera, San Diego Padres

The Padres shortstop is currently hitting to a .347/.360/.449 slash, and like Utley, has a BABIP that’s soaring. Actually, it’s even higher than Utley’s, sitting at .515.

Clearly regression is about to hit Cabrera, but at what level? Well, Cabrera’s actually done a nice job of hitting line drives (over 33% rate) and ground balls (54.5%), all while keeping his fly ball rate just above 12%. That’s recipe for a higher BABIP.

Cabrera has also been more aggressive at the plate, swinging at 46.3% of all pitches and making contact on 80.7% of them. That first number is much higher than his 41.8% career high from 2010, while the contact percentage figure is just a tad lower than his 82.1% career average.

All together, our numbers aren’t shy when it comes to Everth, placing him as the eighth-best shortstop – fantasy-wise – from now until the end of the season. Though we do see a significant decrease in batting average, all the way to .257.

Emilio Bonifacio, Chicago Cubs

Bonifacio completely, utterly destroyed the Pirates over the first week of the season, getting 16 hits on 30 at-bats during the six games. It came out of nowhere too, as his role with the Cubs wasn’t even set a month ago.

Is he for real? No, because no one batting .392 after barely being in the bigs typically is. But let us not forget that Bonifacio batted to a .296/.360/.393 slash with the Marlins in 2011, stealing 40 bases.

An interesting part of Bonifacio’s start to the season is that his batted ball profile isn’t that far off from the rest of his career. He’s hitting fewer fly balls which helps, but his line-drive rate is just a little above his career average. That’s why his .455 BABIP is pretty lucky. Though keep in mind his speed and above average line-drive rate has allowed him to maintain a career .335 BABIP. Regression is to come, but his batting average on balls in play won’t dip below .300. And the fact that he started the season off hot is a good sign for potential plate appearances throughout the season.

Aaron Harang, Atlanta Braves

Harang is currently 2-1 with a 0.96 ERA, and casual Braves fans are probably excited about the start. I guess they should be, considering his 4.25 career ERA and sub-.500 record.

But don’t get too excited. Harang’s xFIP is just .16 points below his career average, and his batters are hitting at a .191 clip on balls in play. His LOB% is far higher than his career average as well.

It should be noted, however, that he’s getting a little more speed on his pitches, which could lead to better numbers than in year’s past. Batters are swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone this year (35.5% vs. 26.7%), which is another good sign. We just don’t have enough of a sample size to deem it anything more than opponent-driven at this time.

His numbers have ranked him as our eighth-best pitcher to start the year, but it probably wouldn't be smart to rely heavily on him or think that he's going to keep this up. His best fantasy outing, though he got the loss, was against the Mets, a team that's striking out more than any other this season. Given his career statistics, it's difficult to get excited.

Mark Buehrle, Toronto Blue Jays

I wrote about Buehrle soon after the start of the season, and he’s performed at about the level I expected. In other words, his strikeout rate has already dropped to more Buehrle-like numbers.

The reason I wanted to talk about him today is because his ERA, which sits at an impressive 0.86, is bound to regress. He has a ridiculous LOB% of 90%, while his FIP sits at 2.04 and his xFIP at 3.10. His BABIP against is 20 points lower than his career average, too.

If Buehrle was more of a strikeout pitcher, I’d be fine with pushing him harder in fantasy. And while I’m not going to be angry if you’d want to add him in a standard league, be aware that our yearly rankings see him as a below-average thrower. Don't let the solid early start sway you.