Bill James once wrote that having a fire hydrant body was an asset in baseball, or at least there were very few bad pro baseball players with that type. By fire hydrant body he meant long torso, short arms and short legs. I don’t know if this is true or not (after all, the spindly Jayson Werth is a pretty good player, and long-armed pitchers get more leverage, etc.), but it reminded me of a certain Phillies player.
I suck at going up and down steps. This has become painfully obvious to me on my commute to school, where I have to go up and down stairs at four different train stations twice each day. Often, I’m just sort of trundling up and down the steps while everyone around me glides as much as walks. You know what I mean—the steps so quick that you hardly see their heads bouncing. By comparison, my slower, jerky movements make me look like I’ve got spina bifida.
My mom says this is because I grew up in a one-story house while I was learning to walk. This is a surprisingly uncommon circumstance for a suburban kid, and I can’t think of very many other developments in Voorhees/Cherry Hill/Berlin apart from my own that are composed entirely of single-story homes.
What lends credence to this theory is that my parents finished the basement when I was about 5, but before my brothers learned to walk. They learned to walk up and down steps at a young age, so they had no problem. Nowadays, both of my brothers (aged 19 and 13) have no problem with steps.
I say this because watching Chase Utley play baseball is like watching me go up and down steps at twice normal speed. Let’s compare him to another left-handed power hitter who also played excellent defense: Ken Griffey, Jr.
Junior was all arms and legs. Watching him swing a baseball bat—the looping, seven-iron swing, dropping the bat head on the low inside curve and sending it on a ballistic arc into the seats, followed by bat flip and jog around the bases—is one of the most beautiful sights in all of sports. Junior used those long legs to cover acres in center field before his Wrist Incident catch in 1995. He was a creature of extraordinary grace, of no wasted motion, never breaking a sweat. I think that’s what made him the most popular player of the 1990s, his effortless way of taking the field, banging out two hits and making a nice catch, having a good time, and going home.
Utley is the antithesis of Griffey, first and foremost in body type. While I had read James’ note on body type, I never really thought about it until I was watching soccer a while back. The best soccer player in the world, Real Madrid winger Cristiano Ronaldo, is a classic foot fairy type, all flash and speed and dribbling tricks. He gels his hair, barks at referees, wears loud jewelry, never wears a shirt in public if he can’t help it, and dives to draw fouls. He’s a stylish, pretty player, more Griffey than Utley.
But his legs? Tiny. The guy’s got a huge barrel chest and little stubby legs that force him to take short strides and allow him to change direction in the blink of an eye. The top levels of soccer are filled with Utley types, however. These are players who do nothing beautifully but do everything effectively. They are blessed with otherworldly amounts of talent but expend enough effort that they’d be solid players even if they weren’t so gifted. So take a look at Chase Utley. Then take a look at Wayne Rooney, for instance. Now apart from the fact that Utley’s a little taller and Rooney looks like his face was assembled from spare parts, they’re built similarly.
So where Griffey was all grace and finesse, Utley is all exertion and compact power. I can’t think of a single thing that Chase Utley does with style. His swing is awkward and it doesn’t look like he follows through all the way, but it’s about as quick as any in baseball, and it generates more than enough power, particularly since he’s turned yanking the ball around the right field foul pole into a science.
In the field, he’s brutal. He doesn’t really dive for the ball so much as he seems to trip and fall on it. He wears a tiny glove that he never seems to close unless he’s squeezing on a pop-up, giving the appearance that he’s got one hand bigger than the other, sort of like Hellboy. To this day, there’s a small part of me that doesn’t believe that he’s such a great defensive player because, frankly, if he really was the best defensive second baseman in the game, he’d be able to chase down a grounder without looking like a chimpanzee chasing a penguin across a skating rink. I guess UZR doesn’t take style points into account.
Then there’s the running. Short legs, long, low-to-the-ground strides, elbows out, chest puffed out as if breaking the imaginary finish line tape got you to first base faster. It’s bizarre, particularly when you hit him in front of Jayson Werth and put him next to Jimmy Rollins in the field. When one of those two steals a base, it’s smooth, calculated, and characterized by efficiency of movement. When Chase Utley steals a base, it looks like Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch on fast-forward.
The fact of the matter is that while his game is as ugly as any other major league baseball player’s, Utley has used his stubby limbs and brute-force approach to generate more bat speed, accelerate more quickly on the bases, and cover more ground in the field than practically anyone else.
It’s truly remarkable, then, that despite not looking like a superstar player in the slightest, Utley is really in a three-way dead heat for second-best player in baseball right now (oh, and look at Albert Pujols sometime—he might be huge, but he’s got the same big-torso-short-arms-and-legs thing going on). And I suspect that it’s a good thing—if Utley cared as much about not looking stupid as he does about winning, he wouldn’t be nearly as good a player as he is now.