The NLCS: Chase Utley no Mr. October

Utley_errorLOS ANGELES—There’s no logical way to explain why some players thrive in the postseason and others just have the worst time ever. Chalk it up to simply being one of those baseball things that are indefinable.

As Charlie says, “Funny game.”

But one thing that is never a mystery is that legacies of ballplayers are defined by how well they perform in October. Sure, there are some players like Ted Williams and Ernie Banks who are given a pass for a dearth of playoff exposure, but those guys are rare. After all, there’s a reason why Derek Jeter is viewed as an all-time great despite a shortcoming or two.

And of course no one ever talks about the fact that Reggie Jackson struck out more times than anyone in baseball history and batted .300 just one time in 21 seasons. Reggie Jackson was Mr. October because he hit 10 home runs and won the World Series five times.

When it comes down to it, the performance after the season ends is what matters most, yet there are some pretty great players who struggle beneath the bright lights and others that can’t help but perform well in when the games matter most.

“It’s one of those things, I guess,” said Phillies’ hitting coach Milt Thompson, who holds the club postseason record for most RBIs in a game with five in a game in which he needed a homer to complete the cycle. “Some guys like the lights.”

Others don’t do well with them at all. For this group of Phillies it seems as if Ryan Howard is becoming quite Jacksonian. In Friday’s Game 2 of the NLCS, Howard continued his October assault by reaching base for the 15th straight postseason game. More notable, the Phillies’ slugger has at least one RBI in every game of the 2009 playoffs thanks to a fourth-inning homer against former Phillie Vicente Padilla in the 2-1 defeat.

But don’t just pin Howard’s hot playoff hitting to this season. His streak of big hits goes back to last October, too. In fact, Howard is hitting .382 (21-for-55) with six doubles, four home runs and 17 RBIs in his last 14 playoff games and he has reached base safely in his last 15.

In 23 postseason games Howard has five homers and 19 RBIs. The RBIs are already a franchise record for the postseason.

October has not been too kind to Chase Utley, though. Sure, he hit a pair of homers in the World Series last year and batted .429 against the Rockies in the NLDS, but so far he’s 1-for-8 against the Dodgers in the NLCS and has a .241 lifetime average in 23 playoff games with 23 strikeouts. Take away the 2009 NLDS and Utley is hitting just .203 in the playoffs and fails to put the ball in play more than 40 percent of the time.

Then there is the fielding. In the two biggest games of the season (so far), Utley has committed costly errors. The one in Game 1 caused pitcher Cole Hamels to throw a bit of a fit, while the one in Game 2 proved to be one of the biggest reasons why the Phillies lost to the Dodgers. Actually, Utley has three errors in his playoff career, which is a rate twice as high as his regular-season total of errors.

The errors in the field are what everyone is talking about now, but there’s more to Utley’s playoff woes. There was also the debacle of Game 1 of the 2007 NLDS in which he struck out four times on 13 pitches.

Still, even when Utley is playing well he consistently works to improve his game. Chancs are he dials up the effort even highr when things go poorly.

“I’m never really satisfied on the way I play,” Utley said. “I always feel like I can play better, so this season is no different.”

Nope, not at all. It’s no different in that Utley is finding trouble in the playoffs…


Could Jeter catch Rose?

pete-roseA few months ago I was in Las Vegas where I caught up with all-time hit king Pete Rose. Oh yes, I bragged all about this meeting in the past in a bunch of posts on this site, so just add this one to the mix.

Nevertheless, during the course of our conversation, I asked Pete if he thought anyone could ever get 4,256 hits and break his record. The answer, as one could guess, was a resounding no.

And this isn’t to say Pete was putting his ego on display or professing the greatness of his all-time hit record. Far from it. Instead, the conversation was more like a couple of baseball fans having a conversation in a bar or some place like that. In this case it was Pete, me and the workers at a memorabilia shop in Caesar’s Palace where the all-time hit king was signing autographs and posing for pictures.

So to add to the notion of a couple of guys hanging out and talking ball, Pete and I started going through the names of players that might have a shot.

Alex Rodriguez? Nope. Even though A-Rod averages 190 hits per 162 games, his tendency to hit homers and standing in the Yankees’ offense might make it difficult for him to get beyond 3,800 hits.

Ichiro? He would have the best chance if he hadn’t spent the first half of his career playing in Japan. Ichiro is 35 and has approximately 3,500 hits between both Japan and the U.S., but it’s a case of what could have been if he played his entire career in the Majors.

We went down the list contemplating some names and quickly dismissing others. We did this until I tossed out a name that surprised me at how quickly Pete shot it down.

“Derek Jeter,” I said.

“No,” said Pete.

“Really? Why not? He gets 200-hits a season and hits at the top of a lineup that needs his to get hits. Ten years worth of 200 hits or close to it is nearly 2,000 hits. That adds up.”

“Yeah, but he’s 35,” Pete said.

Apparently Derek Jeter is old… who knew?

But there is some faulty logic at work here on a bunch of fronts. First, of course, is that Pete Rose didn’t get his 3,000th hit until in 1978 when he was 37 and in his 16th Major League season. With 2,723 hits even at 35 and in his 15th big-league season, there’s no reason to think that Jeter couldn’t threaten to become the third player ever to get 4,000 hits.

He might even have a chance to go a little deeper than that.

Say Jeter plays seven more season and continues to average 208 hits per 162 games… that puts his career hit total at 4,179 and that’s not even including the number of hits he’ll get over the final three weeks of this season.

Sure, that’s some rudimentary and basic math and it’s probably not likely that Jeter will be pounding out 200 hits when he is 40, especially considering his contract ends next season and he plays a demanding position. However, maybe Jeter will move to first base or DH a few games a week instead of playing shortstop? Besides, when Pete Rose was 40 he led the National League in hits, and the first four seasons he played first base when he joined the Phillies, Rose got 705 hits.

That’s 705 hits in 594 games from the ages 38 to 41. That comes to an average of 193 hits per 162 games.

Not bad for an old guy.

So could Jeter get close to Rose’s record?

Yeah, if he wants to. That’s the big part of it, of course. Jeter’s deal ends at the end of next season and currently there is no indication that the Yankees won’t re-sign him. After all, Jeter is still the face of the franchise and after passing Lou Gehrig’s all-time club record for hits, it’s doubtful even the Steinbrenners would send Jeter packing the way they did Joe Torre.

Maybe in the year 2017 or so Jeter will be closing in on the Hit King… and who knows, maybe Rose will be able to go to the ballpark by then again, too.

Speaking of all-time franchise leaders in hits, the gang was shooting the bull the other day in the dugout during BP and someone (I think it was Lauber) dropped this nugget:

There are six active players who are the all-time leader in hits for a franchise. Name them.

And don’t cheat by looking up the answer.