The other day I was walking around the house, reveling in the latest Phillies victory, and spouting off to my fiancee Suz about how great Chase Utley is when she asked me, “Is he going to the Hall of Fame?”
I told her that Utley got a bit of a late start, that he didn’t play his first full season in the bigs until he was 26, and that would make it hard.
But then I did a little more research, and now I think Utley’s got a better than average shot at Cooperstown.
I realize this discussion is ridiculously premature. Utley could break his leg tomorrow and never be the same again. But it’s a Monday morning and debating Utley’s HOF chances is better than the alternative — real work.
My argument boils down to this: over the last 4.5 seasons, Utley has played his position better than any second baseman in the modern era, save Joe Morgan. And Utley gives even “Little Joe” a run for his money.
Dave Cameron says, “Utley is so far and away the best offensive second baseman in the game, it’s ridiculous to even consider anyone else.” Cameron made that statement in the context of Utley’s ridiculously high WPA/LI, a stat developed by Tango Tiger that measures win probability added, giving extra credit to players who come through in “clutch” situations, when the game is late, or close, or when there are runners on base.
Moreover, Hall of Fame voters, unless they get sophisticated in a hurry, probably won’t consider Utley’s WPA/LI when they assess his career.
But they won’t need to.
Here’s what you’d need to know, if you were looking at Utley’s HOF case right now: Utley has a 162-game-average of 30 HR, 109 RBIs and 109 runs, to go with a .298/.380/.529 line. That’s better than Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar and Craig Biggio. It’s even better than Morgan, though we’ve got to give Joe credit for averaging 45 steals per season (and Biggio swiped a few bags himself, topping out at 50).
Now, it’s important to note that Sandberg, Alomar and Biggio stuck around way past their prime, while Morgan played 22 seasons without ever declining much. And Utley’s career numbers will probably dip as he gets older. However, neither Sandberg or Biggio put up Utley-esque numbers, even in their primes.
There’s no doubt that we’re watching a Hall-worthy hitter, at least when you compare him to second basemen past and present. Can he keep it up? I dunno. His age is working against him. But at 30, Utley is having perhaps his best season and is showing no signs of decline.
On defense, Utley is almost as good as he is with the bat. Over the last four seasons, the Phillies’ second baseman has put together the following Ultimate Zone Ratings: 17.8, 9.2, 15.7, and 20.2. Last season, his +/- score was so high that Cameron says “it almost certainly contains a good bit of noise that isn’t actually measuring Utley’s real defensive value.” In other words, it was too good to be true. Still, Cameron conservatively estimates that Utley was 20 runs better than an average second baseman in 2008, and John Dewan, author of The Fielding Bible, says Utley is reinventing how second base is played by positioning himself close to first base against left-handed pull hitters:
[I]n general, the key appears to be that he is moving closer to first base against lefties than virtually any other second baseman in baseball. BIS Video Scouts, who watch every game and chart nearly everything you can imagine, have said the same thing. Utley has a strong tendency to position himself towards hitters’ pull side.
Here on Umpbump, we tend to focus on stats (and unfortunate facial hair and hot baseball wives), but it’s a fact that Hall of Fame voters look at more than numbers, so I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a few of Utley’s intangibles:
- Every season, he’s hit by a pitch more than any other player. This may ultimately be Chase’s undoing, as his unwillingness to dodge the inside fastballs has already resulted in a broken hand and time on the DL. But you’ve got to admire his fearlessness.
- As his +/- numbers show, Utley is an intelligent player. The other night, I watched him position himself for a pick-off throw in such a way as to totally block the runner’s path back to the bag. Little things like that help make him a better defender than more athletic guys like Brandon Phillips.
- He plays his best in big situations. Who could forget the seventh inning of the championship clincher for the Phillies, when he made a brilliant pump-fake to first to bait the Rays’ Jason Bartlett to go home, then made a strong throw to get the go-ahead run at the plate? Clutch.
- World F******* Champs. Utley spends the better part of seven seasons spouting Crash Davis cliches, cementing a reputation as the worst interview in sports, then he busts out the soundbite of the century.
Look, I know I’m more than a little biased, as a life-long Phillies fan. I know Utley is probably gonna need another 3-5 productive seasons before he’s seriously discussed as a Hall of Famer.
But while I was once quick to dismiss Chase’s HOF chances, I’m now of the opinion that he’s got a decent shot. He’s a great second baseman. End of discussion.