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    Thursday, July 19, 2018

    With Chase Utley's Retirement Announcement, an Early Look at His Cooperstown Case

    Chase Utley announced on Friday that 2018 would be his last season, bringing his fantastic sixteen-year career to a close. Naturally, because I’m me, I decided to write about his Hall of Fame chances (and besides, the induction ceremony is coming up soon anyway, so it’s doubly-relevant!). Writing too-early Hall of Fame campaign pieces is kind of my thing.

    I think it’s going to be pretty obvious where I fall on this issue, seeing as Utley makes regular appearances in my Future Hall of Fame pieces. But those are wide focuses that don’t allow me much time with each individual player, so let’s take a minute for me to break down why I think Chase Utley is a Hall of Famer in platonic sense, even if I think its likely voters will fail to make him one in the literal sense.

    It’s pretty easy to see why the BBWAA would miss on him: he just doesn’t have the counting numbers, and for as much as the Hall claims to consider peak performance in addition to career totals, all evidence on the matter shows they have a harder time weighing good peaks equally to sustained success. The early-2000s Phillies were overly-cautious with their prospects, so Utley didn’t see a full season in the bigs until 2005 when he was already 26. There’s some pretty compelling arguments they waited a little too long there (Utley posted a 132 OPS+ and 2.3 WAR in 2004 in just 94 games, then had an MVP-type year the next season), but what’s done is done.

    As a result of that decision, Utley’s career totals look nice but not overwhelming, with (to date) 259 homers, 153 stolen bases, 1025 RBI, and 1880 hits. That last number is probably the most damning to his cause; no position player to debut since the 1950s has made it to Cooperstown with less than 2000 hits. Utley would need to reach the 150 hit mark this year to make it to 2000, and he’s done that just once since 2009.

    Of course, by WAR and other value-based stats, he looks like a no-brainer. Fangraphs has him at 63.2 WAR, twelfth all-time among second basemen. Baseball-Reference’s version is pretty similar, putting Utley at 65.6 and fourteenth overall. Something like JAWS, which takes peak into account, also comes out favorably for Chase; his 57.4 mark is just above the Hall average for the position, 57.0. And what’s more, he stacks up pretty well to the most recent Hall inductees in value (2006 inductee Frank Grant excluded due to incomplete Negro League stats):

    Player Inducted FWAR 2B Rank BWAR 2B Rank
    Chase Utley N/A 63.2 12 65.6 14
    Craig Biggio 2015 65.8 10 65.5 15
    Roberto Alomar 2011 63.6 11 67.1 12
    Joe Gordon 2009 60.6 16 57.2 17
    Ryne Sandberg 2005 60.9 15 68.0 10
    Bill Mazeroski 2001 30.9 58 36.5 46
    Bid McPhee 2000 62.7 13 52.6 21
    Nellie Fox 1997 45.2 29 49.0 26
    Tony Lazzeri 1991 50.1 22 50.0 25
    Rod Carew 1991 72.3 7 81.3 5
    Joe Morgan 1990 98.8 4 100.6 4
    Red Schoendienst 1989 37.4 46 42.3 36
    Bobby Doerr 1986 53.3 21 51.2 23
    Billy Herman 1975 55.0 19 54.8 20

    Utley is right in the mix with the last three decades’ worth of inductees. And in fact, this table covers every MLB second baseman inducted since Jackie Robinson in 1962, meaning that, when Utley comes up on the ballot in 2024, he’ll be more or less in line with the last six decades of inductees.

    Of course, the problem is that Utley looks a lot like guys like Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker, who have largely been overlooked in Hall voting.* Both of those guys are right around 70 Wins by both sites’ versions of WAR. So, independent of WAR, what would a Cooperstown Case for Utley look like?

    *Of course, even that may change before Utley comes up on the ballot; I have to think Whitaker at least will see a boost the next time he comes up on the Veterans Committee ballot thanks to his long-time double play partner Alan Trammell getting a second look.
    Unfortunately for Utley, his case actually looks a lot like Scott Rolen’s, maybe just a tick or two worse. While I think Rolen is a pretty easy “yes”, the BBWAA doesn’t seem to share my enthusiasm. Rolen got just 10.2% of the vote in 2018 (well shy of the 75% needed to make it), and though there’s still time for him to make it, a player just shy of his credentials might not make the 5% needed to stay on the ballot for a second year.

    With Rolen, I spent a lot of time basically arguing that he was one of the best all-around third basemen of all time; few hit better than him, few fielded better than him, and no one did both of those better than he did. Utley is similar in a lot of ways, albeit not quite as dominant. For instance, among all second basemen (50% of their games at the position) with 5000 or more plate appearances, Utley’s .825 OPS ranks eleventh all-time, and his 117 OPS+ rates sixteenth. If you prefer weighted Runs Created+ (wRC+), his 119 comes out pretty similarly (nineteenth, but Fangraphs’ sorting doesn’t take out players with less than half their games at second base).

    Even if you’re going to argue against his playing time, it’s worth noting that Utley doesn’t suffer much, with his stellar baserunning helping offset his slightly lower career plate appearances. Yeah, you might not realize it, but Utley is an all-timer in baserunning, despite his modest speed. Among all players with 100 stolen base attempts, Utley has the best success rate at 87.4% (153 steals versus just 22 outs). That intelligence at when to go carried through to taking the extra base as well, so that overall he’s rated second (Fangraphs, 75.5 runs added) and sixth (Baseball-Reference, 44.7 runs) among second basemen, and fourteenth and forty-fifth, respectively, across all positions. That’s part of why, at his position, he rates eleventh and sixteenth (again, respectively) in offensive WAR, which combines batting with running.

    Either way, arguing he’s easily a top-twenty hitter at his position isn’t bad when a) there are way more Hall of Fame second basemen than that, and b) it was just one part of his multi-faceted game. Utley was also a defensive whiz at his position, with the defensive component of WAR placing him twenty-third (Fangraphs, 116.9 runs) and eighth (B-R, 183 runs) of all-time. In addition, UZR was introduced in 2002 and therefore doesn’t have the historic legacy, but since then, Utley ranks first among second basemen and eighth overall. Unfortunately, award voters didn’t recognize his brilliance, and have yet to give him a Gold Glove, but he has been recognized by more advanced voting bodies like the Fielding Bible Awards. No matter how you slice it, Utley seems to have been a top ten-fifteen offensive and defensive second baseman, and only half a dozen or so players have an argument to best him on both sides of the game.

    Unfortunately, those last two points are a pretty good summary of the other points that will hurt him, after career totals. Utley was always underappreciated by awards voters (and the larger public), and a lot of his closest comps were similarly underrated. As mentioned, without Gold Gloves, it’s unlikely that a majority of voters will recognize his fielding prowess. His late start and semi-regular injuries meant that he “only” wound up with six All-Star appearances. And he went pretty under-recognized in MVP voting, frequently at the expense of his teammates; he never ranked higher than seventh, even though you could make a legitimate cases for him in several seasons.

    Stuff like that matters to voters, who care a lot about things like narrative and legacy. But not being recognized at the time, they’ve set the precedent that Hall voters (remember, the BBWAA does both votes, so some of them were the ones making those decisions at the time) will apply. It’s a shame that something like that might ultimately be a major factor in denying him induction.

    Of course, I can’t get too negative just yet. There are a lot of narrative elements on his side as well. He was a popular face on a powerhouse team in the late-2000s Phillies, with several iconic moments. He’s largely seen as a clubhouse leader. And besides, 2024 is a long way away still, and maybe the conditions for election will be better by then. Maybe the backlog will be more cleared out in six years, or new rules will be in place to help move things along. There’s a wave of more analytical writers joining the Hall voting body before Utley hits the ballot, and maybe they can keep him around to build up a case. Maybe someone like Lou Whitaker or Bobby Grich gets inducted and paves the way for a “Why Not Utley?” moment. Of course, maybe if we start building up his support early enough, he could even end up paving the way for other players who have been overlooked. Only time will tell.

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