We tend to think about hitters in strictly offensive terms. If they have a season OPS of .700, we’re quick to dismiss them and ask for their waive. Look at Pedro Feliz, a lukewarm hitter if there was one, but an above-average glove at third base, with a cannon arm to match.When assessing Chase Utley’s 2008 season, that same logic seems to apply — tough year that could’ve been so much better. But hey, let’s look at the whole game, shall we?
Sky Kalkman at Beyond the Box Score did a tremendous sabermetrics recap of the top players at each position in 2008. Of course, Utley was his top second baseman of 2008, but what wasn’t expected was his generous lead:
- Chase Utley – 53 runs over replacement offense / 21 runs over replacement defense / 2 points for position difficulty / 76 total runs over replacement
- Dustin Pedroia – 50 runs over replacement offense / 9 runs over replacement defense / 2 points for position difficulty / 61 total runs over replacement
And Pedroia is an MVP candidate in the American League.
Utley’s offensive first half was unmatched in baseball: .291 AVG / 25 HR / 69 RBI / .955 OPS. But his defense really blossomed in 2008, and came out for show in the second half. I can recall a few unbelievable plays that likely saved a run, such as his mad dash to tag out a straying runner to complete a double play at second base. Then there was the postseason — a few leaping grabs, some clean double plays, but no play will top his miracle work in game five of the World Series:
The Rays had scored the tying run in the top of the seventh inning. It was 3-3 and Jason Bartlett stood on second base with two outs. Akinori Iwamura swung late and punched one down the turnpike — an easy infield single. Utley bagged it deep in the hole, then pumped a throw for first. That caught Bartlett’s attention, and he busted for home. Utley never threw it; instead, he set himself, then rifled a throw to Carlos Ruiz to tag out Bartlett. Three outs. Big out.
The Phils would knock in the winning run in the bottom of the seventh.
Point to that play as the one that won the Series. Sure, the Phils probably would’ve won at some point, but maybe not. Utley’s intelligent play turned the momentum completely back in the Phils favor, and Pat Burrell seized the moment with a rally-starting double. Utley’s stutter and throw was perhaps the smartest play I’ve ever seen made in my baseball-watching life. And it came in the biggest moment of the biggest game of his life.
A play like that shows you why Utley has been said to be worth 21 more defensive runs than your garden-variety major leaguer, and according to the numbers, the best defensive player in the major leagues. A fully rounded baseball player, and maybe the best there is.