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Phillies Nuggets: Chase Utley’s peak dominance should propel him to Hall of Fame

Chase Utley’s Hall of Fame case will be highly debated after his career concludes. (Brian Michael/Phillies Nation)

At the peak of his career, Chase Utley appeared destined to be a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame. On a Sunday Night Baseball broadcast in 2007, Jon Miller remarked that some thought Utley was the best overall second baseman since Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, one of the core pieces of the Cincinnati Reds “Big Red Machine” in the 1970s. Seconds after Miller said that, Utley launched a ball into the bullpen in right-center field at Citizens Bank Park. Morgan, who was the color commentator for the game, simply said “I’ll say” as Utley began to trot around the bases.

Knee problems at the back-half of his prime will prevent him from being a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but Utley’s historically dominant peak make him worthy of being a Hall of Famer.

Consider this: the average WAR 7 – which is the bWAR of a player’s seven best seasons – of a Hall of Fame second baseman is 44.5. Utley’s WAR 7 is 49.3. That WAR 7 tops Hall of second basemen Ryne Sandberg, Bobby Grich, Frankie Frisch, Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio, Joe Gordon and Nellie Fox, among many others. It comfortably tops Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler, both of whom will draw Hall of Fame consideration at the conclusion of their careers.

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The average JAWS – a statistic created by Jay Jaffe of FanGraphs to compare candidates to those already in the Hall of Fame at their positions – of a Hall of Fame second baseman is 57.0. Utley’s JAWS is 57.4. That’s equal to the JAWS of Frisch, .1 lower than Sanderg’s JAWS and higher than the JAWS of Jackie Robinson, Alomar, Gordon and Biggio, again, among other Hall of Fame second basemen.

The only area where Utley falls short among the sabermetric community is bWAR, but only slightly. The average bWAR of a Hall of Fame second baseman is 69.5, while Utley’s career bWAR currently sits at 65.6. That number presumably won’t fluctuate much either way in the final months of the 39-year-old’s career. Alomar and Gordon, both elected to the Hall of Fame within the last decade, fall short of the 69.5 bWAR as well. These three numbers, which have become baselines for the sabermetric community, are more guidelines than strict numbers. It’s not as though voters that value advance metrics will altogether dismiss Utley’s case because he falls a bit short in terms of total bWAR.

More traditional voters will find things to hold against Utley.

He never won a Gold Glove Award at second base, though FanGraphs says that between 2006 and 2010 Utley was the best fielding second baseman in baseball. In fact, FanGraphs says that during the same period Utley was the second best fielder in all of baseball, trailing only St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. Brandon Phillips, while playing for the Cincinnati Reds, won two Gold Gloves during this period, perhaps a sign that voters valued the flashiness that showed up on SportsCenter over consistent excellence in the field.

Utley also never won an MVP award. There is a school of thought that suggests if John Lannan didn’t break his hand in July of 2007, Utley, not his teammate Jimmy Rollins, would have won the MVP. In 132 games in 2007, Utley slashed .332/.410/.566 with 22 home runs, 103 RBIs, a 44.0 offensive WAR, a 14.4 defensive WAR and an 8.2 fWAR. Unfortunately for Utley, he missed nearly a month that season and was penalized for it.

Utley actually never even had a top-five finish in National League MVP voting. However, Utley again posted an 8.2 fWAR in 2008, the second highest total in the National League. Albert Pujols deserved to win the award that year, but Utley finishing 14th that year was objectively ridiculous. Ryan Howard, with a 1.8 fWAR finished second. Brad Lidge and Geovany Soto both finished in front of Utley. I’d like to think we’ve gotten significantly smarter in the last decade plus, because Utley probably should have finished in the top five in voting in 2005, 2006 and 2009 as well.

All-Star selections, in my opinion, aren’t a good way to gauge someone’s Hall of Fame worthiness. First of all, fans often just vote for the stars that play for their favorite teams. Secondly, All-Star voting concludes before July, with three months left in the season. There have been plenty of players who have had tremendous first halves and fallen off in the second-half of the season – see: Saunders, Michael; 2016.

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Using All-Star selections to gauge someone’s Hall of Fame worthiness is flawed, for many reasons. However, Utley’s played in six All-Star Games. While that may fall a little short of some other Hall of Fame second basemen, six is still a lot. Hall of Fame voters may do deep dive comparing certain aspects of candidates to those already in the Hall of Fame, All-Star Game appearances probably isn’t one of those things.

The one deficiency that Utley’s legacy may not be able to overcome in the minds of some is his counting numbers. Forget 3,000 hits, Utley will likely finish his career around 1,900 hits, more than 800 hits shy of Alomar. Alomar hit .300 for his career, while Utley’s .276 career batting average doesn’t jump off the page. To voters whose first priority is counting numbers or just traditional statistics, they may resort to the oft-used “it’s not the Hall of Very Good argument.”

If they use Curt Schilling’s extremely flawed “what’s your first reaction, is he a Hall of Famer or not?” test it’s difficult to tell how voters will feel. Voters in Philadelphia and Los Angeles are among those that would be more likely to vote for Utley. Voters in New York, for a variety of reasons, probably wouldn’t. Sabermetric voters will likely campaign for Utley’s Hall of Fame case, while more traditional voters will respond by saying that Utley falls short because he didn’t reach 2,000 hits.

Truth be told, it’s hard to tell whether Utley will ultimately be elected. It’s a shame that his case won’t turn out to be as clear-cut as it should have. But from here, Utley was so dominant during his peak that it should allow him to overcome his relatively low counting numbers and be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Utley Nuggets

  • Hideki Matsui won the 2009 World Series MVP, batting .615 with three home runs and eight RBIs. But when you consider that he didn’t start any of the three games in Philadelphia, you could make a case that Chase Utley was the most valuable player in the series. Let’s revisit:
  • Despite not playing more than 100 games in a season until 2005, FanGraphs says that Utley was the 18th most valuable offensive player between 2000 and 2009. Some of the names that he’s above are pretty incredible: Manny Ramirez, Jorge Posada, Adrian Beltre, Miguel Tejada, Jeff Kent, Jim Thome, Jason Giambi and Jimmy Rollins.
  • In 2005, Chase Utley, despite posting a 7.2 fWAR, finished 13th in National League MVP voting. You know who got one vote point for the award that same year? His future teammate Scott Eyre, then pitching with the San Francisco Giants.
  • It will be interesting to see if Chase Utley starts all three games when the Dodgers visit Citizens Bank Park from July 23-July 25. On one hand, Utley’s been a pretty ineffective player this year and the Dodgers are in the thick of a contested race in the National League West. Logan Forsythe, Kike Hernandez and Max Muncy have all gotten starts at second base in the last week. Utley’s started at second twice in the last 10 games. On the other hand, it could be his final trip into the place that he became an icon at and the stadium will likely be sold out each game with fans hoping to watch Utley one last time. So Roberts will have a tough decision to make. One would think he’ll have to at least appear in each game.
  • There is a scenario where Utley’s final game against the Phillies won’t come in an afternoon game on July 25: the one where the Phillies and Dodgers meet in the postseason. Boy, it would be strange for the Phillies – back in the playoffs for the first time since Utley helped the team to win a franchise-record 102 games in 2011 – to square off with Utley in the final postseason of his career.

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