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With Chase Utley’s career concluded, his Hall of Fame case comes into focus

Chase Utley spent parts of 13 seasons with the Phillies. (Brian Michael/Phillies Nation)

On Oct. 29, 2009, Chase Utley launched two solo home runs off of CC Sabathia in Game 1 of the World Series. Already a defending World Series champion, Utley made his fourth consecutive All-Star team in 2009 – his age-30 season – and appeared well on his way to being a Hall of Famer. Nine years later, Utley was again in uniform at the World Series, but he wasn’t on the Los Angeles Dodgers active roster as the Boston Red Sox defeated the Dodgers to win the 2018 World Series, putting an end to Utley’s illustrious career.

Even after the 2009 World Series concluded with a Phillies loss, Utley looked like a pretty safe bet to be a Hall of Famer. The Phillies weren’t able to repeat as World Series champions, but it wasn’t because of Utley. Despite losing the series in six games, Utley tied Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson – who, of course, is nicknamed Mr. October – with a record five home runs in a single World Series. Despite not playing in more than 100 games in a season until 2005, Utley finished the 2000s with a 40.2 fWAR, a higher mark than Manny Ramirez, Adrian Beltre and Jim Thome, among other Hall of Fame caliber players. And it was Utley – not Jeff Kent, Alfonso Soriano or Placido Polanco – who Sports Illustrated named as the second baseman on their 2000s All-Decade team, despite Utley having received over 1,000 less plate appearances in the decade than each of the aforementioned trio.

Blocked by Polanco, Utley didn’t become the Phillies regular second baseman until his age-26 season. Between 2010 and 2012, chronic knee injuries, ones that seemed to potentially be career-threatening, limited Utley to just 301 of a possible 486 regular season games. There are just 36 Hall of Famers with less than 2,000 career hits, many of whom wouldn’t be elected by today’s standards. Utley finished his career with 1,885 career hits, among the counting numbers that he’ll finish short of traditional Hall of Fame standards on. Despite remarkable longevity – Utley was the oldest active position player that played the full 2018 season – Utley will fall short in terms of counting numbers, which will make him a hard sell to many old-school Hall of Fame voters.

At the same time, the average Hall of Fame second baseman has a WAR7 – which is a sum of a player’s seven highest career single-season WAR totals – of 44.5. Utley finished his career with a WAR7 of 49.3, higher than Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio and Joe Gordon.

Utley’s JAWS – which Baseball Reference says is “a means to measure a player’s Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing him to the players at his position who are already enshrined, using advanced metrics to account for the wide variations in offensive levels that have occurred throughout the game’s history” – is 57.3, slightly topping the 57.0 average of Hall of Fame second basemen.

Even in terms of bWAR, Utley’s 65.4 career total only falls just short of the 69.5 average among Hall of Fame second basemen. Biggio and Alomar both were elected to the Hall of Fame within the last decade while both falling short of the average bWAR of a Hall of Fame second baseman (granted, their counting numbers were much better than Utley’s).

A six-time All-Star, Utley appeared in the postseason nine times in the final 12 years of his career. In 2008 and 2009, the first runs in the World Series came off of the bat of Utley. His 2009 World Series was a historic performance, one that came during a five-year stretch that was the most successful in Phillies franchise history. Utley was perhaps the best player on the 2000s Phillies, who you could make a case were the most successful National League franchise during said decade. He’s probably the most beloved Phillie of all-time, and finished his career in Los Angeles, another major market where he played on successful teams and will be remembered positively. Right or wrong, being well-liked in two major markets isn’t the worst thing for a perspective Hall of Fame candidate.

With that said, New York is a major market, one that employs the most local beat writers and is often the home to many national writers, and at least a portion of New York won’t remember Utley fondly. Utley did have the aforementioned dominant World Series performance against the Yankees in 2009 and was an all-time Mets killer, hitting 39 home runs and driving in 116 runs in 194 career games against the Mets. Utley’s performance as a player against both New York teams should work in his favor, though it is fair to wonder whether Utley’s takeout slide that broke Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada’s fibula in Game 2 of the 2015 NLCS will be held against him by any voters. Considering the controversial slide inspired a new rule – known to the public as “The Utley Rule” – it won’t soon be forgotten, it’s a part of his legacy.

Part of getting elected to the Hall of Fame now involves gaining a passionate backing from a mix of voters, media members and fans. Edgar Martinez, who is entering the final year of his Hall of Fame eligibility, received 70.4 percent of the vote in 2017, after receiving 36.4 percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot in 2010. Social media and more ballots being made public have contributed to Martinez’s remarkable rise in votes received. Some voters simply have realized they were incorrect on how they voted in past ballots. Others have gotten smarter due to the increased availability of sabermetrics, which in addition to more traditional means, help voters to get a clearer picture on the case of each Hall of Fame candidate. And some voters, out of fear, have voted correctly on a candidate that they previously were wrong on.

There’s only so much energy to go around. All the energy will be on Martinez this year, who figures to get into the Hall of Fame. Nothing has changed since last year statistically when he fell just short of the 75 percent threshold needed to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Nothing has changed since he received just 36.4 percent of the vote in 2010. But having the energy of the baseball world behind you has become crucial to candidates whose case perhaps isn’t as clear-cut as Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson.

In coming years, energy will likely be focused on Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling and Larry Walker, all of whom have interesting Hall of Fame cases. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who have interesting cases for entirely different reasons, are getting late in their time on the ballot. But Utley, widely viewed as a Hall of Famer in the sabermetric community, will eventually have that energy behind him, which could help his effort to get into Cooperstown.

Time will tell if Utley ultimately finds his way into baseball’s most prestigious club. The UCLA product won’t even become eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot until 2024. Though there was a time where he looked like he would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, that almost certainly won’t prove to be the case. So for the better part of the next 15 years (and perhaps even beyond), Utley’s Hall of Fame case will be heavily debated. What verdict Hall of Fame voters will ultimately return on Utley’s Hall of Fame case is unclear, though it’s a safe bet they’ll be pushed in one direction by the city of Philadelphia.


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