When Chase Utley first becomes eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot in 2024, one of the arguments that some will use against him is that not only did he never win the National League MVP voting, but he never finished in the top five.
This piece isn’t about Utley’s Hall of Fame worthiness, but if you don’t believe that the six-time All-Star has a resume worthy of Cooperstown, it would behoove you to find another argument at some point in the next four years.
No, Utley didn’t ever finish in the top five in National League MVP, but that’s more of an indictment on what voters valued at the time than his resume.
In 2005, Utley’s first full major league season, the second baseman slashed .291/.376/.540 with 28 home runs, 105 RBIs, a .915 OPS, 23 defensive runs saved and a 7.2 fWAR. FanGraphs says that he was the fourth most valuable offensive player in the sport that season.
Voters rewarded him with a 13th-place finish in National League MVP voting. He actually finished third among players on his own team, with Pat Burrell’s 117 RBIs and 99 walks propelling him to a seventh-place finish, while the bulk of one of the longest hitting streaks in MLB history helped Rollins to finish 10th. Burrell, Rollins, Albert Pujols, Andruw Jones, Derrek Lee, Morgan Ensberg, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Delgado, Chris Carpenter, Brian Giles, Dontrelle Willis and Jason Bay all finished above Utley in National League MVP voting. Only Pujols and Jones topped him in fWAR.
There is a reality – one that was especially prevalent in 2005 – that you need to have a household name to compete for an MVP Award that’s voted on by national writers. This holds especially true if your case isn’t based on a historic home run output.
Still, by 2006, voters shouldn’t have been surprised by Utley turning in another dominant campaign. In his age-26 season, Utley made his first National League All-Star team and finished the season with a .309/.379/.527 slash line, 32 home runs, 102 RBIs and a 7.2 fWAR. For the second consecutive season, FanGraphs says that Utley was again the fourth-most valuable offensive player in all of baseball.
National League MVP voters decided that Utley was tied with New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes for the seventh-most valuable player in the senior circuit that season. Reyes was an excellent player at his peak, but Utley topped him in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, RBIs, runs scored, OPS, OPS+, defensive runs saved and fWAR in 2006. Reyes was one of the great basestealers of his time, and swiped 60 bags in 2006, compared to 15 from Utley. But there’s no legitimate case to be made that Reyes was a better overall player than Utley in 2006.
WAR is not the be-all, end-all. It’s certainly a valuable tool, but it’s hard to argue with Ryan Howard winning the 2006 National League MVP when he hit .313 with 58 home runs and 149 RBIs. Sometimes, you’re so dominant in one facet of the game that it’s impossible to overlook. But that argument only goes so far. Lance Berkman, Miguel Cabrera and Alfonso Soriano all had excellent 2006 seasons. They weren’t, however, more valuable than Utley simply because they had more prolific power outputs.
As far as Utley’s chance to win a National League MVP Award, 2007 is probably the season that burns the most. For the second straight season, one of Utley’s teammates won the award, this time it was Rollins. Rollins had one of the most complete seasons in Phillies history in 2007, edging out Colorado Rockies outfielder Matt Holliday for the award after he famously called the Phillies “The team to beat” in the National League East before the season and ultimately helped the club to snap a long postseason drought.
However, while there’s a legitimate debate to be had about whether Rollins or Holliday was better in 2007, FanGraphs says that from a statistical sense David Wright, Pujols, Chipper Jones, Holliday and Soriano were more valuable offensively that season.
Oh, and Utley too. Despite being limited to 132 games, Utley put together probably the best season of his career, slashing .332/.410/.566 with 22 home runs, 103 RBIs and a 7.7 fWAR. Had Washington Nationals left-hander John Lannan not broken his hand by hitting him with a pitch in late July, it may have been Utley who won the award, rather than Rollins. While there’s a case to be made that you shouldn’t win the MVP award if you miss a month of the season, Utley graded out as the sixth-best player in all of baseball in 2007, despite missing a month. He finished eighth in National League MVP voting.
Utley’s historically dominant peak continued in 2008, as he posted a staggering 8.2 fWAR, which trailed only Pujols and Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann in all of baseball. Utley tallied a career-high 30 defensive runs saved in 2008, a mark that not only led second basemen, but all players in the sport.
The Phillies won the second World Series title in franchise history in 2008, but you can guess how Utley’s season was seen by MVP voters. He finished 14th in National League MVP voting. 14th! Brad Lidge, Delgado, Aramis Ramirez, Hanley Ramirez, Chipper Jones, Geovany Soto and Johan Santana finished above Utley in voting. The problem with writing these type of pieces is it gives off the impression you are tearing others down. That’s not the case. Soto, the Chicago Cubs catcher, was one of the best players at his position in 2008. Utley topped him in virtually every statistically category, and comfortably in most cases. This dynamic wasn’t just limited to Soto, either.
The crazy thing is that by the 2009 season, there was a real feeling – one that wasn’t just limited to Philadelphia – that Utley may be the best second baseman since Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, who many consider to be the greatest player in the history of the position. Utley started at second base for the National League All-Star team in 2006, 2007 and 2008. For whatever reason, there was just a disconnect between awards voters.
Utley would start at second base for the National League All-Star team again in 2009. For the second straight year, he posted an 8.2 fWAR, a mark that, respectively, none of his position playing teammates ever approached. He returned to the familiar spot of fourth-most valuable offensive player in all of baseball according to FanGraphs leaderboards. And yet, you know the story by now: Utley finished eighth in National League MVP voting. Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier, who tallied a 2.2 fWAR in 160 regular season games, finished two spots above Utley.
The 2010 and 2011 seasons were very productive ones when he played, but knee issues limited him to just 218 of 324 possible regular season games. They kept him from accumulating counting statistics that would have made him a lock for the Hall of Fame.
Still, as Utley’s career appeared to be threatened by injuries in his early 30s, you were left to reflect on just how dominant he was between 2005 and 2009.
Over that five-season stretch, FanGraphs says that Utley was the second most valuable offensive player in baseball, trailing only Pujols. That means he graded out as a more valuable offensive player over that half decade than Alex Rodriguez, Joe Mauer, Ichiro Suzuki, Derek Jeter, Grady Sizemore, Chipper Jones, Mark Teixeira, Cabrera, Berkman, Holliday, Wright and Beltran, among others.
What’s more, Utley graded out as the fifth-best fielder in all of baseball over that same period. He was never as flashy as someone like Brandon Phillips, but Utley was an excellent fielder at his peak.
Part of winning an MVP award is having your peak season at the right time. Because Utley’s peak overlapped with that of Pujols, one of the greatest right-handed hitters in MLB history, perhaps he was never the most valuable player in the National League. But to say he was never one of the five most valuable players in the National League during his peak would be laughable.
Considering WAR and defensive runs saved were considered fringe – or not considered at all – during much of Utley’s peak, some will argue that it’s unfair to apply today’s standards to a different era. But while many of these advanced metrics aren’t perfect, they have unquestionably helped us to better gauge value. And they clearly demonstrate that Utley was shafted by MVP voters during his peak.
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