It was hardly unexpected, but within an hour-long period on Friday evening, Twitter brought news of the retirements of both Joe Mauer and Chase Utley, two players worthy of spots in the Hall of Fame once they become eligible five years from now, on the 2024 ballot. Mauer, who had not previously declared his intentions, wrote a personal letter to Twins fans, explaining his decision to retire at age 35, while the Dodgers merely announced they had given Utley — who had declared in mid-July that this season would be his final one — his unconditional release so as to facilitate his retirement.
While I’ve written about both players before at FanGraphs, the pairing of the announcements serves as an opportunity to round up that work and update their credentials.
Mauer is the more obviously qualified of the two. A former No. 1 overall pick out of St. Paul, Minnesota’s Cretin-Derham Hall High School in 2001, he spent the entirety of his 15-year career with the Twins, making six All-Star teams, helping the team to four postseason appearances (though, alas, no series wins), and winning three Gold Gloves and three batting titles apiece. Though he debuted on Opening Day 2004 (April 5) with a 2-for-3 showing against the Indians, he was limited to just 35 games in his rookie season due to a torn meniscus in his left knee. Even in that brief stint, he showed that he was a force to be reckoned with at the plate, batting .308/.369/.570 with six homers in 122 plate appearances for a 139 wRC+.
While Mauer would only intermittently show that kind of power thereafter — he had just six seasons with at least 10 homers — he established himself as a high-average, high-OBP hitter in a way seldom seen among catchers. He won batting titles in 2006 (.347), 2008 (.328), and 2009 (.365), making him the only three-time winner among catchers. Hall of Fame Ernie Lombardi is the only two-time winner (.342 in 1938 and .330 in 1942), while Deacon White (.367 in 1875), Bubbles Hargrave (.353 in 1926), and Buster Posey (.336 in 2012) are the only others to win. Mauer topped a .300 average six times as a catcher and once as a first baseman. More importantly, he topped a .400 OBP six times, second among catchers to Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane’s eight, and is the only catcher to lead league more than once, doing so both in 2009 (.444) and 2012 (.416); he ranked among the AL’s top 10 seven times. In that 2009 season, when he hit a career-high 28 home runs, he also led the league in slugging percentage (.587), thereby making him the only catcher ever to win the “Slash Stat” Triple Crown. He was elected the AL MVP that year, receiving 27 out of 28 first-place votes.
Despite his unusual height (6-foot-5), Mauer was an excellent defender behind the plate, leading the league in caught-stealing percentage twice and excelling in pitch framing; via Baseball Prospectus’s metrics, he was at least 10 runs above average in three seasons, at least seven runs above average in five of them, and 65 runs above average for his career, which as of mid-July, ranked 20th since 1988. While he was just two runs above average at catcher according to the version of Defensive Runs Saved that omits framing (the one used in Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, and thus my JAWS system), he was 53.1 above average via BP’s framing-inclusive defensive metrics. He won a trio of Gold Gloves from 2008 to -10.
The physical toll of catching had its impact on Mauer, who only once caught more than 120 games (139 in 2008) and who missed significant time over the years due to knee surgery, a quad strain, a lower back sprain, bilateral weakness in his legs (limiting him to 82 games in 2011), and a foul tip-induced concussion (limiting him to 113 games in 2013, the last on August 19). Mauer’s post-concussion problems, which included difficulty seeing the ball, especially during day games, led the Twins to call an end to his catching career following the 2013 season. He spent the past five seasons, and thus the majority of an eight-year, $184 million contract extension he signed in March 2010, playing first base, where he rarely lived up to the offensive demands of the position; only three times from 2014 to -18 did he post a wRC+ of at least 100, and only in 2017 was he above 110 (116, via a .305/.384/.417 line).
Despite a hot start in 2018, Mauer missed nearly four weeks in May and June with the return of concussion-like symptoms, traceable to his dive for a foul ball against the Angels on May 11. He suffered a whiplash-like neck injury and soon began experiencing further symptoms related to light and noise, which led him to believe that he had suffered another concussion. “[On] the drive home, the symptoms started to really kind of pour on. That’s why you didn’t see me for a couple days,” he told reporters.
Mauer cited the concussions in his retirement letter:
“The decision came down to my health and my family. The risk of concussion is always there, and I was reminded of that this season after missing over 30 games as a result of diving for a foul ball… I am soon to be a father of three and I find myself thinking about my future health and its impact on my family more than I had years ago… If I were to continue playing this game I would want to do so without reservation and I no longer feel that is possible.”
Mauer hadn’t officially made up his mind regarding retirement when the season ended, but just in case, the Twins hatched a plan for him to make a one-pitch cameo behind the plate in the ninth inning of the final game of the season, with his family in attendance. Here’s the highlight reel of that game, including his final hit, a seventh-inning double; the catching cameo starts at 1:56 and you might want to beware of the oncoming dust storm:
As I noted on April 13, Mauer collected his 2,000th hit against the White Sox, a significant milestone because neither the BBWAA nor the various small committees has elected a position player whose career crossed into the post-1960 expansion era with fewer than 2,000 hits, no matter their merits. Only 34 of the 157 position players enshrined for their major-league playing careers collected fewer than 2,000, and only 11 even played in the majors past World War II, none after Larry Doby’s retirement in 1959. Mauer finished with 2,123 hits, including 143 homers, and a .306/.388/.439 line. His 122 wRC+ ranks 12th among players with at least 5,000 plate appearances overall and at least 800 games behind the plate:
+ = Hall of Famer (Torre was elected as manager).
While Mauer wasn’t particularly productive after the move to first base, he nonetheless ranks seventh in JAWS among catchers, surpassing the career and peak WAR standards as well:
|Avg HOF C||53.5||34.5||44.0|
* = active
+ = Hall of Famer
That’s a Hall of Famer in my book, though a certain subset of Twins fans who are convinced that his $23 million annual salary has impeded the team might disagree. In truth, his total of games caught might cause some pushback from the voters, but if the Hall has room for the likes of Ewing, White (who’s classified at third base because he had more value there), King Kelly (584 out of 1,455 games caught, classified as a right fielder), and Bresnahan, none of whom score as well in JAWS, it should be able to find room for Mauer. He’ll be on my ballot, for sure.
So, too, will Utley, though he landed on the wrong side of the 2,000-hit mark, finishing with “only” 1,885 due in part to a late start to his career; he didn’t reach 300 plate appearances in a season until age 26. A six-time All-Star, however, he served as a key contributor on five straight NL East-winning Phillies teams, including their 2008 champions and 2009 pennant winners; he hit a record-tying five home runs in a losing cause in the 2009 World Series against the Yankees. Utley spent parts of 13 seasons with the Phillies (2003-15) before a trade to the Dodgers. He spent the remainder of 2015 and all of 2016 as the regular, but saw diminishing playing time in 2017 and 2018, particularly after announcing his retirement in mid-July. In fact, he got just four hits in 39 plate appearances after the announcement, and none in his last 22 PA, with a left wrist injury sending him to the disabled list for virtually all of August, and the July 31 acquisition of Brian Dozier taking most of the remaining playing time.
I took a lengthy look at Utley’s career at the time of his announcement, so I won’t belabor my points here expect to note that he’s 11th in JAWS at the position despite his late start, about four wins below the career standard but nearly five wins above the peak standard:
|Rk||Name||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS|
|Avg HOF 2B||69.5||44.5||57.0|
* = active
+ = Hall of Famer
While not the heaviest hitter for the position, Utley added tremendous value in terms of his baserunning (45 runs), double-play avoidance (24 runs), and defense (141 runs, fourth at the position behind McPhee, Gordon and Mazeroski). Somehow, he never won a Gold Glove, though as noted by Chris Dial — the inventor of the zone-based Runs Effectively Defended system, which is part of the Sabermetric Defensive Index that now accounts for 25% of the voting — he had four seasons where he quite reasonably could have won, ranking as one of the league’s top two in SDI. He’s first at the position in both Defensive Runs Saved (133) and Ultimate Zone Rating (90.1) since the metrics’ respective inceptions in 2002 and 2003.
Neither Mauer nor Utley is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, but both should benefit from the increasingly mainstream usage of advanced statistics in baseball coverage and from an evolving electorate that will soon include members from sabermetric sites. Baseball Prospectus alums Christina Kahrl and Keith Law will be eligible to vote for the first time this year, I’ll have my own ballot in 2021, and more will follow in our wake. While we await a similar decision from Adrian Beltre, a 3,000-hit club member who will be an easy first-ballot choice, here’s hoping this pair will be part of Cooperstown’s Class of 2024.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.