Retiring Mauer and Utley Both Worthy of Cooperstown

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:

Highest Career wRC+ Among Catchers
Rk Player G Caught PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+
1 Mike Piazza+ 1912 1630 7745 427 .308 .377 .545 140
2 Gene Tenace 1555 892 5525 201 .241 .388 .429 140
3 Mickey Cochrane+ 1482 1451 6206 119 .320 .419 .478 132
4 Joe Torre 2209 903 8802 252 .297 .365 .452 129
5 Roger Bresnahan+ 1446 974 5374 26 .279 .386 .377 128
6 Gabby Hartnett+ 1990 1793 7297 236 .297 .370 .489 127
7 Bill Dickey+ 1789 1708 7060 202 .313 .382 .486 126
8t Johnny Bench+ 2158 1742 8673 389 .267 .342 .476 125
8t Ernie Lombardi+ 1853 1544 6349 190 .306 .358 .460 125
10 Yogi Berra+ 2120 1699 8364 358 .285 .348 .482 124
11 Jorge Posada 1828 1574 7150 275 .273 .374 .474 123
12t Joe Mauer 1858 921 7960 143 .306 .388 .439 122
12t Mickey Tettleton 1485 872 5745 245 .241 .369 .449 122
14 Wally Schang 1842 1435 6423 59 .284 .393 .401 120
15 Carlton Fisk+ 2499 2226 9853 376 .269 .341 .457 117
Minimum 5,000 plate appearances and 800 games caught.
+ = 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:

Catcher JAWS Leaderboard
Rk Name Career Peak JAWS
1 Johnny Bench+ 75.2 47.2 61.2
2 Gary Carter+ 70.1 48.4 59.3
3 Ivan Rodriguez+ 68.7 39.8 54.3
4 Carlton Fisk+ 68.5 37.6 53.0
5 Mike Piazza+ 59.6 43.1 51.4
6 Yogi Berra+ 59.4 37.0 48.2
7 Joe Mauer 55.1 39.0 47.0
8 Bill Dickey+ 55.8 34.2 45.0
9 Mickey Cochrane+ 52.1 36.9 44.5
Avg HOF C 53.5 34.5 44.0
10 Ted Simmons 50.3 34.8 42.6
11 Gabby Hartnett+ 53.4 30.3 41.9
12 Thurman Munson 46.1 37.0 41.6
13 Gene Tenace 46.8 35.0 40.9
14 Bill Freehan 44.8 33.7 39.3
15 Buster Posey* 41.3 37.1 39.2
16 Buck Ewing+ 47.7 30.4 39.1
17 Jorge Posada 42.8 32.7 37.7
18 Ernie Lombardi+ 45.9 27.8 36.9
19 Jason Kendall 41.7 30.4 36.0
20 Wally Schang 45.0 25.2 35.1
22 Roger Bresnahan+ 40.9 28.8 34.9
26 Yadier Molina 38.9 28.6 33.7
27 Roy Campanella+ 34.1 32.8 33.5
28 Russell Martin* 37.1 26.8 31.9
32 Brian McCann* 31.7 24.4 28.0
41 Ray Schalk+ 28.6 22.1 25.3
46 Rick Ferrell+ 29.8 19.9 24.8
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Note rankings discontinuity after top 20.
* = 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:

Second Base JAWS Leaderboard
Rk Name Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
1 Rogers Hornsby+ 127.0 73.5 100.3
2 Eddie Collins+ 124.0 64.3 94.1
3 Nap Lajoie+ 107.4 60.3 83.9
4 Joe Morgan+ 100.6 59.3 79.9
5 Charlie Gehringer+ 80.7 50.5 65.6
6 Rod Carew+ 81.3 49.8 65.5
7 Robinson Cano 67.6 50.5 59.0
8 Bobby Grich 71.1 46.4 58.7
9 Ryne Sandberg+ 68.0 47.1 57.5
10 Chase Utley 65.6 49.3 57.4
11 Frankie Frisch+ 70.4 44.4 57.4
Avg HOF 2B 69.5 44.5 57.0
12 Jackie Robinson+ 61.4 52.0 56.7
13 Lou Whitaker 75.1 37.9 56.5
14 Roberto Alomar+ 67.1 42.9 55.0
15 Craig Biggio+ 65.5 41.8 53.7
16 Joe Gordon+ 57.2 45.8 51.5
17 Willie Randolph 65.9 36.3 51.1
18 Ian Kinsler 57.3 40.4 48.9
19 Dustin Pedroia 52.1 42.4 47.3
20 Jeff Kent 55.4 35.7 45.6
21 Billy Herman+ 54.8 35.5 45.1
22 Bobby Doerr+ 51.2 36.4 43.8
23 Nellie Fox+ 49.0 36.8 42.9
25 Tony Lazzeri+ 50.0 35.1 42.6
28 Bid McPhee+ 52.6 29.4 41.0
29 Johnny Evers+ 47.7 33.4 40.5
36 Red Schoendienst+ 42.3 31.7 37.0
51 Bill Mazeroski+ 36.5 26.0 31.2
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Note rankings discontinuity after top 20.
* = 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... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
4 years ago

I can see the argument for Mauer, but I just don’t see Utley getting very much support. I will say that the chart shows a number of doubtful candidates have been inducted at second base so that might have a bearing when he gets to the committee elections in 15 years.

4 years ago
Reply to  Tim

I am hoping that voters will see Utley as the best player on a couple of championship teams. This is not the best way to evaluate players, but maybe they’ll get the right decision the wrong way.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Couple? I agree that Utley was the best player on those Phillie teams (only if you don’t count the pitchers), but they did only win one series.

However, regardless of that, he compares favorably to Ryne Sandberg and isn’t far off Robby Alomar.

4 years ago
Reply to  stan

Dammit (Yankees), you’re right. I must have blocked out the actual outcome in 2009.

That said, I stand by my argument he was the best player on those Phillies teams, up until they went out and got Halladay for the 2010 season.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

According to the voters, Utley wasn’t the best player on those teams at the time.

Handsome Wes
4 years ago
Reply to  Tim

I agree – Utley ends his career with 1885 hits and a 117 OPS+. Those numbers are solid, but they don’t exactly scream “HALL OF FAME!”.

After all, those stats – and others – trail ones put up by Jeff Kent (who, unlike Utley, won an MVP award) and Kent can’t crack what, 25% of the HOF vote?

Also – in five years, you’re looking at a ballot that will likely feature Ichiro, Mauer, Utley, David Wright, possibly Adrian Beltre, and maybe even guys who were previously eligible but not elected (A-Rod, David Ortiz, Carlos Beltran) taking up spots… I don’t see Utley getting to 75 percent easily.

4 years ago
Reply to  Handsome Wes

Slot squeeze.

Anthony Calamis
4 years ago
Reply to  Handsome Wes

Kent’s suffering from the mega ballot logjam. The ballot he debuted on, the 2014 one, had 2014 newcomers Greg Maddux (elected in 2014), Tom Glavine (2014), Frank Thomas (2014) and Mike Mussina (63.5% last year), second-ballot candidates Craig Biggio (elected in 2015), Barry Bonds (56.4% last year), Roger Clemens (57.3% last year), Mike Piazza (elected in 2016), Curt Schilling (51.2% last year) and Sammy Sosa (~8% last year), fourth-ballot candidates Jeff Bagwell (elected in 2017), Larry Walker (34.2% last year) and Rafael Palmeiro (2014 would be his last ballot) , fifth-ballot candidates Edgar Martinez (70.4% last year) and Fred McGriff (~23% last year), seventh-ballot candidate Tim Raines (elected in 2017), eight-ballot candidate Mark McGwire (regularly pulled 10-25% w/ 583 HR), twelfth-ballot candidate Lee Smith (who cleared 50% in 2012 and might make it in the class of 2019), thirteenth-ballot candidate Alan Trammell (who made it in 2018), fourteenth-ballot candidate Don Mattingly (an MVP) and fifteenth-ballot candidate Jack Morris (elected in 2018).

The next four classes have added John Smoltz (1st ballot), Pedro Martinez (1st ballot), Randy Johnson (1st ballot), Gary Sheffield (500 HR & pulling 10-14%), Ken Griffey Jr. (1st ballot), Trevor Hoffman (3rd ballot), Billy Wagner (pulling 10%), Jim Edmonds (unfairly dropped off), Ivan Rodriguez (1st ballot), Vladimir Guerrero (2nd ballot), Manny Ramirez (pulling 22-24%), Jorge Posada (unfairly dropped off), Chipper Jones (1st ballot), Jim Thome (1st ballot), Omar Vizquel (who just got 37%), Scott Rolen (10% last year) and Andruw Jones (7% last year).

That 2014 ballot already has yielded *9* Hall of Famers (Maddux, Glavine, Thomas, Biggio, Piazza, Bagwell, Raines, Trammell and Morris) as well as another *6* players who have reached 50% at one point and have yet to be elected (only one player in history has reached 50% and never made the Hall, Gil Hodges). Not included among those fifteen names are Kent, McGriff, Mattingly, McGwire, Palmeiro, Walker or Sosa, each of whom has a reasonable case as well. An individual voter was allowed to vote for no more than 10 of those 22 names.

All of this is to say, Utley’s going to face a simpler time when his case will be evaluated on its merits alone from his first year of eligibility. A likely 2024 ballot could include Sheffield, Wagner, Manny, Rolen, Vizquel, Andruw, Helton, Pettitte, A-Rod and if they don’t get in, maybe Ortiz and Beltran. Rollins could still be around too. That’s only 10, and some could be in by then or off the ballot by way of the 5% rule (Andruw?). Utley, Mauer and Ichiro would make it 13 total candidates, a much smaller pool for Utley to contend with.

Cool Lester Smooth
4 years ago
Reply to  Handsome Wes

Utley was better than both Mauer and Wright…and a fair bit better than Kent, too (defense, baserunning and peak performance all matter).

Also, Beltran had better be in the hall by that point!

4 years ago

Utley at his best was not better than Wright at his best.

Pepper Martin
4 years ago
Reply to  Tim

The problem with second base is that it’s generally seen as a career killer. All of those takeout slides on double play balls do a number on players’ legs, and second base just derails players’ careers — take a look at the steep dropoffs that all of the top 2nd basemen other than Eddie Collins and Joe Morgan had. Roberto Alomar is third all time in games played by a second baseman, but his performance dropped so suddenly at age 33 that rumors were swirling that he had a fatal disease. Rogers Hornsby was one of the five or six best players who ever lived, but after age 33 he never was able to play more than 100 games in a season (and only one season over 60 games).

4 years ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

And to Ruben Tejada, Chase Utley was a career killer.