Joe Mauer got there, but Chase Utley won’t. By there, I don’t mean the Hall of Fame, at least not directly, but the 2,000 hit plateau, which has functioned as a bright-line test for BBWAA and small-committee Hall voters for the past several decades. As I wrote back in April after Mauer collected his milestone hit, voters have effectively put an unofficial “Rule of 2,000” in place, withholding election from any position player below that level whose career crossed into the post-1960 expansion era, no matter his other merits. For anyone holding out hope that Utley would stick around long enough — while playing well, of course — to reach that marker, Friday was a rough day.
At a press conference at Dodger Stadium on Friday afternoon, the 39-year-old Utley announced that he would retire at the end of the season, forgoing the second year of a two-year, $2 million deal he signed in February. With “only” 1,881 hits over the course of his 16-year career, and less than half a season remaining, he’ll fall short of the marker.
After beginning the press conference by deadpanning that he’d signed a five-year extension, Utley said:
“I transitioned to a part-time player, something new for me, but I took it in stride… Also, a part-time strength coach, part-time pitching coach, occasionally part-time catching coach as well as a part-time general manager. The thing I’m having the most difficult time with is being a part-time dad. So that’s really the reason I’m shutting it down. I’m ready to be a full-time dad.”
While evolving from Phillies regular to Dodgers reserve/elder statesman, Utley has collected at least 100 hits just once in the past four seasons, and has just 30 this year. As injuries to Justin Turner, Corey Seager and Logan Forsythe decimated the Dodgers’ infield this spring, he appeared in 36 of the team’s first 40 games, 22 as a starter, and as of May 11 (through 38 games, selective endpoint alert!), he was hitting .271/.370/.412 with a 13.0% walk rate and a 114 wRC+ in 100 plate appearances. With Forsythe and Turner both back in the picture, however, and with Max Muncy hitting his way into regular duty, Utley went just 1-for-26 without a walk from May 12-29, after which he missed 20 games due to a sprained left thumb. Since returning, he’s made just four starts in 20 games, going 7-for-20 in that span, albeit with some big plays off the bench.
Overall, Utley’s performance (.237/.318/.336, 81 wRC+, 0.2 WAR) might not be enough to hold onto a roster spot, but he’s excelled as a pinch-hitter (.435/.458/.609 in 24 PA this year, 19 hits and a 160 wRC+ in that role in the past two seasons) while mentoring several of the Dodgers’ younger players, including Seager, whose locker has been next to Utley’s since arriving in the majors in late 2015, and Kiké Hernández, who calls Utley “Dad.”
Though he’s a California native, Utley’s tenure with the Dodgers is a footnote to his career. It’s what he did in Philadelphia that serves as the foundation of his Hall of Fame case — and what he didn’t do, or what didn’t happen, regardless of what he did, that may keep him out. Though the Dodgers drafted him in the second-round in 1997 out of a Long Beach high school, Utley opted to attend UCLA. He starred there, and after hitting 22 homers in a junior season that helped the Bruins to the NCAA Super Regionals, the Phillies made him the 15th overall pick of the 2000 draft. He made Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list at number 81 in the spring of 2003, debuted on April 4 of that year, and smacked a grand slam for his first major league hit 20 days later. As called by the legendary Harry Kalas:
That blow that was followed by one hell of a prank by John Kruk, which you can read about and see here. Despite the slam, Utley played just 43 games as a 24-year-old rookie, and 94 the next year. Placido Polanco, the team’s starting second baseman during those years, was good enough one to compile 6.0 WAR while Utley languished.
The Phillies even re-signed Polanco as a free agent in December 2004, but dealt him to the Tigers in June 2005, when Utley’s bat forced the issue. Playing more than 100 games for the first time at age 26, he clubbed 28 homers, drove in 105 runs and hit .291/.376/.540 (134 wRC+) with outstanding defense (16 UZR) en route to 7.2 WAR, good for third in the league behind only Andruw Jones and Albert Pujols. That kicked off a five-year stretch during which Utley averaged 29 homers, a 138 wRC+ (.301/.388/.535), 13 UZR and 7.7 WAR, ranking in the top three in the NL in the last category each year; over the span, only Pujols was more valuable. He began a run of five straight All-Star appearances in 2006, and helped the Phillies win five straight NL East titles starting in 2007, but despite his elite play on both sides of the ball, he was a forgotten man as more popular but less valuable teammates, namely first baseman Ryan Howard and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, won NL MVP honors in 2006 and -07. Utley outdistanced Howard in WAR in the former year, 7.2 to 5.9, and Rollins in the latter, 7.7 to 6.5, though it was Howard’s 58 homers and Rollins’ 30-homer/41-steal combo that carried the day for the voters.
Utley produced some big postseason performances during that 2008-2011 run. He hit .353/.522/.647 in the 2008 NLCS against the Dodgers, and while he went just 3-for-18 in the World Series against the Rays, his two-run first-inning homer off Scott Kazmir in Game 1 helped the Phillies to a 3-2 victory, while his solo sixth-inning shot off Matt Garza in Game 3 was crucial to a 5-4 win. He got on base twice apiece in Games 4 and 5, scoring three runs as the Phillies won their first World Series since 1980. He went absolutely bonkers the following October, hitting .429/.556/.643 in the Division Series against the Rockies and .286/.400/1.048 with a record-tying five homers in a losing cause against the Yankees. His two-homer games in the opener and Game 5 powered the Phillies to their only wins in the series.
While Utley continued to excel after that 2005-2009 run, he averaged just 100 games (but 4.0 WAR) from 2010-2012 due to injuries, including a torn ligament in his right thumb in 2010, patellar tendinitis in his right knee in 2011, and patellar chondromalacia in his left knee in 2012. He put together back-to-back 3.7-WAR seasons in 2013-14, playing in 286 games, but has produced just 3.6 in four seasons since in dwindling playing time.
On the face of it, Utley’s traditional stats don’t cry out for Cooperstown recognition: a .276/.359/.466 line (119 wRC+) with 259 homers, 153 steals and a painful but impressive count of 201 hit-by pitches (eighth all-time) to go with that hit total. Nonetheless, he has a reasonably strong Hall of Fame case in terms of advanced statistics, because he was more than just an above-average hitter, though we shouldn’t sell that short at a position where defense has traditionally reigned. Via Baseball-Reference’s component stats, he’s 176 runs above average with the bat, which ranks 18th among second basemen. Thanks to his off-the-charts baseball instincts — subtle things like his secondary leads while running the bases and his knack for positioning in the field, which John Dewan pointed out in a 2009 Hardball Times piece — as well as his foot speed and range, he added another 45 runs above average via baserunning (fueled by an 87.4% success rate stealing, tops among players with at least 150 attempts) and 24 via double play avoidance; that total of 69 runs for what B-Ref’s code revealingly calls “runs_little” is fourth among second basemen and 27th overall (a whisker ahead of Willie Mays) though to be fair, a lack of data availability largely limits the leaderboard to post-World War II players. His 141 runs above average in the field (Total Zone plus Defensive Runs Saved) ranks fourth at the keystone behind Bid McPhee (154), Joe Gordon (150) and Bill Mazeroski (147).
Indeed, Utley is a DRS darling. His 133 runs saved at second base (the balance are at first and third) ranks as the fifth-highest total of runs saved at any position since the metric was introduced in 2002. Both his DRS and his 90 UZR at the position rank number one; the latter metric was introduced in 2003. Yet ridiculously enough, he never won a single Gold Glove, and won just one Fielding Bible award, in 2010. As Dewan pointed out in the aforementioned article, he lost out even in 2008, when he had a plus/minus of +46 to winner Brandon Phillips‘ +17 (now presented as 30 runs above average to 13).
Utley’s 65.6 rWAR is about four wins short of the average Hall of Fame second baseman (69.5) but it’s still good for 14th at the position, ahead of 11 of the 20 elected second basemen, including the BBWAA-elected Craig Biggio, who played forever, and Jackie Robinson, whose career was curtailed by the color line. More impressive is 49.3 peak WAR, from his best seven seasons at large; that’s nearly five wins above the standard (49.3) and ranks ninth all-time, ahead of 13 of the 20, including the BBWAA-elected Ryne Sandberg, Frankie Frisch and Roberto Alomar as well as Biggio. He’s 10th in JAWS at the position, ahead of 13 Hall of Famers, including Frisch by an eyelash. Here’s the top 25 from the rankings, plus the Hall of Famers who are below that:
|Rk||Name||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS|
|Avg HOF 2B||69.5||44.5||57.0|
+ = Hall of Famer
As a fellow Rule of 2,000 victim, Grich stands as a cautionary tale, a six-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner whose combination of pop (224 homers), patience (.371 OBP) and defense (+82 runs) helped the Orioles and Angels to five postseason appearances during a career that spanned from 1970-1986. Back woes prematurely ended his career at age 37, and he received just 2.6% of the vote in his lone appearance on the BBWAA ballot in 1992. Like Whitaker, his longer-career counterpart from the era who was also bumped from the ballot by the Five Percent Rule, he has yet to even appear on an Era Committee ballot, and in fact, he’s number one atop my list of Hall of Fame candidates who have fallen victim to the Rule of 2,000. Picking up this table from the Mauer piece:
|1||Bobby Grich||1970-1986||1,833||71.1||7th @ 2B|
|2||Andruw Jones||1996-2012||1,933||62.8||10th @ CF|
|3||Mark McGwire||1986-2001||1,626||62.2||17th @ 1B|
|5||Sal Bando||1966-1981||1,790||61.5||16th @ 3B|
|6||Jim Edmonds||1993-2010||1,949||60.4||15th @ CF|
|7||Dick Allen||1963-1977||1,848||58.7||17th @ 3B|
|8||Bobby Bonds||1968-1981||1,886||57.9||22nd @ RF|
|9||Robin Ventura||1989-2004||1,885||56.1||19th @ 3B|
|10||Jimmy Wynn||1963-1977||1,665||55.9||17th @ CF|
|14||Lance Berkman||1999-2013||1,905||52.1||20th @ LF|
|19||Minnie Miñoso||1949-1980||1,963||50.5||22nd @ LF|
|30||Thurman Munson||1969-1979||1,558||46.1||12th @ C|
|39||Gil Hodges||1943, ’47-63||1921||44.9||36th @ 1B|
|41||Bill Freehan||1961-1976||1,591||44.8||14th @ C|
|47||Tony Oliva||1962-1976||1,917||43.1||31st @ RF|
Allen, Grich, Jones, and Miñoso are are players I profiled at length in The Cooperstown Casebook because I found their cases so compelling. The Hall of Fame is about more than longevity and simple counting stats, and those players in particular have been unduly snubbed.
Ultimately, I fear it’s not just Utley’s hit total that could doom his fate, but his lack of recognition in general — voters’ failure to recognize him in the MVP races and the Gold Glove awards. He scores a 94 on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, a metric that gives credit for awards, league leads, milestones and postseason performance — things that historically have tended to appeal to Hall voters — where 100 is a likely Hall of Famer and 130 is “a virtual cinch.” In that regard, he’s the opposite of Yadier Molina, whose Hall of Fame case I examined earlier this week. Molina scores a 142 on the Monitor and his score will jump 15 points when he reaches 1,800 games caught next month, but he doesn’t fare well in JAWS.
While Utley may be a stathead favorite, he’s hardly just some stat-generating robot. Even in his autumnal years with the Dodgers, his play rewards attention, as his baserunning smarts and defensive instincts never take a day off. Mets fans still fuming over his unfortunate collision with Ruben Tejada in the 2015 Division Series may bristle, particularly as he trolled them by homering twice following Noah Syndergaard’s ejection from the “Ass in the Jackpot” game, but many within the industry point to him as a one-man guide to playing the game correctly. He was Mike Trout’s favorite player growing up, to the point that Trout patterned his compact, powerful swing after Utley’s.
From the New York Post’s Joel Sherman:
Utley has rest of season for a baseball eulogy, but will say this now: I think scouts used him more than anyone else I can recall as an example of a player who maximized skill with grit, energy, team-oriented nature, competitiveness. Scouts loved them some Chase Utley.
— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) July 13, 2018
From the legendary Peter Gammons:
In 50 years covering baseball I can't tell you my favorite player. Chase would be in my dozen favorite. From the clam chowder story in Brewster to asking a Brewer catcher to have his pitcher drill him, there;'s no one for whom I have greater resect. https://t.co/0QtMvE07Hz
— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) July 14, 2018
Every young player–Cape, minors, The BASE, high school–when i'm asked for advice, I tell them, "download an hour of Chase Utley video. That is the way the game is meant to be played."
— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) July 14, 2018
The chowder story to which Gammons refers is this one, the drilling story this one (sorry, Mets fans), and then there’s also Gammons’ story about Utley impersonating a batboy to covertly give the home plate umpire a piece of his mind.
Utley’s Hall of Fame case isn’t closed yet. The electorate will continue to evolve towards one more fluent with advanced statistics, and his younger second base contemporaries may not wind up eclipsing him. Pedroia has been limited to just three games this year due to knee surgery, Kinsler has failed to hit, and Cano torpedoed his Hall chances with a PED suspension. If the voters feel a need to recognize a second baseman from this era, the chase for Cooperstown may be on after all.
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.