Utley’s Chase for Cooperstown

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:

Second Base JAWS Leaders
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 56.6 40.4 48.5
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
24 Tony Lazzeri+ 50.0 35.1 42.6
25 Tony Phillips 50.9 34.1 42.5
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
* = active (statistics through July 12)
+ = 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:

Top Hall of Fame Candidates < 2,000 Hits
Rk Player Years H rWAR JAWS Rk
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
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Rk = WAR rank among inactive non-Hall of Famers with fewer than 2,000 hits who are not under lifetime ban. Tough luck, Shoeless Joe (#4).

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:

From the legendary Peter Gammons:

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.

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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.

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LHPSU
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LHPSU

Grich’s patience must be legendary to achieve a .771 OBP.

As for Utley, I have little doubt that he should be in (whether he actually gets in is another matter); he is far and away the best 2B of this century. Even if you don’t think he’s actually that good a player, you can’t very well have an entire position on the diamond missing in the HoF for thirty years, and if Utley doesn’t have a case, no one at the position does.*

*I believe Jose Altuve will make it, but he probably won’t be eligible until like 2035.

stever20
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Member
stever20

Kind of a similar argument to what got Jack Morris in the HOF finally. If you’re the best starter in a league for a decade you get in.

LHPSU
Member
LHPSU

You’re comparing apples to lawnmowers.

emh1969
Member
emh1969

Yeah, Morris wasn’t the best starter for a decade.

Morris’ 10-year peak was from 79-88, during which he accumulated 36.5 WAR, far behind Dave Stieb with 46.5 and barely ahead of Bert Blyleven with 35.7.

Of course, focusing just on Morris’ peak years biases things in his favor. For example, Guidry also had a 10 year peak that was much higher than Morris (45.4 WAR) but in slightly different years (77-86).

FYI: I used Baseball Reference’s WAR since I find it easier to search but I’m sure Fangraphs would show the same thing.

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

Cano isn’t bad.. although his career has a big asterisk now. Jeff Kent was a monster – depends what century you put him in, but he was really good. 2B is kind of weird as guys move off of it sometimes – A Soriano also played a lot of 2B. All SS could also play the position, so its kind of tough to think that a certain number of 2B should be in. There are some really good offensive 2B that get knocked in WAR – which is some pretty fishy data going back that far. I think offense is what we should be looking at and that paints a more interesting picture of great 2B of the century. An elite defender like R Alomar deserves some credit, but most guys are pretty close in value defensively which metrics don’t accurately capture. Defensive metrics do a fine job of identifying the top and bottom, but not much else. Utley isn’t far and away the best – I love him and hope he makes it but a lot of great players don’t make it – I don’t pretend to understand… I think it is at least half sentimental and I think some writers don’t like Utley, which could be enough to keep him out.

LHPSU
Member
LHPSU

Right, Cano is a non-factor for HoF purposes at this time.

Chase Utley is actually very close to Jeff Kent in terms of career offense – Utley’s baserunning was huge, and even on a pure bat basis the gap is tiny. And there is no debate that Utley was the better defender by far, whether you’re saber or traditional.

Soriano was a significantly worse hitter than Utley both on a rate basis and career total basis, despite counting stats.

dcweber99
Member
dcweber99

“far and away the best 2B of this century”

Setting aside Cano (and his superior numbers), Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler also beg to differ. Referencing the chart above, while Utley is higher, it’s hardly “far and away,” especially considering Pedroia is five years younger and both guys are ahead of other hall of famers. It’s possible Pedroia is finished as a functional player- he’s not a big guy and has a long injury record, but it’s also quite possible that he has a few 1.5-2 WAR seasons left in him. Kinsler will probably break the 2000 hit threshold next year (though he’ll be 37 so the WAR count is probably close to maxed out), and if Pedroia gets three years of good health after this year, 2200 hits isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Utley got regular playing time a little later than the other two, but those guys also went to college, so it’s really apples to apples.

In fact, I would posit that the single biggest impediment to Utley’s candidacy is the fact that he has so many peers with pretty similar careers. Plus, for more traditional voters, Pedroia wins on hardware- ROY, MVP, 4 GGs, 2 WS, while splitting the backup all-star spot to Cano with Kinsler. Utley has never even finished in the top-6 in MVP voting, and was only top-10 three times. Utley’s other problem is the obvious- if Bobby Grich and Lou Whittaker aren’t in (even though Whittaker should be), then why should Utley be in?

I think what is most in Utley’s favor is that most teams with a sustained run of good play and a WS get a representative, and that Phillies team is loaded with guys who were major contributors but not HOFers. Really, (other than Thome), Roy Halladay is the only near HOFer that Utley played with in Philly- Rollins, Hamels, Lee, Oswalt, Howard, Victorino, Werth, and Burrell were all longtime good players, but none has a really serious HOF case. It’s fair to say that Utley was the primary catalyst of those teams that made the playoffs five or six years in a row.

Pepper Martin
Member
Pepper Martin

Here’s the complete list of teams ever who won a World Series in a season they didn’t roster a Hall of Famer or (for recent teams) likely Hall of Famer:

1981 Dodgers (Steve Garvey probably would be the closest)
2002 Angels (theoretically Francisco Rodriguez could get some support?)
2007 Red Sox (unless you consider David Ortiz a likely HOF’er)
2008 Phillies (Utley is the best hope, followed by Rollins and… Moyer?)
2012 Red Sox (repeating the bit about Ortiz)
2015 Royals (best chance is… Ben Zobrist? Yeesh)

Obviously there’s a bias in this, since teams from 100 years ago have had a lot more time to get players in the Hall of Fame, but… there’s something very weird about the fact that only 1 team in the entire 20th century won the World Series without a Hall of Famer, and did it in a strike-shortened season… and then it’s happened pretty regularly since then, with the 2002 Angels and 2015 Royals having virtually no chance of ever getting a player in the Hall of Fame. As a matter of fact, although I could be wrong on this, I’m pretty sure that only two 20th Century World Series winners, other than those 1981 Dodgers, won the World Series without multiple Hall of Famers (those being Ernie Lombardi’s 1940 Cincinnati Reds and Don Sutton’s 1988 Dodgers). Going by that criteria, in the 21st Century we could add in Randy Johnson’s 2001 Diamondbacks; Pedro Martinez’ 2004 Red Sox; Frank Thomas’ 2005 White Sox; and various Cardinals and Giants teams which had Albert Pujols and Buster Posey but might not have another Hall of Famer. It’s… weird.

dcweber99
Member
dcweber99

I wonder if Mike Sciosia will make the Hall as a manager- that’s two birds with one stone for 1981 and 2002 (if we can cross the player/manager threshold). He’s currently 19th in total wins and there’s nothing to suggest he’s going to retire or lose his job any time soon, so top 15 seems pretty plausible (and of course, Dusty is 15th all time, so there’s another chance for an 81 Dodger).

For the 2007 Red Sox, don’t forget about Schilling. He crossed the 50% mark last year and has four more chances. If he doesn’t make it by then, he’s very much the type of guy who will make it by committee as a playoff hero like Mazeroski and Morris. The 2013 Red Sox are really limited to Ortiz (who I think will get in).

I was thinking about the 2015 Royals as I was listing late 2000s Phillies- that’s a very similar team with a tremendous quantity of good to All-Star caliber players but lacking a clear Hall of Famer. I’m not going to do a deep dive, but Zobrist, Cain, Cueto, and Gordon seem like the only guys who will top 30 WAR. Perez may just be having a bad year this year, but he’ll still need four more decent years to get to 30. My best guess is that Eric Hosmer’s contract will make it as an example of Scott Boras’ best work, but that might be it.

PC1970
Member
PC1970

One thing on the 2007 Red Sox- They also had Manny Ramirez, who while he definitely won’t get into the HOF was certainly a HOF caliber player & would have been a HOF’er without the 2 steroid suspensions later on in his career.

Cordane61273
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Cordane61273

Who do you have as a HOFer on the ’97 Marlins? Kevin Brown deserved better than a one-and-done ballot, but wouldn’t make the cut unless you use the marginal guys as the minimum requirements. And Gary Sheffield probably won’t crest 20% in voting, with his tremendous offensive numbers & WPA offset by his defense, reputation, & steroid allegations.

Pepper Martin
Member
Pepper Martin

One day decades from now, when all of the reporters who had to cover Kevin Brown are dead or retired, and everybody forgets what a horrible human being he was, somebody is going to look at his stats and say “how is this guy not in the Hall of Fame?” and he’s going to get the Addie Joss treatment.

Also, I believe Sheffield will get in as soon as people realize that there are already steroid users in the Hall (Pudge Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, and Rickey Henderson would be the strongest candidates, in my mind), although I still think that truly egregious cases like Bonds, Clemens, ARod, and Manny Ramirez will always be on the outside looking in.

LHPSU
Member
LHPSU

By career WAR, Utley has a 30% edge on Kinsler and Pedroia; neither is likely to make up the 15-WAR gap. By career offense, Utley has 50% more runs above average than either Kinsler or Pedroia.