Chase Cameron Utley made his debut on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot this year. The second baseman was one of the more consistent players in the game in his early years, both on the offensive and defensive side. While he won’t get in this year, Utley has an interesting case to get a closer look down the road potentially.
The Los Angeles Dodgers originally drafted Utley in the second round of the 1997 MLB Draft out of Long Beach Polytechnic High School. Still, he elected to attend the University of California. The Philadelphia Phillies then took him with the 15th overall pick of the 2000 MLB Draft before he made his major league debut in April of 2003. Utley broke into the majors in style, as his first major league hit was a grand slam a few weeks after his debut.
He only played 137 total games between 2003 and 2004 before becoming the full-time starting second baseman in June 2005 after the Phillies traded Plácido Polanco.
Utley really broke out in 2006 as he made his first of five straight All-Star Games and ended the season hitting .309, blasting 32 bombs, leading the NL with 131 runs scored, and being third in the league with a 7.3 bWAR. Defensively, he had 18 defensive runs saved (DRS). This warranted him winning his first of four silver sluggers and a seventh-place MVP finish. He also recorded seven multi-homer games, which tied a franchise record. Despite missing a month in 2007 due to a broken bone in his hand, Utley had his best year statistically. After signing a 7-year extension before the season, he set career-high marks in OPS+ (146), OPS (976), slugging (.566), on-base percentage (.410), batting average (.332), and doubles (48). His 7.8 bWAR was also a career-high. His 48 doubles were also second in the NL. The Phillies clinched the NL East division title on the final day of the regular season but were swept in the NLDS by the Colorado Rockies, as Utley went just 2-for-11.
Back-to-back World Series appearances
Utley mashed a career-high 33 bombs in 2008 and had consistent numbers across the board as he missed just three regular season games. He helped the Phillies get back to the postseason as he had a team-high 177 hits to go with a 136 wRC+, 31 DRS, and 9.0 bWAR. In the playoffs, Utley only went 11 for 50 but hit two home runs and walked five times during the World Series. The second baseman also made a major mark defensively, making a play known simply as “The Utley Play.” Fielding an Akinori Iwamura groundball as he ranged to his right and backhanded, he leaped in the air and faked a throw to first before making an incredible throw home to nab Jason Bartlett for the third out of the seventh inning of Game 5 to keep the game tied.
The Phillies went on to win that game to clinch their first championship since 1980 and second in their history.
The 2009 season saw Utley set a career-high mark with 23 stolen bases in 23 attempts, which was a record for steals without getting caught in a season. He also recorded 31 homers, a 136 OPS+, and an 8.2 bWAR. The Phillies once again marched to the World Series, where the Yankees ultimately defeated them. That was despite Utley’s best efforts, as he hit five homers to tie Reggie Jackson for the most home runs in a World Series. Two of those bombs came in Game 1 when he left the yard in back-to-back at-bats against CC Sabathia, and two more came in Game 5.
The Injury Bug Hits
Entering his 30s, Utley struggled to stay on the field, which led to a dropoff in production. He missed seven weeks in 2010 due to a torn ligament in his right thumb, although he still finished the season with a 5.8 bWAR in 115 games. Suffering patellar tendinitis in his right knee before the 2011 season caused Utley to not begin his season until May 23. He would end up only playing in 103 games after also getting concussed in September. In 2012, he was hit with another knee injury in the form of patellar chondromalacia in his left knee, delaying his season until June 27. However, Utley still recorded nine DRS and a 3.1 fWAR over just 83 games.
In 2013, Utley had his best season, at least offensively, since 2009. The then 34-year-old played in 131 games while having a triple slash of .284/.348/.475 with 18 homers. But the injuries certainly slowed him down defensively, as he had -5 DRS, his first negative total, which limited him to a 3.6 bWAR.
Utley agreed to a two-year extension in August of 2013 and had a strong first half to get to his sixth and final All-Star Game. He would slump in the second half, though, and finished with his worst full-season OPS+ to date at 108. The aging infielder did play in 155 games, the most games he played in since 2009.
Final years in Los Angeles
Utley had a horrible first half of the 2015 season and landed on the list formerly known as disabled due to right ankle inflammation for over a month. But upon his return, he got hot enough for teams to be interested in his services. He agreed to waive his no-trade clause and was sent to the team that drafted him out of high school, the Dodgers, for two players along with cash. This move reunited Utley with Jimmy Rollins, whom the Phillies had traded to the Dodgers the previous December. Utley would play three more years after 2015 with the Dodgers before retiring at age 39. There wasn’t much of note in those final years, as he had an OPS+ below 100 each year.
The Case For Utley
There is a lot of positive for Utley in his hopes on the Hall of Fame ballot. The first argument for him eventually getting enshrined is his tremendous peak in comparison to current Hall of Fame second basemen. His peak WAR of 49.3 is almost five points better than the average Hall of Fame second baseman. In addition, his JAWS (Jaffe Wins Above Replacement Score) mark of 56.9 is nearly even with the average Hall of Fame second baseman (57.0). JAWS is a system that Jay Jaffe developed to evaluate a player's hall-worthiness by comparing him to other players in the same position.
His career WAR of 64.5 also ranks 15th all-time among second basemen, and only 10 Hall of Famers have higher totals.
Utley's peak came from 2005 to 2009, in which he combined for a slash line of .301/.388/.535 to go with a 135 OPS+, an average of 29 homers, 15 steals, 20 DRS, and 7.9 bWAR. He only trailed Albert Pujols with his 39.7 bWAR over that five-year stretch and was well ahead of third-place Alex Rodriguez. Utley's five seasons of at least 7.0 WAR puts him in elite company. There are only five other players to do that, all Hall of Famers, including arguably the greatest second baseman of all time, Joe Morgan (5 seasons). The others are Rogers Hornsby (8 seasons), Eddie Collins (8 seasons), Nap Lajoie (7 seasons) and Charlie Gehringer (5 seasons).
Utley is only behind Pujols for WAR amongst position players from 2005 to 2014, with his 59.7 WAR.
While never winning an MVP, the argument could be made that Utley was more valuable than his teammates, Rollins and Ryan Howard, who won MVPs. Utley was certainly more valuable than Howard defensively in 2006 and had a WAR 2.1 points higher than his teammate (7.3 to 5.2).
Utley also never won a Gold Glove, which only proves the award is a sham since he was one of the best defenders of his time. His 131 fielding runs above average ranks seventh all-time among second basemen, and he is one of 20 players to total at least 100 DRS in his career. He also led the majors in defensive WAR in 2008.
A lot of the time, hopeful Hall of Famers need more sustained success than just a strong peak. There are instances where "peak" players have gotten into the Hall of Fame, such as Ryne Sandberg, whom Utley compares to favorably.
The Case Against Utley
Since his peak is so short and his career had a massive dropoff due to injuries, he is, in no sense of the word, an automatic Hall of Famer. He failed to amass 2,000 career hits, which is a major mark for voters to look at. In fact, no position player since 1960 has been inducted into the Hall with less than 2,000 hits. Utley only played at least 140 games five times and only had an on-base percentage above .400 once. The career of the Phillies' great is also very similar to that of Jeff Kent, who fell off the ballot with just 46.5 percent in his final year. However, Kent should have gotten more love and would have had a strong chance to get in via an Eras Committee.
At the onset, before I really started diving into Utley's career, I was fully off the train that he is a Hall of Famer. But the further I dug into it, the more I could potentially see it. Yes, he was a late bloomer as he didn't become a full-time starter until age 26, on top of falling off towards the end. But his peak, in addition to what he brought to the Phillies postseason runs during his peak years, his solid baserunning and defense, this is much more than just a "fringe" Hall of Famer. While I am becoming more sold as I look at his stats, I think the lack of volume on counting stats and the short peak will do him in. But he has looked favorable so far in his first year on the ballot and will certainly get a bigger look as other players fall off the ballot. Utley is in my Hall of Very Good, but there just isn't enough there for him to break through, in my opinion.
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