Seeing the black lining in a cloud of awesome

It's a good season to be a Philadelphia Phillies fan.

At 86-46, the Phillies tower above all other major league teams.  They are effectively guaranteed a playoff spot.  They boast one of the most effective rotations in the history of the game, and a lineup that doesn't get its recognition as still one of the best around.

So what could possibly be bothering me?

Well, it's admittedly a rather petty thing.  You see, I make no secret of being stat-obsessed.  And while I'm thrilled about Roy Halladay leading the NL in fWAR with 7.2, and Shane Victorino's breakout season, I can't help but feel some shivers about the seasons of two of the most iconic players in the history of the team.

That's right.  I'm talking about Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.

Now, before you say it: yes, I know.  Utley and Howard are having good seasons.  Certainly good enough seasons.  From a baseball standpoint, there's nothing to be worried about.  This team is doing extraordinarily well, and Utley and Howard are a part of that.  I know.

But there is a part of me that selfishly wants these two players to put up gaudy numbers every year of their careers until age 40, and is faced with the fact that it might not work out that way.

First off, let's look at Utley.  (And yes, I'm sure that many of the women and some of the men on this site would love to do that for the entire day, but let's keep focused here.)  Now, if you're an advanced stat watcher like me, you're looking at FanGraphs right now and seeing a player who is still very, very good, and having a fairly typical season for him.  Most players would be proud to have this type of season.  Fangraphs has him at 3.9 WAR, with BBRef less generous at 3.3, but he's only played 80 games this year, so that would project to a typical Utley year with 7-8 WAR.  He's still an amazing player, and I'd go so far as to say he's still the most productive 2B in the league when healthy, Dustin Pedroia and Brandon Phillips be damned.

But ah, there's that caveat, right?  The dreaded "when healthy" that seems to nullify everything.  Utley remains on the wrong side of 30 and it remains to be seen how the back side (KEEP FOCUSED) of his career will turn out.  But regardless of that, it screws up his stat line for 2011 in a bad way.  He only has nine home runs, people!  And just thirty-nine RBI, after a mere sixty-five last season!

Why does this bother me?  Surely a WAR-monger like myself wouldn't care about silly counting stats!*  I should be looking at his park-adjusted rate stats, and his epically high UZR, and his obvious contributions to the Phillies juggernaut of the last several years.  (And, of course, the coining of WFC!)

Well, see there's a certain group of people who does care about counting stats.  And the issue is, these people vote for the Hall of Fame.  You see, Chase Utley has already convinced me that he's an all-time great, and he's already procured us a title.  The only thing left that I want is to see a plaque of him wearing Phillies cap, in Cooperstown.

* Fun Fact: WAR is a counting stat!  Well, sort of.  Anyway, let's get back to being focused here.

It may seem early to talk about it, but it shouldn't be. Right now, Utley has 50.5 career fWAR, placing him ahead of Omar Vizquel, Kirby Puckett, and Earle Combs.  2-3 more good years could move him past names such as Johnny Evers, Jackie Robinson, and Ryne Sandberg.

But where is all that WAR coming from?  Well, Utley has three things going for him: positional adjustment (most second basemen don't hit well),  world-class defense (according to UZR, at least), and strong on-base percentage (he's fairly good at both batting average and BB%, though he's slipped).  It's not coming from a high number of hits (1,181 career) or homers (186).  While the positives should be enough, the problem comes in the fact that most baseball writers don't value Utley's defense the way that FanGraphs does.  He is rarely discussed as an elite fielder in the mainstream media, and he has never won a Gold Glove.  If he doesn't have a long career, I fear writers will be underwhelmed by the lack of eye-catching simple numbers.  He could get away with only 250 homers, as he doesn't play a power position, but there's a good chance he might not reach 2,000 career hits, and that could count hard against him, even today.  The basic stats don't look all that sexy, even if a sizeable portion of Philadelphia thinks the man himself does.

As for Howard, I'm not worried about his HOF case because he doesn't have one.  I'm worried, frankly, about him not being a very good player in the coming years.  He's managed 1.3 fWAR this year, which matches his total from last season.  Let's be honest here, a 1.3 WAR is lousy.  It's not Felipe Crespo lousy, but it's Travis Lee lousy.  (Seriously, Lee had 1.6 WAR in 2001, and it wasn't even his best season.)  If you believe UZR, which has Howard at -11.8 last year and -5.7 this year, his defense has become downright awful, and his offense isn't doing a ton to make up for it.  His 120 wRC+ this season isn't bad, but for a first baseman who relies solely on his hitting, it isn't enough.  With his big contract and big RBI totals, Howard is likely not going anywhere and it will be nearly impossible for the Phillies to upgrade at the first base position for the next several years.  Their pitching right now is good enough that Howard's poor defense isn't a major concern, but if it continues to get worse with his age, it will be difficult to sell AL teams on such a large contract for a one-dimensional DH.

Now, I know this post is a bit Negadelphia, but as a raging fanboy of both players who once got Howard's autograph in his Lakewood days, I can't help wanting these guys to do amazingly well.  I want Howard to hit 600 homers.  I want Utley to make a case for being the greatest second baseman of the 21st century.  And I want both players to wear Phillies red for a couple more WFC's.  Is that greedy?  YES.  Will I be unhappy if it doesn't turn out that way?  Not really; they're already legends and the 2008 season has etched itself in all of our memories.  But my pessimistic side has been coming out lately, and I can't help but share my thoughts.

Thanks for listening, and feel free to share yours!

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