Chase Utley: The Latter Day Mattingly

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 07: Chase Utley #26 of the Philadelphia Phillies hits a single in the bottom of the sixth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals during Game Five of the National League Divisional Series at Citizens Bank Park on October 7, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)


Over the past seven or so years, perhaps no one player exemplifies the spirit of the Philadelphia Phillies more than Chase Utley. While he isn't the team's mouthpiece (that would be Jimmy Rollins) or the provider of dingers (Ryan Howard), Utley has steadily churned along, putting up great season after great season, while flying under the radar as the team's best player.

While he was never the focal point of the media, it's fair to say that he's been the silent driving force behind the offense since the middle of the last decade, when he went from being a defensively challenged second baseman who couldn't hit lefties, to one of the ten best players in the game.

But now, a series of knee injuries could be derailing the career of the great Chase Utley. And barring some sort of medical miracle, Utley's injuries are here to stay, which will further fuel the "How much does Utley have left?" narrative.

It's a fair question, given that so much of Utley's value is the product of his lower body – specifically, his legs and hips, which generate the bat speed that has made him such a great hitter. And if his lower body erodes, so erodes his offensive contributions.

But the reason I write this is not to prognosticate about his on-the-field performance this season, or even next, but rather, to look further down the line. Specifically, to five years after he retires, when he will be eligible for the Hall of Fame.

Admittedly, it's far too early to talk about Cooperstown with regards to Utley, but in light of his recent injury news, I thought it fitting to write something about his chances of induction, and how his injury might hurt his chances.

But more than anything, I wrote this because of how Utley's career parallels the career of another big leaguer, who was the victim of an injury that sapped much of his greatness, and in the process, his shot at baseball immortality.

His name was Don Mattingly.

***


Every December, the baseball world starts clamoring about the Hall of Fame. With the votes due on New Years Eve, nary a day goes by when a blogger or beat writer doesn't posit on the eligible candidates, and why they should, or should not, be inducted. And since the advent of the Internet, and by extension, the pervasive and ubiquitous nature of Twitter and blogs, the conversation is nearly impossible to avoid.

For better or worse, the conversations takes center-stage. If you like healthy and spirited debate, that's a good thing. But if the thought of reading another Jon Heyman ballot brings on nausea, it's the exact opposite.

And while the Jack Morrises, Bert Blylevens, and Jeff Bagwells of the world have dominated most of the discussion surrounding The Hall in recent years, there is a healthy amount of words written about Don Mattingly, who, in his 12th year on the ballot, is substantially short of the 75% of votes needed to receive induction, with 17.8% in 2011.

On the surface, a quick look at Mattingly's career numbers (.307/.358/.471 with 222 home runs and 2,153 hits in 1,785 games over 14 seasons) tell you everything you really need to know: He was good, not great, and didn't come close to any of the magic numbers (500 homers, 3,000 hits) that warrant virtually automatic induction.

But a closer look at his career reveals much, much more about just how good he was, and why he deserves a fair amount of consideration.

From Mattingly's first full-time season in 1984, through 1989, he was the owner of a line of .327/.372/.530, a span of which he was unquestionably one of the game's premier hitters.

His .902 OPS was second in the Majors among hitters with at least 2,500 plate appearances, and second only to the otherworldly Wade Boggs, who hit a ridiculous .351 over that span that buoyed his .446 OBP. Mattingly was third in average (.327), first in slugging (5.30), first in doubles (257), sixth in homers (160), first in RBIs (684) and 19th in OBP (.372). Ranking 19th in the game in OBP doesn't sound terribly impressive, but considering those who were ahead of him - Boggs, Tim Raines, Rickey Henderson, Tony Gwynn, George Brett, Dwight Evans, Paul Molitor, Eddie Murray, Mike Schmidt, among others - it's nothing to sneeze at.

If you narrowed down the field to include only first basemen, Mattingly looks even better. He led all first basemen in batting average by a considerable margin (31 points ahead of Keith Hernandez's .296), doubles (257), slugging, OPS, RBIs, and hits, while being second in homers – just one behind Kent Hrbek (161).

To go along with the offense, Mattingly was a crazy-good fielder. Between 1985 and 1989, no other American League first baseman would lay claim to a Gold Glove. And despite the fact that Gold Gloves are not the truest measurement of defensive excellence (looking at you, 1999 Rafeal Palmeiro), Mattingly did earn a reputation as a sterling fielder, and was perhaps the best defensive first baseman of the late 80s not named Keith Hernandez, who was just freakishly good with the glove.

To sum up: Don Mattingly was really, really good for the latter half of the 80s. After that, it all went downhill.

***

Like Mattingly, Utley's reign lasted six years, from 2005 to 2010, when he hit .298/.388/.523 with 162 homers and 572 RBIs in 869 games.

In that span. his .911 OPS ranks 14th among active MLBers with at least 2,500 plate appearances, coming in behind the likes of Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Cabrera, Matt Holliday and Ryan Braun. His .388 was good enough for 14th, and his OBP 16th, and his slugging (.523) 19th.

Among second basemen, it's Utley - and then everyone else. He lead all second basemen in homers – 162, RBIs (572), on-base percentage (.388), slugging (.523) , and OPS (.523), where he is just over 70 points better than the next closest - Dan Uggla (.826). He is also third in doubles and triples, fourth in batting average, and sixth in stolen bases.

Defensively, he was terrific, despite lacking any sort of recognition that is typically lauded over by the voters. Unlike Mattingly, he never won a Gold Glove, but he was nonetheless considered to be one of the best defenders in the game. I'll defer to Bill Baer over at Crashburn Alley, who tackled this topic in 2010.

***


In 1989, Mattingly had his last "great" season, when he hit .303/.351/.477 with 23 homers and 37 doubles, which would wrap up one of the greatest six-year stretches of the decade. The next six years weren't so friendly, and he would ride them out with a line of .286/.345/.405. It's certainly not an awful line for a corner infielder that pre-dated the offensive boom of the 90s, but it was a far cry from his performance in the previous six seasons. He went from averaging 27 homers in a season to just 10. From an OPS of .908 to .750.

The reason for his drop off – which began during his age 29 season - was the series of back injuries that first appeared during 1987. The injuries wouldn't have any significant impact on his performance until 1990, when he had a woeful .643 OPS. That kicked off a six year stretch when he hit over .300 only once, while experiencing a drop in power that would result in him reaching double digits in home runs only twice more in his career.

He would go on to have a decent enough 1993 season (.809 OPS), and he ended the strike-shortened 1994 season with an OBP just below .400, but he was a shell of his late 80s self, sapped of the power that made him such a dynamic hitter.

I's not uncommon for players to hit a slide in their mid-30s, when they are exiting their prime years, but Mattingly's began much earlier, at age 29. Instead of being at the top of his game, Mattingly was fading away, robbed of his power and perhaps some of the best years of his career.

Thus, Donnie Baseball – who was a surefire Hall of Famer just a few seasons earlier – was in the middle of a slide from which he would never recover. Cut down in his prime, betrayed by his body that once allowed him to be one of the greatest players of his era.

If there was a shrine for players who had incredible but short lived peaks, then Mattingly is in, no question. Unfortunately for Mattingly, The Hall is typically reserved for players who have sustained greatness over the course of a decade, or longer. Exceptions exist, like with Sandy Koufax – who was infamously average for the first half of his career, before reeling off five years of some of the greatest baseball ever pitched – but for the most part, Cooperstown is filled with guys whose peaks lasted a considerable time longer than Mattingly.*

*Oddly enough, the guys who play for long periods of time without a tremendous peak are referred to as compilers, and are similarly dismissed.

Is that fair to Don? Maybe, maybe not. There is no question that his six year stretch put him square atop the baseball world, where he was almost without equal. He mixed power, a keen eye and an ability to hit for average with tremendous defense, before falling victim to poor health.

***


It's after the 2010 season that things really got murky for Chase. While it can be argued that his slide began that season, when his OBP and OPS were at a six-year low, it's really hard to tell, given that he missed a month-and-a-half with a sprained thumb. However, his decline didn’t start, in earnest, until 2011, when his knee injury caused him to miss all of April and part of May, followed by a .259/.344/.425 line, with 11 homers in 103 games.

At a distance, one season does not a second half of a career make. It's possible that Utley's 2011 performance was simply the result of the injury plus the his unfamiliarity with the rehabilitation process and a lack of adjustment to his new training regimen. Maybe he just needed some more time to acclimatize to the type of player that his injury would force him to become.

Of course, we'll never know, because the same injury that afflicted Utley in 2011 has now appeared in his left knee, which practically restarts the recovery process. It remains to be seen when he'll be back, and how effective he can actually be, and most importantly, how much time he has left as a Major Leaguer.

Like Mattingly, Utley was consistently considered to be the best in the game at his position, and was similarly cut down by an injury that will more likely than not have a great impact on his performance.

The parallels aren't perfect, as Utley is four years older than Mattingly was when his slide began, so one can reasonably wonder how many elite seasons that Utley had left, anyway. It's also worth noting that Mattingly's career was much more distinguished – at least by the sort of things that voters look for (Gold Gloves, MVP award), but considering that Mattingly was playing a position typically associated with great hitters, the higher numbers are almost expected.

Utley, in comparison, has the fortune of playing a position where offense comes at a premium. Since 1900, there have only been 35 seasons where a second baseman has OPS'd over .900 while hitting at least 20 homers. Utley has five of them. The only guy to do it more? Rogers Hornsby, who did it seven times.

Historically, he fares even better. Since 1876, only three players who have spent at least 50% of their games at second base have an OPS greater than Utley's: Hornsby (1.010), Charlie Gehringer (.884) and Jackie Robinson (.883). Rounding out the top ten is Utley (.882), Jeff Kent (.855), George Grantham (.854), Eddie Collins (.853), Tony Lazzeri (.846), Nap Lajoie (.846) and Robinson Cano (.843). Excepting Cano and Utley – and assuming that Kent gets inducted - only Grantham is not in the Hall of Fame.

For now, it's about how Utley fares in the next few seasons. If he can reel in the injury and manage to keep himself from wearing down too much over the course of the season, then he'd certainly make a better case for himself. The days of him OPS'ing at over .900 are long gone, so his best bet is to rely on his strike zone awareness and ability to hit the ball to the gaps, and hope to hit in the ball park of .270 with an OBP around .360. If he can keep that up long enough to get enough service time to become eligible for The Hall of Fame, then it might just be good enough.

If, and when, his career comes to an end – be it in two years or ten – his triple-slash (currently at .290/.377/.505) would be good enough, at least from a historical context. Those who are fans of hardware and awards would cry foul and argue that he was never the best player on his team, but he would still go down as one of the best second baseman in the last few decades (perhaps, even better than both Jeff Kent and Ryne Sandberg).

It's impossible to predict the future, so all this hand wringing might very well be over nothing, or we could all be witnessing the last days of Chase Utley. And again, it's far too early to even consider the Hall of Fame, but given the recent news surrounding his injury, his impressive career, to date, and the parallel to Mattingly, it's worth thinking about during his latest rehabilitation attempt.

Obviously, none of us know what Chase Utley's future holds. If 2011 was any indication, it's that his injury is certainly manageable, but the degree is uncertain. It's possible that whatever treatment Utley undergoes can somehow slow the degradation of cartilage and undo what genetics and time and the rigorous schedule of a baseball player have done, but it's not likely.

Best case scenario, from here on out, is that Utley can play 100 or so games a season, with a smattering of off days to keep him fresh during the entire season. That's probably a pipe dream at this point, because a day of rest here and there can only do so much to prevent further damage from knee injuries. And, eventually, the Phillies need to be less concerned with his health and more concerned with his contributions to the team. Not to sound cold, but a Chase Utley with limited range and no lower body strength is a multi-million dollar paperweight.

As for the Hall of Fame - which was the impetus of this article - that's hard to say. He will certainly benefit from the fact that he was, far and away, the best second baseman of his era, and that his position is not populated with guys who can hit for average and power while providing great defense. And the recent influx of Hall of Fame second basemen - which started with Roberto Alomar last year, will continue with Craig Biggio, and will likely conclude with Jeff Kent in two years – could serve to help his case along. Of course, their inclusion could bury his case, so who knows.

Comparatively, Utley was a better all-around hitter than either of them - although their aggregate numbers look better. Kent has more homers and played more games, but couldn't field, and Biggio's 3,000 hits were the result of a 20 year career. Only Alomar, who was a good hitter and a brilliant defender, provides a suitable comparison to Utley.

It all comes back to what I said earlier, in that the voters seem to favor longer peaks over longer careers, as opposed to one great peak during a relatively short-lived career. There are exceptions, of course: Kirby Puckett played all of 12 years thanks to a life-altering injury, and Andre Dawson frequently got the benefit of the "if his knees weren't so bad from playing in Montreal he would have been a better hitter, longer" doubt, so it will be interesting to see how the voters favor Utley, who won't reach any milestone and is without any hardware.

Only time will tell, really. Hall of Fame voters can be hard to predict, but his numbers - albeit in a shorter career - speak volumes of his talent, and his reputation as being one of the hardest working players in the game carries a certain amount of weight in its own right. New stat guys love him - OBP, high stolen base %, power, good defense, and older guys - despite his lack of awards or milestones - love the way he plays the game, for whatever that’s worth.

Personally, I'd love to see Utley behind the podium at Cooperstown five years after he calls it quits, but, then again, what Phillies fan wouldn’t? Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against him, and it will, in all reality, be just another cause of a player whose shot at immortality came at the cost of his own body.

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