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Chase Utley, Ben Zobrist, and Under-Appreciated Excellence

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Two second basemen who made late debuts for players of their stature followed similar career paths. The modest accolades they received belied years of consistently excellent performance.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

As a child growing up in South Jersey with two parents who were born and raised in the Philadelphia area, I started going to Phillies games at a young age. During the Veterans' Stadium years, my dad shared season tickets with a couple of his friends. I was in attendance for such memorable moments as the J.D. Drew battery incident and the final game at the Vet. More often, though, I was present for conspicuously forgettable performances from Mark Portugal, Midre Cummings, Wayne Gomes, and the like.

I was always a big Phillies fan, even if they were typically second in my heart to the Iverson-era Sixers during my formative elementary and middle school years. I attended an evening with Rico Brogna at a local Baptist church, for christ sakes. In my head, I referred to a guy who frequently attended my home church as Matt Beech because he bore a vague physical resemblance to the great Phillies pitcher of that name.

In short, the Phillies were always a part of my life and I certainly considered myself a fan.

But, that fandom galvanized in 2007, my freshman year of college. I hated my roommate, an obnoxiously vocal Mets fan, and took much more pleasure in seeing him suffer when the Phillies clinched the playoffs over his beloved Mets on the final day of the season. At the time, his displeasure represented the greatest triumph of my young life, and it still ranks rather high on that list of joyful moments.

For whatever reason, this emotional apex drove me into a deep dive of Phillies fandom. I became a devoted reader of nearly every available Phillies blog on the internet. It was in those blogs that I learned many foundational truths: Bobby Abreu wasn't a bum; Ryan Howard was fine, I guess, but he wasn't all that; Rico Brogna actually sort of sucked at baseball. Most important among those truths I acquired, however, was that Chase Utley was not only a physical god, but he was also really fucking good at baseball. Sure, his bat was really good, but it was his less commonly-recognized defensive and base running contributions that really set him apart from his peers.

It was shortly after this fundamental axiom of internet Phillies fandom sunk in that I became interested in other teams and their players as well. Like many statistically-inclined baseball fans, I was fascinated by Ben Zobrist of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Here was a player, like my new idol Chase Utley, who, on an examination of traditional, and even slightly advanced, batting statistics emerged as pretty good, but did not elevate to the upper-echelons of major league baseball players. But yet, like Utley, Zobrist added value that wasn't as immediately apparent. He played a ton of positions--2B, SS, OF--all at least competently and some--2B and OF--very well. He also, again, like Utley, provided value on the base paths that his stolen base totals failed to reflect.

As a college student at a small liberal arts college that prided itself on its commitment to matters of social justice, it infuriated me that these two excellent players received scant attention from the popular media and little in the way of major accolades. Neither, to this date, has finished higher than 7th in MVP voting. This was an outrage to my late-teen, early-twenties self.

Utley and Zobrist are certainly not the poor and downtrodden of baseball. Each has shown up on at least 3 MVP ballots and appeared on at least two All-Star game rosters. They have both been generally regarded as pretty-to-very good (or p good to v good, if you prefer) baseball players for the majority of their careers. Both of them, however, should properly be regarded as great baseball players and, in popular circles, have not quite received that type of attention.

Defense

Because players are frequently placed at second base because they are deficient at shortstop, their defensive contributions tend to get discounted or written off. To ignore Utley's and Zobrist's defensive contributions at 2B simply by virtue of their not being shortstops is to miss the tremendous value they add at that position. According to UZR, Utley has saved 11.2 more runs with his glove per 150 games than the average second baseman and Zobrist has said 8.2 over average. As is frequently the case in most assessments of performance, focusing on what Utley and Zobrist are not, i.e. elite defensive shortstops, causes one to lose sight of what they do well, i.e. defend the position they play.

While Utley has mostly been confined to second base for his 13-year career, Zobrist served as the poster boy for the league-wide trend toward positional versatility the Rays started in the late aughts. With the Rays, Zobrist spent significant time in left field, right field, shortstop, and second base. The value of this is complicated to quantitatively capture, but the intuitive benefits are obvious, as Neil Weinberg noted at The Hardball Times just over a year ago:

Zobrist’s versatility makes the Rays better because he gives them the option to run any number of rotating platoons across multiple positions. He’s a switch hitter who can play basically every position. The Rays can gather their best nine hitters for any given matchup, and the fact that they have Zobrist and his versatility allows them to be less concerned about needing the other eight to cover a specific set of positions.

It’s also a huge benefit when dealing with injuries. The Rays almost always can replace an injured player with their next-best player because Zobrist can shift positions to accommodate. He’s the best insurance policy money can buy.

It is unwise to write off these indirect benefits of Zobrist wide-ranging defensive competence simply because they are too complicated to put a number on.

Baserunning

Similarly, Utley and Zobrist's contributions on the base paths goes popularly unnoticed because of their non-glamorous base-stealing numbers. Neither has stolen even 25 bases in a single season and both have only swiped more than 20 bases in a season once in their careers. Chase Utley's base running aptitude is famously captured in his historic stolen base success rate:

Not even this does full justice to the value Utley provides on the bases. When he's not stealing bases, Utley consistently does smart things, notably, when Harry Kalas dubbed him "the man" (forward to :50 mark):

For his repeatedly doing things like that, Fangraph's BsR, a measure of runs above average a player produces on the bases, credits Utley with 70.2 runs for his career (5.4 per season).

While Zobrist wasn't as notable for his base running in terms of stolen base success or memorable highlights, BsR credits him with adding 1.6 runs per season more than the average player on the base paths, due presumably, to his exceptional ability to take an extra base, i.e. advancing from first to third on a single, compared to his peers.

The Verdict

All told, Utley and Zobrist have had very similar careers. Comparing various offensive statistics, by age, reveals two similarly elite players.

From their age 27 through 34 seasons--eight years--both Zobrist and Utley have consistently produced at similar, comfortably-above-average levels offensively. That they have done that while standing at a relatively premium defensive position for half of each game in itself makes them valuable players. That they add good defense and base running to their hitting and standing-close-to-the-middle-of-the-infield abilities is the reason that the following leaderboard is not fake:

AVG OBP SLG bWAR fWAR
Ben Zobrist 0.270 0.362 0.442 40.3 38.6
Dustin Pedroia 0.299 0.365 0.447 41.9 38.3
Chase Utley 0.270 0.359 0.453 37.5 37.3
Robinson Cano 0.305 0.359 0.496 44.4 35.8
Ian Kinsler 0.276 0.342 0.447 40.8 34.8

Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia certainly get the most attention for being elite second basemen out of the five players on this list. This is likely attributable to two factors. First, they have spent most of their productive years with, respectively, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, two of the biggest markets in the game. Second, a larger portion of their value comes from the more glamorous offensive statistics. But, if you acknowledge both the Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs versions of WAR as reasonable approximations of player ability, it is clear that Utley and Zobrist deserve to be mentioned just as frequently as Pedroia and Cano are among the greatest second basement of their generation.

Because base running, defense, and, in Zobrist's case, defensive versatility, are often overlooked in most mainstream player evaluations, Utley and Zobrist will likely continue to be absent from most conversations about the best players of the last decade. That under-appreciation is unfortunate because, for their careers, Chase Utley and Ben Zobrist have been two of the best players in the game.