Heading into the new season I would hazard that we each are thinking at least this one thing: if nothing else, we can still enjoy watching Chase Utley play. There is little hope that the Phillies will compete for a playoff spot. The Phillies most exciting prospects will most likely all begin the season in the minors and almost all of them will remain there until at least 2016. Jimmy Rollins has been traded away, Cole Hamels will probably be dealt in-season, Cliff Lee is
a shell of his former self de facto retired, and Ryan Howard is the best bet this season to add his name to this reverse leaderboard. But from the golden years we still have Utley (and Chooch! but I'm not writing about him here). Even if he is no longer in his prime, he proved last season he can still be one of the best second-basemen in MLB. As JoeCatz likes to remind us, we deserve to watch Utley play out the rest of his career, pursue a hall of fame resume, and retire in red pinstripes. In what follows I will point out what we can reasonably expect of Utley and what we should watch for in his hall of fame pursuit.
As far as we know, Utley will be in Philadelphia for the foreseeable future. He has a year left on the guaranteed portion of his latest contract and three option years to follow. Although some pundits reported that Utley had been floated in trades with the Giants, Dodgers, and even Mets [kill me], none of those reports proved to be more than hot stove fantasy. And Utley himself has expressed a desire to remain in Philadelphia through the rebuilding, unlike, for example, Cole Hamels (not that I'm besmirching Hamels for this). Based on Utley's always terse comments, he is open to a trade, but he would be happy to stay through his current contract. So, as long as Jim Bowden doesn't get his way, we will be free to enjoy watching Utley play in a Phillies uniform in 2015 and probably beyond. But what should we expect to see?
The projection systems seem to tell us to temper our expectations. They all project Utley to be a 2-3 WAR player rather than the 3-4 WAR player he's been since 2011. But on closer inspection they do not base that lower estimate on significant regression in Utley's performance on the field. Indeed, ZiPS projects Utley to maintain his offensive performance from last season. Whereas Utley's offensive production probably won't lag, all systems project Utley to lose value in baserunning and defense, which is to be expected from a 36-year-old playing a physically demanding position on degenerate knees. But even this regression in ability is not significant. The primary loss of value derives from the systems' expectations for Utley's health. They all expect Utley to miss at least a month. Given Utley's injury history—and even his sidelined start to spring training—we should not be surprised by these projections. Nevertheless, if there is a reason for optimism in the projections, it is that they show Utley to be more or less as good as he was last season.
At first blush, this is a reason for excitement. If you are like me what you remember from Utley's 2014 are moments like this:
But Utley's hot start to the season and his All-Star game appearance tend to paper over the steady decline in his performance as the season wore on. In the first half Utley posted a 120 wRC+ (i.e., 20% better than league average run production from hitting only) but just an 85 in the second half (or 15% below league average). Here are his monthly wRC+ splits: 168, 132, 69, 106, 90, 67. Of course, Utley has shown this kind of in-season performance curve throughout his career, but not to this extreme. (Tangentially, someone could write an interesting article trying to figure out whether the extremity of Utley's early season zenith and late season nadir is due to adjustments made by Utley and then pitchers respectively.) By season's end Utley had put up just a 106 wRC+, his worst since 2004 and a significant drop-off from his 2011-2013 output. In the twilight of his career Utley has become an average to slightly above average hitter. And this is what the projections tell us to expect for 2015. That's not as exciting as things like this:
But we are not excited for another season of Utley within the context of this season alone. In 2015 Utley will continue building a case for admittance to the Hall of Fame. At this point, everything he does brings him closer to that rare honor. So, let's take a look at where Utley's case stands right now. Overall, Utley has accrued 59 fWAR and 61 rWAR. Usually, ~60 WAR is thought to be requisite. And since Utley has no MVP awards, only once led his league in a traditional offensive category (runs in 2006), and derives a lot of his value from his defense without being as flashy as The Wizard, he's the very model of a modern marginal matriculator into the Hall. That is to say, as I understand how HOF ballots tend to be cast today, Utley is a borderline candidate. And this is reflected in his low scores in the HOF ratings that B-Ref keeps, excluding JAWS. (It doesn't help that sports journalists tended to poo-poo him, especially his defense, in his prime.)
In my own opinion, Utley has already made his case for the HOF. His 5-year peak from 2005-2009 was extraordinary. Over that span only Albert Pujols posted more WAR, and Utley was tied for 16th in wRC+ (138). That might not sound elite at first, but Utley and Hanley Ramirez (also 138) are the only up-the-middle players in the top 40 over that span. Moreover, Utley fell short of Ryan Howard's mark (139) by 1 percentage point above league average. Chase Utley, the second-baseman, was essentially as offensively productive as the Phillies' excellent power-hitting first-baseman in his prime. And along with unusually good offensive production for a second-baseman, Utley provided elite defense (in stark contrast to Han-Ram). Utley's peak is greater than Alomar's, Sandberg's, and Biggio's. In fact, Utley's peak is greater than each of those HOFer's best 5 seasons, without regard for contiguity.
With a peak like that the only consideration that should mitigate against Utley's induction is longevity. We expect HOFers not only to dominate MLB over a short span but also to perform at an excellent level over a decade or more. Due to injuries Utley has struggled to meet this expectation. Since 2010 he has been one of the best—if not the best—second-baseman in MLB when he's been on the field. Even last season Utley was probably the best second-baseman in the NL (at 35!). But he has not been on the field enough. He fits the profile of a player whom Bill Plaschke would wistfully poetize as the great counterfactual of the early 21st century: what if he had not been born with degenerative knee ligaments? To convince a writer like Plaschke Utley need not accumulate counting stats; he will never achieve the traditional milestones. He only needs to leave a lasting impression: that of a player so talented that he remained among the game's best even as his body aged and deteriorated. And so we wait and watch. We hope that Utley can continue to play well enough to convince all of the writers that underestimated his prime to reconsider their ignorance. With each Utley at-bat we will see some aim, some purpose, some meaning in a season likely to be remembered like so many from the ‘80s and ‘90s, as aimless, purposeless, and meaningless. So, let us be thankful that we still have Utley (and Chooch!) without whom the landscape of this season would resemble the modern Arizona desert: dry rock sand reaching to tall crags on the horizon while in between ingenues cater to their elders embarked on golf carts.