Chase Utley recently announced that he will retire at the end of the 2018 season, so when the Dodgers visit Philadelphia over these next three days it will be Utley’s last time as a player in this city.
He’s 39 now, and has been the oldest middle infielder in the league ever since Jimmy Rollins last played in mid-2016. As expected, it shows in his play: .666 OPS, 83 wRC+, and essentially replacement level overall (0.2 fWAR).
But Phillies fans remember a different player: a very good hitter with a short stroke, a smart player who did whatever was necessary to help his team win, including standing his ground and taking his base if a pitch got too close. Any discussion among Phans quickly brings up words such as “smart”, “gritty”, “hard-nosed”, “hustle”, etc.
There are almost certainly more UTLEY shirts in Phillies Nation than there are those with ROLLINS, HOWARD, or HAMELS, but even the fans with his name on their back would be more likely to point to another player as the biggest reason for the Phillies success in 2007-2011: either Rollins, with his “team to beat” swagger, or Howard with his gaudy HR and RBI totals and ability to “carry the team”.
Utley didn’t amass enough hits to become the franchise’s all-time hits leader, never won a Gold Glove, and he didn’t win an MVP award, or ever lead the league in anything other than HBPs (3 times), or runs scored (once). None of his tools were jaw-dropping. He didn’t have Howard’s power, and he didn’t have Rollins’ speed, or his ability to make an acrobatic play, and while he hit for a high average in some years, overall he was a very good-but-not-great .282 in his Phillies career.
A new appreciation
The advent of sabermetrics in recent years has shined a new light on players like Utley in a couple of ways: first, it has served to spread the concepts of the defensive spectrum and positional scarcity, i.e. that it’s harder to find good hitters at the more difficult positions on the diamond, and that there is value to that. Secondly, it has allowed us to look at players who lack any single screaming tool but who do many things very well, and view their contributions in helping a team win games.
Fans remember what made Utley special (hit by pitches, great baserunning, smart fielding plays, etc.), but are accustomed to those being considered as intangibles rather than things that can be measured and compared from one player to another.
There is a growing number of fans who are aware of advanced stats, and who may also know that Utley ranks among the best second basemen in history, on par with Hall of Famers Robbie Alomar and Ryne Sandberg. For example there is the site Hall of Stats, which “combines the value of a player’s peak and longevity into a single number that represents the quality of that player’s Hall of Fame case.” Hall of Stats ranks Utley 9th among all second basemen, with Sandberg 10th and Alomar 13th. Even the popular Baseball Reference ranks Utley 10th among second basemen, based on its JAWS measure that also combines peak and longevity to determine Hall worthiness.
But for the great majority of fans, as well as many in the media, Utley is someone who was a very good player for a five year peak, had a career curtailed by bad knees, but always played the game “the right way”, doing whatever was necessary to help his team win.
However they underestimate both a) just how good that peak was, and b) how valuable a player he was even outside that peak.
As a result, most would be surprised to learn that over the decade 2005-2014, the only player in baseball who produced more WAR (per fangraphs) was all-time great Albert Pujols, and the difference between the two (and Miguel Cabrera in 3rd) was small enough as to be essentially non-existent:
We know Utley was a very good baserunner, as exemplified by the play that christened him The Man.
But while we remember those highlight plays, it’s harder to notice, let alone remember, that he made less flashy plays on a regular basis that helped the team win games. And we can quantify those small but important contributions, which is how, for example, after the 2011 season he was called the Best Baserunner in MLB.
We can also see it in the BsR column above, which is Fangraphs’ Baserunning Runs metric. It shows the number of runs a player’s actions on the bases generated, compared to an average player, and Utley has the highest BsR among these top 11 leaders in WAR, with Jimmy Rollins a close second. The top 5 in BsR over this decade (2005-14) is filled with speedsters — plus Utley:
He will also likely retire with the second highest SB success rate in MLB history. At times in recent years he has held the top spot, but a caught stealing on July 12th dropped him to second, behind Alexi Casilla, who had only 91 attempts in his career but just enough to clear the low 80-attempt minimum for BB-Ref’s list.
Fans know that he was a heads up fielder, like in the WS play that nailed a runner at home.
Most don’t know that his smart play at second base, like studying batters and positioning himself well, can also be quantified, and that the various advanced stats that measure that agree that he was one of the best fielders of his generation.
Below are the top 5 in Fangraphs’ “Def” metric, which includes both the Ultimate Zone Rating fielding metric, and the positional adjustments based on the defensive spectrum.
Fans are right to love and admire Utley for his style of play and his ability to embody the Philadelphia work ethic despite his Southern California roots. But many are also missing out on just how good those attributes made him in ways that not only helped the Phillies win games, but are also tangible and measurable and make him one of the greatest players of his generation.