HOF Worthy? For Rollins and Utley, the Time May Never Be More Right

In 20 years, it may be too late for Jimmy Rollins. Twenty years ago, it may have been too soon for Chase Utley. Today, though, the Phillies dynamic double-play duo find themselves at an opportune intersection between an old-school era of traditionalists that prioritizes the "eye test" and counting stats (such as total hits, home runs, steals) and a new-school era of modernists that prioritizes Beane counting and sabermetric analysis (such as WAR, OAA, WPA). For Rollins and Utley, the Phillies organization’s greatest SS-2B duo and arguably one of the most successful tandems in MLB history, this unique historical juncture of statistical scrutiny has provided each with a clear, yet disparate, pathway to Cooperstown.

Rollins and Utley, both homegrown products, began playing together in 2003 and did so until Rollins—and later Utley—departed for Hollywood in 2014. Prior to the duo’s time together, the Phillies organization was mired in futility, producing just two winning seasons since the 1987 campaign. Once Utley joined Rollins at the Big Leagues, however, the Phillies’ fortunes improved almost immediately. On April 24, 2003, Utley obtained his first career hit—a grand slam. With Utley’s statement Slam and the already-All-Star caliber play of Rollins, the Phillies would not finish below .500 again for the next decade, a decade that included five NL East titles, two pennants, and a World Series parade down Broad Street.

Those 12 seasons together in Philadelphia produced the second longest tenured double-play duo in MLB history. Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell’s 19-years together is the game’s only relationship longer. Despite Rollins and Utley’s harmony on the field (they turned nearly 1,000 double plays together), both will have to rely on dramatically discordant voter perspectives in order to gain Hall of Fame status.

Rollins, a second round pick in the 1996 amateur draft, conforms much more to the traditionalists’ perspective of on-field success, having accumulated historic counting statistics over the duration of his 17-year career. Primarily serving as the Phillies lead off hitter during his MLB tenure, Rollins amassed nearly 2500 career hits, over 500 doubles, over 100 triples, 231 home runs, 470 stolen bases, and nearly 1000 RBI. He was also awarded four Gold Gloves and won the 2007 NL MVP.

Rollins’ traditional numbers and accolades either meet or surpass the expectations of a Hall of Fame shortstop, comparing favorably to other shortstops already in the Hall as well as all other shortstops to ever play at the major league level. He is one of eight shortstops ever—enshrined or otherwise—to top 200 career home runs. And as you add each of his other career marks to the equation, the comparisons become increasingly exclusive. Rollins is one of only five shortstops with at least 200 home runs and 2000 hits, for example. And perhaps most impressive, Rollins is one of only six players, regardless of position, to have at least 2000 hits, 200 home runs, and 450 stolen bases, joining Barry Bonds, Roberto Alomar, Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor, and Joe Morgan.

In addition to the numbers, Rollins also possesses many other distinctions traditional Hall of Fame voters admire—he is the all-time hit leader for a storied franchise, he was the outspoken, unquestioned leader of a team that had a decade-long run of sustained success, and, during his 2007 MVP season, he became the first player in league history to finish a season with 30 home runs, 30 doubles, 30 stolen bases, and 20 triples in one season. Rollins secured his 20th triple on the last day of the season, and although there would be no significant difference in the quality of his season had he not recorded that final triple, the perception of his season accomplishments were undoubtedly enhanced, with many, including Rollins’ teammate Jayson Werth, believing that 20th triple secured the MVP for Rollins. For traditionalists, these types of round numbers and "first to"-type achievements also play well.

Rollins’ advanced metrics, however, show a decidedly different player, and a career that may not be the Hall slam dunk his other accomplishments suggest. Rollins’ career WPA, or Win Probability Added, is 8.5. Unlike his counting stats, Rollins’ WPA does not compare well to other Hall shortstops. Derek Jeter and Barry Larkin finished with a 31 career WPA. Other shortstops (who played a significant number of games at other positions as well), Ernie Banks and Alex Rodriguez, finished with a WPA of 32 and 59 respectively. Although Cal Ripken Jr. and Alan Trammell finished with low career WPAs compared to other shortstops in the Hall, their WPA of 15 still almost doubles Rollins’ career output.

Another modern metric, JAWS, designed to measure a player against Hall of Famers at his position, also deflates Rollins’ argument. When comparing Rollins’ JAWS to other Hall shortstops, he falls plenty short. Rollins concluded his career with a JAWS of 40.1. There are currently 23 Hall of Fame shortstops; those players’ average JAWS far exceeds Rollins’, clocking in at 55.4. Similarly, WAR, a sabermetric stat that is used to determine the number of wins a player is worth over a replacement-level player at the same position, calculates Rollins’ on-field play as having been worth 47.6 wins, again well short of the shortstop Hall average, 67.7 wins. In fact, Rollins eclipsed the 5.0 WAR mark (a number suggestive of an all-star caliber player) in a single season only twice, with 6.1 WAR as his single-season peak.

Defensively, Rollins finished fourth all-time among shortstops in fielding percentage at .983%. However, again, Rollins’ advanced metrics are not as favorable. Total Zone Runs uses play-by-play data to measure the number of "runs saved" by a given player. The league average for TZR is zero, with any positive number indicative of above-average fielding, and any negative number below-average fielding. Rollins finished his career with a TZR of 38, certainly a positive, but well below fellow shortstops like Ozzie Smith (239), Ripken (176), Troy Tulowitzki (122), Trammell (81), and Banks (62). Rollins earned four Gold Gloves (Tulowitzki, two) while Utley, despite a career TZR of 62, not only received zero Gold Gloves but was considered merely average defensively, at least from a national perspective.

It’s not that Rollins wasn’t worthy of the accolades he earned, but it does highlight the humanness of the "eye test" and the processes with which voters engage to ultimately bestow upon players these seasonal awards.

Utley, on the other hand, who signed with the Phillies after being selected in the first round of the 2000 amateur draft, reflects a more modernist perspective of on-field success, with sabermetrics supporting the second baseman’s Hall of Fame case. Whereas Rollins had impressive career counting stats, the same cannot be said for Utley whose major league career was shortened by the Phillies organization’s unwillingness to promote Utley full time until he was 26 years of age and, later, due to a chronic case of patella tendonitis. Instead, Utley’s monumental six-year peak—and subsequent years of solid play—have made him a saber darling who compares extremely favorably to other Hall of Fame second baseman.

Even with just the "eye test," one might consider Utley one of the best second basemen to ever play, but his career looks far less impressive than Rollins’ when isolated to traditional statistics and awards: under 1900 hits, 411 doubles, 58 triples, 259 home runs, just over 1000 RBI, 154 stolen bases, zero Gold Gloves, zero MVP awards—all either similar or less than Rollins. A more-than-solid, even great, MLB career, but certainly not Hall of Fame worthy.

Until you look more closely. Utley is off-the-charts from an advanced statistics perspective. From 2005-2010, a total of six seasons, Utley accumulated a 45.4 WAR, just under what Rollins was worth in his 17-season career. A single-season WAR of 8.0 is roughly considered MVP-level play. Although he never finished higher than 7th in MVP voting, Utley had individual seasons of 7.3 WAR (2005), 7.3 WAR (2006), 7.8 WAR (2007), 9.0 WAR (2008), and 8.2 WAR (2009). In other words, Utley performed at—or close to—an MVP level for five consecutive seasons. No Phillies player in that decade ever came close to Utley’s WAR, including Ryan Howard who had a 5.2 WAR in his MVP season. To be clear, WAR is certainly not the Ultimate Statistic that determines value, but it is one of many that serve to highlight the inherent flaws and biases in human-based voting, especially when it comes to seasonal awards, which are then later used to determine who is worthy of Hall consideration.

Defensively, Utley never received praise (save for a heady play at home that helped clinch the 2008 World Series). Although his fielding percentage was about league average for a second baseman (.982), it is the advanced metrics that illuminate Utley’s range and performance. 2008’s Gold Glove winner at second base was Brandon Phillips. Phillips finished the season with a 1.6 defensive WAR. Utley, however, finished with a 3.5 defensive WAR, suggesting he was more than twice as valuable defensively than the Gold Glove awardee. Similarly, Luis Castillo, 2005’s Gold Glove winner, finished the season with a 1.0 defensive WAR. In that same season, Utley had a 2.7 defensive WAR. A traditionalist voter, however, may not consider these advanced metrics, and hold Utley’s lack of Gold Glove or MVP hardware against him.

Compared to Hall of Fame second basemen, Utley compares favorably. The average JAWS for the 20 second basemen in Cooperstown is 57.1. Utley’s JAWS is 56.9—essentially that of the average Hall of Famer, and above that of Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio, Joe Gordon, and Billy Herman. Similarly, Utley’s career WAR, 64.5, is mostly in line with that of the average Hall of Famer, 69.7, and ahead of Jackie Robinson, Gordon, and Nellie Fox (of course, Jackie Robinson’s impact on the game is unparalleled). The only contemporary of Utley who even remotely approaches his WAR is Robinson Cano, twice suspended by Major League Baseball for performance-enhancing drug use.

Like Rollins, Utley had a flair for the dramatic—the previously mentioned grand slam and the World Series play—and many other memorable moments—tying Reggie Jackson’s record for most home runs in a single World Series (and achieved in fewer games!), having the most career home runs for a second baseman in the World Series, and twice on live television, caught dropping a Big League fuck—once in joyous celebration with Philadelphia fans ("World fucking Champions"), and once with disdain towards the city of New York ("Boo? Fuck you.").

With Rollins’s recent Hall eligibility and Utley’s arriving in 2024, for both, the timing’s never been more right.