Chase Utley was an important player during arguably the greatest run of Philadelphia Phillies baseball in the franchise’s 140-year existence. Between 2007 and 2011, Utley was the club’s primary second baseman. In that stretch, the Phillies won five straight division titles, two National League pennants, the 2008 World Series, and 473 regular-season games, capped off by a franchise record 102 in 2011.
While Utley, nicknamed “The Man” by the late great Harry Kalas, wasn’t necessarily the face of any of those teams, he was beloved by Phillies fans. The rare, power-hitting second baseman was the perfect example, in ballplayer form, of Philadelphia’s hard-working, blue-collar mentality.
He played hard, busting it down the line trying to beat out an infielder’s throw to first, being aggressive and taking an extra bag when possible on the base paths, being a near-perfect base-stealer, diving all over the infield on defense trying to make every play possible, leaning into pitches at the plate just to get on base, and always going around the bases at a near sprint after hitting a home run.
The left-handed hitter’s short, compact swing was taught by dads all over the Delaware Valley with the hopes that their sons and daughters could find the same success with that swing-type as Philadelphia’s second baseman. If people wanted to know what a “real ballplayer” looked and acted like, all they had to do was watch Utley.
Even though he was admired by those in Philadelphia, Utley wasn’t all that appreciated during his playing days outside of the City of Brotherly Love. Sure, people knew he was a good player. But we now have a better understanding of just how good he actually was, especially during the prime of his career.
The overall sum of Utley’s 16-year career doesn’t stand out. The counting statistics, such as hits and home runs, aren’t out-of-this-world. And that’s because the California-born infielder not only dealt with injuries as his big-league career progressed, but he didn’t become a full-time player until his third season with the Phillies.
Utley is appearing on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year. His case is an interesting one. Voters who love outstanding peaks will give Utley a lot of attention. Other voters, who tend to look at a player’s full body of work, probably won’t do the same.
With that, now feels like a good time to take a deep dive into Utley’s career. If the information below doesn’t sway your opinion on whether he’s worthy of a plaque in Cooperstown, that’s fine. But going over his numbers will hopefully give you a better understanding, and greater appreciation, of just how good Utley was in his heyday.
During his career, Utley played for two teams — the Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers. That’s fitting, given that those are the two organizations that drafted him. He was taken in the second round of the 1997 draft by Los Angeles out of high school. He didn’t sign with the Dodgers, though, going to college instead. Three years later, Philadelphia selected him with the 15th overall pick of the 2000 draft. Utley eventually made his way to the Dodgers after an August trade in 2015.
Utley made his big-league debut in 2003. He didn’t take over as the Phillies full-time second baseman until 2005, his age-26 season, though. All in all, across 16 seasons in the majors, Utley was selected to six NL All-Star teams and won four Silver Slugger Awards. He finished in the top 10 of NL MVP voting three times, finishing between 11th and 14th two other times.
For his career, the left-handed hitter batted .275/.358/.465, posting a 117 OPS+. According to Baseball Reference, Utley finished his playing days with a 64.5 WAR. He also tallied 1,885 hits, 728 extra-base hits, 259 home runs, 1,103 runs, 1,025 RBIs, and 154 stolen bases.
As mentioned above, those totals could’ve been higher. However, Utley was used sparingly for the 2003 and 2004 Phillies. He then went on to deal with numerous injuries throughout his career.
The six-time All-Star missed a month during the 2007 season after being hit by a pitch that broke a bone in his right hand. Three years later, Utley was limited to 115 games thanks to a thumb injury. A year later, in 2011, he appeared in just 103 games after missing a month-and-a-half with a right knee issue. The following year, a left knee injury put Utley on the shelf for most of the first half of the 2012 season. Then, he missed a month in 2013 with a right oblique injury and another month in 2015 with a right ankle injury. Utley dealt with a few more ailments over the final years of his career, too.
With Utley being limited to 137 games between the first two years of his career, along with missing chunks of games later on due to injury, one must wonder what his career marks would look like had those two things not been the case. If he had been given a chance as a full-time player earlier and hadn’t suffered nagging injuries, he easily could’ve surpassed both the 2,000-hit and 300-home run benchmarks, making his Hall of Fame case a little easier.
Another area that could’ve made Utley’s case easier was a better understanding of player value when it came to MVP voting during his playing days. Today, voters are more informed and make better decisions when it comes to awards voting. At least, for the most part.
When Utley played, WAR was not a statistic voters were using. Back then, batting average, RBIs, and home runs were valued over some of the more modern numbers we use today. It’s not an end-all-be-all statistic, but we understand WAR is a jumping-off point and a separating stat between players. For example, we know a three-win player and an eight-win player are worlds apart. They both provide value, though. However, a three-win player is a good one, and an eight-win player is a true MVP candidate.
Utley’s five top-15 MVP finishes came consecutively between 2005 and 2009. Here’s where he ranked in terms of WAR in the NL during those years, along with where he finished in MVP voting:
|WAR (NL Rank)
|MVP voting finish
Without getting too deep into the weeds, it’s obvious Utley should’ve more than likely finished in the top-five of NL MVP voting all five of those years.
So, if Utley played more throughout his career, and voters used the numbers we use today for MVP voting back when he was at his best, we would likely be looking at a player with six-plus All-Star appearances, four-plus Silver Sluggers, 2,000-plus hits, 300-plus home runs, 1,200-plus runs scored, 1,200-plus RBIs, and at least five top-five MVP voting finishes, along with a career WAR north of 70. That seems like an easy “yes” vote when it comes to the Hall of Fame. But, those numbers aren’t his numbers. Those are numbers he could’ve had if his career had gone a little differently.
While players shouldn’t get into the Hall of Fame because of what their career totals could’ve been, Utley still has a good enough case to one day be put into the Hall. His peak made him not only the best player at his position, but also one of the best players in all of baseball.
The Peak Years
The best years of Utley’s career spanned from 2005 to 2010. He appeared in 869 games during that stretch, 27th-most among major-league players. Despite that ranking, his 45.5 WAR in that period was second-best, trailing only Albert Pujols (52.1). Breaking that number down even further, Utley’s 33.4 oWAR was third-best, while his 14.2 dWAR was tops among big-league players, according to Baseball Reference.
Furthermore, Utley’s 133 OPS+ during those six seasons ranked 28th, while his 162 home runs were 20th, 403 extra-base hits were 10th, 1,744 total bases were 11th, and 1,506 times on base were 10th. On top of those numbers, his 19.3 win probability added was 11th in the majors, and 233.71 run expectancy based on the 24 base-out states, or RE24, was ninth.
Outside of being a plus hitter and defender, Utley was also a strong baserunner. He accumulated 24 baserunning runs from 2005 to 2010, eighth-most in baseball. His 88.24% stolen base percentage (90 of 102) among those to have at least 100 stolen base attempts was second to, coincidentally, his long-time double play partner, Jimmy Rollins (88.38%).
Clearly, Utley was one of the best players in baseball during those six seasons, meaning his ranks among those at his primary position were even better. He ranked first in WAR, oWAR, dWAR, plate appearances (3,885), OPS+, total bases, home runs, extra-base hits, walks (397), on-base percentage (.388), and slugging percentage (.523) among all second basemen from 2005 to 2010. He fell second in hits (992) and third in batting average (.298).
Utley’s prime certainly boosted his career numbers. After 2010, his ability to stay healthy waned, and post-2013, he stopped hitting the way we were used to seeing. After posting a 108 OPS+ in 664 plate appearances in 2014, Utley posted an unproductive 85 OPS+ over the final four years of his career. However, there’s something to be said about a guy who goes on a great six-year run that made him one of the game’s best players during that run.
That kind of player seems, at least a little, like a Hall-of-Famer.
Career Ranks Among Second Basemen
Altogether, Utley played most of his games at second throughout his career. Among players to have played 95% of their games at second base during the Modern Era (1900 to now), Utley ranks third in home runs, sixth in extra-base hits, eighth in RBIs, 11th in runs, and 11th in total bases.
His career WAR ranks eighth, trailing Eddie Collins, Joe Morgan, Charlie Gehringer, Lou Whitaker, Robinson Canó, Roberto Alomar, and Willie Randolph. Collins, Morgan, Gehringer, and Alomar are all Hall-of-Famers. Many people think Whitaker should be, too, and outside of his PED issues, Canó’s career is one deserving of a plaque in the Hall. Utley’s oWAR is ninth, and dWAR is seventh among the group.
The former Phillie’s career OPS is similar to that of Morgan and Alomar, while his OPS+ is nearly identical to both Whitaker’s and Alomar’s.
Among primary second basemen, Utley is the only one to have accumulated 125-plus runs above average as a hitter, 125-plus runs above average as a fielder, and 40-plus runs above average as a baserunner. In fact, he’s only one of three players to have accomplished such a feat, joining Willie Mays and Barry Bonds.
Now, Mays and Bonds posted way more runs above average at the plate than Utley — Mays had 804, Bonds had 1,128, and Utley only had 173 — but as fielders and baserunners, all three are in the same neighborhood. Needless to say, Utley being the only other player on a list that includes Mays and Bonds is extremely impressive.
Is He or Isn’t He?
Is he or isn’t he? That’s the question.
Whether or not Utley one day makes it into the Hall of Fame is unknown. He’s not a lock, that’s for sure. My guess, is that if it were just up to the BBWAA voters, he may not get in. And even if he does, it may take until the final year of his ballot eligibility to get there, as long as he continues to receive the required minimum number of votes it takes to remain on the ballot year after year.
If not the writers, the Veterans Committee could also vote Utley in one day.
For transparency, I think Utley belongs in the Hall of Fame. His peak was just too good to ignore. I’m not a voter, though.
The results of this year’s Hall of Fame voting won’t be released until late January. The percentage of votes Utley receives will be somewhat of an indication of how the writers feel about him.
For now, we’ll just have to wait and see.