Home > Uncategorized > Chase Utley and the Hall of Fame

Chase Utley and the Hall of Fame

For a while there, it sure looked like Chase Utley was a runaway locomotive steaming full-bore towards Cooperstown.  From 2003 to 2009, Utley had a career OPS of .902, averaged 23 HRs and 84 RBIs a year, all while establishing a reputation as the best defensive second baseman in baseball.  He had an OPS+ of 129, a career OBP of .379 and slugged .523, all ridiculous numbers for a second baseman.

His postseason credentials were also well established, with huge home runs during the 2008 playoffs and five dingers in the 2009 World Series alone, tying Reggie Jackson’s all-time mark.

Simply put, for a five-year stretch, Chase Utley was the best second baseman in Major League Baseball, and it wasn’t even close.

But we all know what happened next.  First, Chase tore his labrum during the 2008 season, causing him to miss the first part of  2009.  He still managed to hit 31 homers and slug .508 in 2009, so the future still seemed bright.

Then, in 2010, the numbers fell off a cliff.  Injuries were surely to blame.  The torn labrum, an injured thumb and knee problems all contributed to a steady decline in performance.

That year, Utley played in only 115 games and saw his slugging percentage drop more than 65 points.  While his batting average and on-base percentage stayed close to his 2009 numbers (.282/.397 to .275/.387), his OPS dropped from .905 to .832.  And in 2011, it got even worse.  Utley played in only 103 games and hit just .259 with an OB% of .344 and a SLG% of .425.  He hit only 11 HRs, a paltry total given his career norms.

His power disappeared.  Utley used to hit line drives everywhere, but in the last two seasons, those line drives morphed into fly outs to left field and warning track power to right.  And his ability to hit doubles disappeared.  From 2005 to 2008, Utley averaged 42 doubles a year.  From 2009 to 2011, the number was just 23.

I say none of this to bash Chase Utley.  I think he could be in line for a huge bounce-back season in 2012, if he can stay healthy.  It will be interesting to see if Utley was able to do much strength training for his knees this off-season, given their delicacy.  If Chase was able to both strengthen his legs while keeping them healthy, we could see a very nice uptick in his numbers.

However, the halcyon days are over.  The question is, what more does Utley need to do to warrant Hall of Fame consideration?  And, is it possible he can reach some of the milestone numbers required to get in?

There are currently 17 second basemen in the Hall of Fame.  They are Rod Carew, Eddie Collins, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Evers, Nellie Fox, Frankie Frisch, Charlie Gehringer, Billy Herman, Rogers Hornsby, Nap Lajoie, Tony Lazzeri, Bill Mazeroski, Bid McPhee, Joe Morgan, Jackie Robinson, Ryne Sandberg and Red Schoendienst.

The closest comp to Utley is probably Ryne Sandberg and Joe Morgan.  Sandberg and Morgan were both power-hitting second basemen and good defenders, playing in relatively similar eras.  So, let’s look at their numbers and compare them to Utley’s.

Utley has the highest OPS of the three.  His career OPS of .882 beats Morgan’s .822 and Sandberg’s .796.  That’s due largely to his amazing .505 SLG% (compared to .452 for Sandberg and .427 for Morgan).  And as far as OB% goes, Utley’s right there.  Morgan’s .395 is the best of the trio, followed by Utley’s .377 and Sandberg’s .344.

However, Utley simply has not played long enough and doesn’t have the career numbers that Morgan and Sandberg do.  Morgan played 22 seasons, amassed 9277 at-bats and accrued 2517 hits, 268 HRs and 1650 runs scored.  Sandberg played 16 seasons, had 8385 at-bats and had 2164 hits, 282 HRs and 1318 runs scored.

Utley, meanwhile, has only played nine seasons, and has just 4133 at-bats (less than half of Morgan and Sandberg), 1198 hits, 188 HRs and 731 runs scored.  Clearly, more work still needs to be done.

Using the Sandberg-Morgan numbers as comps… let’s project numbers that would put Utley somewhere between Morgan and Sandberg.  Assuming his on-base percentage and OPS numbers stay relatively stable, acknowledging there will be some drop-off in both areas in the years to come, let’s say Utley needs 2200 career hits, 270 HRs and 1300 runs scored in order to get himself in the range of Sandberg and Morgan.

To reach 2200 hits, Utley needs another 1002.  Assuming he plays another six seasons, Utley would need to average 167 hits a year until he turns 38 years old.  To reach 270 HRs, he would need to average 18 HRs a year for the next six years.  And to score 1300 runs,  Chase would need to average almost 95 runs scored over the next six years.

Can Utley average 167 hits, 18 HRs and 95 runs scored a year for the next six years?

The answer is, probably not.

Does Utley absolutely have to hit the numbers I’ve suggested?  No, he doesn’t.  Postseason performance definitely adds to a player’s resume, and Chase certainly has had a postseason career that would rival any second baseman’s in history (certainly more accomplished than Sandberg’s).  That could help him should his regular season numbers come up short.

The bottom line is, Utley’s Hall of Fame candidacy is probably a long shot at this point.  No one knows if he can hold up physically for another two to three years, let alone five or six.  His candidacy is also hurt by the fact he didn’t become a full-time Major League regular until he was 26 (thanks a lot David Bell).

If Utley comes close to most of those numbers but falls just short in the hits and runs scored category, an argument can be made that he should get in.  The question I always ask is when considering a Hall of Fame candidate (after looking at the numbers), is whether this guy was one of the two or three best players at his position over a ten-year period.

Right now, the answer on Utley is no.  He hasn’t sustained excellence long enough.

But if Chase can somehow get it back together and have a career resurgence in his mid-to-late thirties, the answer could end up being, yes.

Just don’t go putting any money down on it.

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Categories: Uncategorized
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