Chase Utley is a lot of things: tough, well-liked, good-looking, apparently mean, and oh yeah, good at baseball—especially defense. For years now, we’ve watched him make difficult plays look routine over and over again. Our eyes tell us he’s good at his job, but often times in baseball our eyes fail to deliver the entire, unbiased truth. Yet in this case, what we see on the field is consistent with the numbers.
Ultimate Zone Rating, abbreviated as UZR, is arguably the best available measurement of defense in the world of sabermetrics. Through a complicated process that you can read about here, UZR attempts to quantify defensive performance expressed in terms of runs above or below average. For example, if a player’s UZR for a given year is 5, that means his defense was worth 5 more runs than an average player would provide at that position in that same season. Also, UZR is a counting stat (similar to home runs or WAR), so UZR per 150 games is often used to control for the amount of games played.
Anyway, UZR agrees with our eyes—it thinks Utley is not only an elite defender, but a consistently elite defender. Consider the image below. I compared Utley’s defense to that of his most notable peers at second base (similar service time, prominence, etc.) by looking at UZR/150 sorted from best season to worst. This is what “nth best season” on the x-axis refers to—1 is their best season, 2 is their second best, and so on.
What does this say about Utley? For one, his peak is with the best of them: his best season according to UZR/150 was worth nearly 20 runs above average. But perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Utley’s worst seasons were actually quite good. Whereas the other second basemen on this graph experience significant dropoffs in their worse seasons, Utley’s blue line hovers above the rest. This indicates a level of absurdly consistent excellence unmatched by any of his contemporaries. In fact, in 6 of his 7 years as the Phillies full-time second baseman, he recorded a UZR/150 of 10 or more. Robinson Cano has not done this once.
This is just one more way to appreciate Chase Utley, another reason to love him. Not that you really needed one.