Utley Chasing History and the Hall
By Ethan Witte
I’m going to warn you right now: my affection for Chase Utley runs deep. He’s been my favorite player to watch since he came into the league in 2003, will remain my favorite player into the future, and will one day be the only player I venture to Cooperstown to see get inducted into the Hall of Fame. So if you detect any bias in this writing, deal with it.
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It’s been six years since the Utley we will all ultimately remember was fully healthy and effective. Not to say that he wasn’t effective this past season, or in 2010 as well, but you have to turn back to the year 2009 for his last great season.
After that, we all know the story – the scourge that is chondromalacia took hold of his knees, and began whittling away at the power that defined Utley as the best 2nd baseman of his day.
Without the power, he has been forced to change his game. This, along with the natural regressor that is age, has dropped him out of the top-tier of players at the keystone. So, what can people expect from Utley moving forward?
Whenever research is being done, whether in baseball, science, or even history, comparisons are examined in order to see if they reveal any predictive value. That is how we’ll now examine Utley as we try to see where his career is likely headed from this point.
Baseball Reference gives his top comparison as Joe Gordon, the Hall of Fame 2nd baseman for the Yankees and Indians whose career spanned from 1938-1950 (though it was interrupted by World War II, which took away 3 years of his prime.)
It appears to be a fair comparison when we look closely at the numbers. Gordon was a power hitter at the second base position, which was even more unusual for his time than it is today. He had a 162 game slash-line of .268/.357/.466, with 26 HR and 101 RBI.
These would be great numbers regardless of position, and are what makes his comparison to Utley very apt. Utley’s power compared with his 2nd base peers also made him somewhat unusual. But as previously stated, that power is now all but gone.
So where is Utley actually headed? I’m not a prediction guy. I don’t like to make them, nor do I have the mathematical ability to create them. So what I did do was use history again. I used the Baseball Reference Play Index to see the players who put up numbers similar to what Utley produced in 2014 to see if there is any predictive value to them.
As you well know, Utley started 2014 on fire. He hit for a slash of .355/.408/.570 in April before tailing off as the season wore on. His final line of .270/.339/.407 is still solid. Combined with his defensive skills and base running ability, he’s still a top 10 player at the 2nd base position.
But what happened to other famed 2nd basemen who also put up these types of numbers early in their career as they advanced in age? When using Play Index, I was looking for 2nd basemen who:
– were 35 or older
– hit 12 or more home runs
– accumulated a 100 or higher OPS+
– accumulated 3 or more rWAR
Granted, these were somewhat arbitrary parameters. I just wanted to see if there were any 2nd basemen who were still hitting with decent power, maintained an average or better bat, and were still well above replacement level, all while advancing towards the end of their careers. Here were the results:
As you can see, there aren’t too many players like Utley who performed as he has at this age. Since these players are all very close to age 40, many of their careers ended rapidly. Here is a quick synopsis of how each player’s final season played out:
- Valentin – That 2006 season was his last productive year. In his final season of 2007, he hit just .241/.302/.373 in only 183 plate appearances.
- Kent – He played 3 more seasons, hitting .292/.363/.466 with 46 HR and 206 RBI before calling it quits following 2008. He had an OPS+ higher than 100 in ’06 and ’07, and even had a 96 OPS+ in ’08. He was a strong hitter right until the end.
- Biggio – This was the guy who kept going and going, playing until 2007 at the age of 41 when he was still at least an average player. By that 2007, however, it was clear he was ready to retire. Even so, he produced 4.5 rWAR from 2002-2007, numbers skewed by his -2.1 rWAR season in that final season.
- Velarde – I’m not even going to waste my time with Velarde, because if you click on his Baseball Reference page and look at his numbers, you will notice two things. 1) the 1999 season was so far out of the ordinary for him that it forces you to recall that, 2) 1999 was in the middle of the steroid era. I’m not making accusations, but a 36-year old with a 7 rWAR when he had never had a season above 3.4, in the middle of the steroid era?
- Whitaker -Whitaker was still producing right up until he retired, playing 3 final seasons, posting an OPS+ over 122 in each of them.
- White – White played 4 more seasons, but 1992 was clearly his best. His OPS+ never got above 85 in any of the following 4 seasons. 1992 looks like his best season in the majors.
- Morgan – While Morgan was the best 2nd baseman of his time (maybe even all time), that final, last gasp 1983 season, was clearly the end. He only played one more year, manning 2nd base for Oakland in 1984, posting a 104 OPS+ before hanging up his spikes.
- Stanky – Stanky was done after 1951, only 145 plate appearances across two more years before finally calling it quits.
- Gehringer – “The Mechanical Man” played 2+ more seasons, one above average season (119 OPS+ in ’40) and one poor season (70 OPS+ in 1941.)
- Hornsby – 1931 was the last great season for the “Rajah”. While he did register plate appearances until 1937, there were only 305 of them. He had already moved into a more full-time role as manager by this point.
What does any of this tell us? Not much, necessarily. There was truly a wide range of effectiveness for players similar to Utley as they finished up their careers. If nothing else, it shows that it may still be possible for Chase to remain productive right until the day that he finally retires from the game.
If there was one player I’d like to see him mimic, it would be Whitaker. Kent wouldn’t be much of a comp, since he and Utley are very different players. He could be on a Biggio-type track, but it’s a little more reasonable to think that he has only two or three more seasons left.
In his press conference earlier this week at the opening of spring training, Utley related that he still loves the game and the organization: “I want nothing more than to play for this organization for as long as I can.” Let’s now hope that his knees don’t prevent Utley from accumulating more of the stats which Hall of Fame voters like to see on a final career resume.