I was listening to the Jonah Keri podcast yesterday, with special guest Rickey Henderson. As an aside, this is one of my must-listen bits of online radio, as Keri’s discussion of sports and pop culture ticks all the boxes for a podcast: a quirky, funny, intelligent host asking unique questions to a wide-ranging and interesting series of guests, ranging from Death Cab for Cute frontman Ben Gibbard to Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, with everything in between.
Anyway, this post isn’t about Jonah Keri, or his excellent podcast, or even about Rickey Henderson. Well, it kind of is about Rickey Henderson. Henderson is a first-ballot hall-of-famer, and almost universally considered to be one of the greatest players of all time, as well as the greatest basestealer of the past 40 years or so. So it ought to come as a surprise that I believe him to be, in spite of his sparkling reputation, still somewhat underrated. Bill James once wrote of Henderson that if you cut him in half, you’d have two hall of fame-caliber players. What people forget about Henderson is that not only was he a great basestealer, he was a great hitter as well, with more than 3,000 hits, a career on-base percentage of .401, and nearly 900 extra-base hits. Henderson retired as baseball’s all-time leader in runs scored and walks, and is one of only seven players in major league history to reach base 5,000 times.
The point of the matter is that while Henderson is acknowledged as a great player, I’d submit that when we consider his place in baseball history, we actually underrate his achievements. And as you may or may not be aware, a certain Phillie shares that affliction.
Chase Utley first broke into the Phillies’ lineup in 2004, and since then has been regarded as one of the best second basemen in the game, which he is. However, I’d argue that Utley has clearly been the best second baseman in the game, and one of the five best players. Since Opening Day 2004, only Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols have accumulated more wins above replacement among position players. It’s Utley’s combination of offense and defense that makes him so outstanding: he has a higher OPS+ since 2004 than any other second baseman with more than 2,000 plate appearances, and ranks second only to Hanley Ramirez among middle infielders. He ranks No. 1 among middle infielders in that time in OBP, first in slugging percentage, and his primary rivals in that category (Troy Tulowitzki, Dustin Pedroia, Robinson Cano, Dan Uggla, and Ian Kinsler) can scarcely compare. Ramirez is the only middle infielder who has even come close to Utley’s offensive production, and while Utley ranks sixth in fielding runs among middle infielders, Hanley Ramirez is a brutal fielder.
The simple fact of the matter is that Utley hits like a corner outfielder while playing excellent defense at a critical position on the field. With the possible exception of Troy Tulowitzki, whose defense is better but whose offense is not quite as good, there is no better two-way player than Utley plying his trade in baseball right now.
But because much of his value is hidden, in OBP generated by being hit by pitches, or because his defense is so good because he positions himself well before the play, or because he’s consistently been overshadowed by more recognizable names like Bobby Abreu, Jim Thome, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Brad Lidge, and Cole Hamels, the national media seems to be largely unaware of how truly spectacular a player Utley is, despite mixing the on-field performance of someone like Ken Griffey, Jr. with the outward appearance of someone like David Eckstein–all signs point to Utley becoming overrated, but that simply hasn’t happened.
Around 2007, I was convinced that Utley had an great chance at making the Hall of Fame. Perhaps he wouldn’t crack the level of Joe Morgan and Eddie Collins, the greatest second basemen ever, but he’d be in a group with Jackie Robinson, Ryne Sandberg, and Craig Biggio as members of the top 10 ever to play the position. But Utley got a late start because of his own inability to hit lefties early in his career, and because he was blocked by Placido Polanco, and nagging injuries may cut short his career on the back end, preventing him from compiling the counting stats that would make his case.
Utley’s career AVG/OBP/SLG slash line is .293/.380/.511. The only other player to get at least 3,000 plate appearances, play 50 percent of his games at second, and match or exceed Utley in all three of those categories is Rogers Hornsby. There are 15 men with those playing time constraints with a career OPS+ of 120 or better. Among them, two (Utley and Jeff Kent) are yet not eligible for the Hall of Fame. Of the remaining 13, eight are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. And Utley, at 31, still has two or three good seasons left in him, if not more.
I’m sure everyone already knows that Chase Utley is a good ballplayer. I only fear that he will suffer the same fate as Henderson and Biggio, and only get about 3/4 of the credit he deserves. Chase Utley is not just great, but he is historically so, and we are truly fortunate to see him at his best.