There is no greater honor for a baseball player than to be asked to spend a weekend in upstate New York five or more years after retirement. If invited, the player is being enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame, located in Cooperstown – a sleepy hamlet in the middle of nowhere with no appeal – except for the museum where baseball’s history, and greatest, are honored. While some future Hall of Famers are obvious – Albert Pujols might as well make his reservations at the Cooper Inn for five years hence on the day he announces his retirement – others will wait by the phone anxiously as the years tick by. And while young superstars like Mike Trout seem like sure things now, he still needs five more seasons in the majors before he is eligible. In this series, Dave McCullough looks at the Hall of Fame resumes of active players like Chase Utley eligible for enshrinement, and whether they should consider booking a room at the Cooper Inn.
Twenty second basemen are in the Hall; from Joe Morgan (considered by Bill James to be the cream of the crop) to Rogers Hornsby, the list is distinguished – and short. There are likely a few reasons for this: many second basemen are moved to the position because they lack the arm strength to play third or shortstop, they do not hit well enough to play a corner outfield spot, and there is a high potential for injury (you take a lot of throws with your back to a base runner looking to take you out). Chase Utley has been one of the premier second basemen of this era – but is he a Hall of Fame player?
Utley began his baseball career at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and was drafted in the first round of the 2000 amateur draft by the Philadelphia Phillies. After nearly three seasons of development climbing the Phillies minor league ladder, he made his major league debut in 2003 but was sent back for more seasoning after failing to establish himself. He stuck in 2004, appearing in 94 games – most as a pinch hitter. But, at the age of 24 in 2005, Utley emerged as Philadelphia’s best homegrown talent in decades, busting out with a .291/.376/.540 season that featured 28 homers, 39 doubles, 105 runs batted in, and 16 stolen bases – earning MVP consideration in the process.
From 2005-2009, Utley was one of the most feared offensive players in baseball: He dipped to 22 homers in 2007 (in part because of injury), but otherwise cranked 32, 33, and 31 to go along with years of 102, 103, 104, and 93 runs batted in. He also had three consecutive seasons of 40+ doubles (2006-2008), and led the league in runs scored in 2006 with 131. In each year of his prime, Utley was a contender for the MVP award. His OPS over this five-year stretch ranged between .905 and .976, while his OPS+ ranged from 125 to 146. He was – for these five peak years – one of the best players in baseball.
However, in 2010 Utley turned 31 and he began to miss significant chunks of seasons to injury. He didn’t play in more than 150 games again until 2014, with his power numbers falling off considerably. He remained a very good player when healthy – but he was rarely in perfect health. Despite his physical ailments Utley remained productive, topping 20 doubles in four of the last five seasons, but he was no longer the dominant force he had been in the back-half of the aughts.
In 2015 Utley was traded from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, where he is still toiling as the Dodgers second baseman. Despite this, he is still beloved by Phillies fans, who recently gave him a pair of standing ovations and curtain calls for a two-homer performance against the hometown team.
Utley probably has a few seasons left to pad his statistical resume for the Hall; he will likely pass 2,000 career hits, 400 doubles, and 300 home runs. He has never been known as a defensive wizard at second base, but he is also not known as a butcher. Utley was, in his younger days, an underrated defensive player, having contributed mightily to the best defensive team of the aughts, the 2005 Phillies, according to Bill James.
Should Chase Utley look into hotels in Cooperstown once he retires? Almost cerainly not in his first year of eligibility, barring a late-career renaissance. However, his case is probably stronger than the numbers alone reveal. He was one of the key players in the Phillies 2008 World Series championship. His late debut – age 24 – and his injury-plagued career belie his true impact. And there just are not many Hall of Fame worthy second basemen. Squint real hard and you can see the similarities between Utley and former Oriole and Angel second baseman Bobby Grich, another tall, powerful second baseman. Grich – ranked the 12th-best second baseman of all time by James – has long been a favorite of the sabermetric community, and while indisputably a better defender than Utley, the offensive similarities extend past their counting stats to secondary averages and OPS+.
VERDICT: Not yet, but with a few more healthy seasons to pile up hits, it is possible that Utley gets real consideration for the Hall.