Even at Age 37, Chase Utley Is Still Balling Out
Before he became baseball's greatest villain, Chase Utley was a pretty darn good baseball player, one of the elites of the game, a guy with a Hall of Fame peak, and a world champion for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Yes, there was a time, before a rule about sliding was named after him, that Utley was simply a ballplayer, one of the best in the game. But the wear and tear of playing on two degenerative knees seemed to cut short his prime, putting the possibility of him entering the Hall in doubt.
And while it's still not a lock that Utley one day is enshrined in Cooperstown, his 2016 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers is helping his case tremendously.
On Wednesday, Utley went 6-for-7 in Los Angeles' 6-4 loss to the Baltimore Orioles in 14 innings, with two doubles and two runs scored. And he's now hitting .270/.349/.387 in 318 plate appearances as the team's lead-off hitter, with 42 runs scored and a wRC+ of 104. He's on pace to put up an fWAR close to 3.0, which isn't bad for a 37-year-old coming off a season in which he batted .212/.286/.343 with a wRC+ of 71.
Chase Utley is 3rd oldest player with 6+ hits in a game since 1913 (Cal Ripken, Ty Cobb).https://t.co/llQOx6ZG8V pic.twitter.com/FBgru8g1cF
— MLB Stat of the Day (@MLBStatoftheDay) July 7, 2016
Since 1913, there are only four players 37 years old or older who had six or more hits in a single game, Utley, Omar Vizquel (2004), Cal Ripken (1999) and Ty Cobb (1925). Utley is also the third person to have a six-hit game this season, just the second time there have been at least three players with a six-hit game since 2005 (2009 was the other).
Utley has been a pleasant surprise for the Dodgers this season. He wasn't expected to be much more than a platoon-mate with Howie Kendrick, but an injury to Kendrick, coupled with a hot April and May (.283/.369/.428 in 198 PAs those first two months), ensconced him at the top of the Dodger lineup.
The biggest thing is that Utley has stayed healthy. Prior to this year, here's how many games Utley had managed to play since 2009: 115, 103, 83, 131, 155 and 107. It's hard to make a case for the Hall of Fame if you can't stay on the field. But this year, stay on the field he has, and it can only help his chances at Cooperstown.
Will it be enough?
Among players who played at least half their games at second base, Utley's 63.5 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference (rWAR) is 12th-most in baseball history.
That's not a bad group to be in the mix with. Some of his counting stats may not quite be what you'd see on the resume of other Hall of Famers, specifically his 1,718 career hits, which are 36th among second basemen. He also never won an MVP award, although he could have/should have won in 2006, 2007 or 2008.
But at a position that is not usually known for its power, Utley's 241 homers rank 10th all-time among second basemen, as does his .837 OPS. And while this final season with the Dodgers has helped with some of those counting statistics, it's his peak that truly puts his greatness into perspective.
From 2005 to 2009, Utley had at a WAR of at least 7.0 in each of those seasons. The other second basemen to do that are all in the Hall of Fame (Jackie Robinson, Ryne Sandberg, Charlie Gehringer, Joe Morgan, Nap Lajoie, Eddie Collins and Rogers Hornsby).
Utley averaged a slash line of .301/.388/.535 during that five-year peak, and only four other second basemen have slashed that in a season since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. And Utley's total rWAR from 2005 to 2009 (39.5) was bested only by Albert Pujols (44.5) at his absolute peak.
Utley is also one of the greatest base stealers in baseball history, and his elite defense at second base shouldn't be discounted, either.
These last few seasons won't compare to his peak, but the longer he's able to stay productive in Los Angeles, or wherever he happens to land next season, the more he'll be able to add to his counting stats. That will only help solidify his Hall of Fame case to the baseball writers, who have traditionally focused on the accumulation of numbers rather than WAR or peak years.
With every six-hit game, Utley helps his Hall of Fame case just a little bit more.