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Saturday SOC: Chase Utley is a Hall of Famer, Right?

A stream-of-consciousness look at a player who is surely a Hall of Famer. Isn’t he?

World Series - Houston Astros v Philadelphia Phillies - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Good morning, Viva El Birdos!

Normally my stream-of-consciousness posts are about the Cardinals. I don’t spend much time thinking about the rest of baseball. But I learned a lot during Larry Walker and Scott Rolen’s Hall of Fame multi-year Hall of Fame adventures with the BBWAA.

I care about the Hall of Fame. At least I do when it comes to players I enjoyed watching. When you care about something, you think about something. With Hall of Fame ballots showing up daily now on the internet and with nothing else happening around baseball, that’s what’s on my mind.

You can see the latest updates on the voting from Ryan Thibodaux and his team right here.

As of Friday morning, obvious first-ballot Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre has 97.3% of the vote. I don’t know what sport the two voters who left him off their ballots have been watching. Not baseball. Todd Helton and first-year candidate Joe Mauer are also tracking toward election with 81% of the vote.

Just below the 75% cutoff is former closer Billy Wagner at 74% and Gary Sheffield, in his final year of eligibility, at 73%.

Sometime down the line I’ll do a full analysis on these players and offer my ballot.

For now, I just want to look at one player. One player that I thought was one of the best second basemen I have routinely watched. He’s a player who, based on gut feeling and not statistics, would be in my Hall.

That’s former Phillies’ infield star Chase Utley, who currently has around 47% of the vote.

Today my intentions are straightforward. I’m going to look at some stats, consider his Hall of Fame case, and see how finely tuned my “he’s a Hall of Famer” gut feeling is.

Let’s start with some core Fangraphs stats.

Ok, well, that was easy. After one glance at one statistic, I can confirm that my internal HOF monitor is right on track. Chase Utley has 61.6 fWAR. 60 fWAR has become, for me, a pretty hard line for a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy. You don’t necessarily have to get to 60 to get into my Hall, but there probably needs to be some kind of special circumstances around your candidacy for me to keep you out. (Like PEDs. Or domestic violence. Utley seems clean in that regard.)

What about the rest of his offensive numbers? That’s where he’s a little uninspiring. Utley produced produced his 61.6 fWAR over 16 MLB seasons. His slash line was .275/.358/.465 with a 118 wRC+ and a .356 wOBA. That’s not incredible. But we’re talking about a second baseman here. Not a first baseman. Not a corner outfielder. A middle infielder.

That’s where baseball voters have to have some semblance of understanding of the game and its history.

I’m sure some baseball writer out there is going to make an argument against Utley based on something incredibly stupid. Like, “he didn’t even get to 300 home runs.”

There are twenty-one 2b’men in the Hall of Fame. Do you know how many of them have over 300 homers? You should. As a Cardinals fan, you know the one player well. It is, of course, Rogers Hornsby. He has 301 home runs.

Next on the list is elite power hitter (that’s sarcasm) Craig Biggio with 291. Then there’s Sandberg with 282 and Joe Morgan at 268. That’s pretty good company for Utley to keep.

Sandberg seems like a very good test case for Utley’s candidacy. They are nearly identical players.

Sandberg: .285/.344/.452, 115 wRC+, 282 HR, 103.9 DEF, 60.9 fWAR
Utley: .275/.358/.465, 118 wRC+, 259 HR, 104.2 DEF, 61.6 fWAR

If Sandberg is in, and he’s in. Then Utley is in. They are virtually identical players statistically.

That’s before we get to other considerations. Utley was an All-Star 6 times. He won the NL Silver Slugger Award 4x. He had multiple high finishes in the MVP balloting on a team that also featured Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and the perpetually under-appreciated Bobby Abreu.

Sandberg? You can see how context and era impact our understanding and appreciation of players. Sandberg won the 1984 MVP with an excellent 8.0 fWAR season in 1984. That season, he had a 142 wRC+ and led his Cubs team to an NLCS loss.

Utley never came that close to winning the MVP. But he had two seasons better than Sandberg’s best – 8.2 fWAR in ’08 and ’09. He has three more seasons over 7.0 fWAR.

Utley never won a Gold Glove. Sandberg won 9 of them. Was he that much better of a defender? We can’t compare them defensively. The stats we use and trust now simply weren’t available during Sandberg’s time. Fangraph’s DEF is the closest we have, and it thinks they are identical. But 9 Gold Gloves to 0? That’s a huge award bump in Sandberg’s favor.

But is it legitimate? From ’04 through ’12, a 9-season span, Utley had a DRS high of +30 and a low of +7. That’s unequivocally elite defense at second base. His UZR was equally excellent during that stretch.

Yet, Utley lost out on the Gold Glove four times to the immortal Orlando Hudson, a player who had a negative UZR in three of his Gold Glove wins. Here’s Hudson vs. Utley in DRS/UZR in each of Hudson’s GG winning seasons:

’05: 19/9.6, 20/15.5
’06: 13/-5.3, 18/7.5
’07: 18/-2.1, 18/12.5
’09: 6/-2.9, 12/11.0

Brandon Phillips won a few, too, that Utley should have at least received more consideration.

It’s annoying to me now that an award that was often arbitrarily and wrongly applied can have such an impact on a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy so many years later.

Speaking of stats wrongly applied, Baseball References’ Hall of Fame section is wildly misleading. Utley scores 3 points in “black ink” and 42 in “gray ink”. Average HOF’ers are at 27 and 144 respectively. Please, please, please, voters, don’t look at that and say, “Well, he didn’t do anything great.” And that’s true. If you compare him to all hitters at all positions in an era of extreme offense.

He was a second baseman. A very well-rounded second baseman. Compare him to other players at that position.

Simply put, Utley was an elite hitter for a second baseman. No, he can’t match the power of Hall-of-Fame caliber corner infielders or outfielders. But none – not few, none – can. Utley looks like he was at worst a very good defensive second baseman, who simply never got the credit he deserved for his glovework.

That, to me, makes Utley a Hall of Famer. I’m glad that nearly half of voters agree with me so far and he’s only in his first year on the ballot. It took Scott Rolen four seasons to eclipse that total. Rolen started at just 10.2%.

I’m hoping that previous voting embarrassments by the BBWAA have made them more aware of the candidacy of players on the ballot. Players like Utley should benefit from the slog of ignorance that writers put Rolen and Walker through.

Listen writers, if I can find an hour on a Friday before New Year’s to do a little research on Chase Utley and write about him, then surely, you can, too. I’m just a fan. I’m not a professional writer with a badge and a Hall of Fame vote. And I hated the Phillies. You should hold yourself to a higher standard. Do your jobs.

Utley won’t get in this season. But he should get in down the road. He deserves it.

Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.

Have a great weekend, Viva El Birdos. Enjoy your New Year’s celebration. Stay safe out there.