Chase Utley: A Retrospective

3 Comments

It’s fitting that, in his last at-bat on Thursday night against the Padres – prior to Friday afternoon’s retirement announcement — Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley stuck his knee out to get hit by a Craig Stammen pitch. Utley had fallen behind 0-2 with runners on first and second and one out when Stammen threw a slider that broke just a little too far in. Utley didn’t make any effort to get out of the way and, in fact, almost seemed like he wanted to get hit.

After the game, Stammen said that Utley definitely stuck his knee out, “but he’s an old-school player. I respect how he’s trying to play the game,” Dennis Lin of The Athletic reported. Stammen said he couldn’t recall ever hitting a batter with his slider. In fact, Stammen doesn’t hit many batters at all – just 15 of the 2,589 total batters he’s faced in his career. For those of you counting at home, that’s about half of one percent.

Getting hit by pitches is something that Utley has always done well. Thursday’s HBP was No. 201 in his career, the most among active players. He’s eighth all-time. Those 201 HBP’s have added 16 points to Utley’s career on-base percentage, by the way. It would be .342 instead of .358 if he never got hit by pitches. Utley led the majors three years in a row with 76 HBP’s from 2007-09. Those were also, coincidentally, the Phillies’ three most successful years, sneaking out a division title in ’07, winning the World Series in ’08, and returning to the World Series but losing in ’09.

Don’t get me wrong – getting hit by pitches was hardly the thing Utley did best on the baseball field, but it was emblematic of who he was as a player and as a person: always willing to put his body on the line to help his team.

Hitting was certainly the thing Utley did best. From 2005-10, Utley led all second basemen with a .392 weighted on-base average. Jeff Kent was second-best, all the way back at .365, followed by Dustin Pedroia (.363), Dan Uggla (.361), and Robinson Cano (.359). Utley did everything: he hit for average, batting .298 in that span of time. He had tremendous plate discipline, posting a .388 on-base percentage in that six-year period. He hit for power, compiling three 30-homer seasons out of those six seasons. He stole bases, racking up 90 steals along with everything else. Those bases were stolen with historic efficiency as well, swiping bags with an 88.2 percent success rate. All-time, Utley’s stolen base success rate is 87.429 percent. The only player ever with a better rate is Alexi Casilla (87.912%).

Utley rounded himself out with elite defense. According to Sports Info Solutions, since they began tracking Defensive Runs Saved in 2003, Utley leads all second basemen at 133, ahead of Mark Ellis (132), Ian Kinsler (118), Orlando Hudson (101), and Dustin Pedroia (99). Utley didn’t have a strong arm, but his fundamentals were sound, he seemed to always make optimal decisions, and the Phillies’ coaching staff helped out by putting him in good spots to begin with.

The stats paint a very flattering picture of Utley, but he was also a tremendous baseball player outside of the stat sheet. No play captures this better than a ground ball hit by Akinori Iwamura in the seventh inning of Game 5 in the 2008 World Series. With the game tied 3-3, the Rays threatened with Jason Bartlett on second base. Iwamura chopped a 0-1 J.C. Romero fastball to the right of the pitcher’s mound. Utley had been shaded towards first base, so he had to range to his own right to get to the ball. Knowing he had no actual shot at throwing out Iwamura, Utley corralled the ball, faked a throw to first base, then whipped the ball home. Catcher Carlos Ruiz applied the tag and Bartlett was out to end the inning and the threat. The Phillies would go on to take the lead and win their first World Series since 1980.

As mentioned, Utley was an intelligent base runner. He ran them so well in a game against the Braves on August 9, 2006 that he spurred a new nickname from late broadcaster Harry Kalas. Utley was on second base after hitting an opposite-field double off of Macay McBride, bringing up Ryan Howard. Howard hit a high chopper on the first pitch he saw, bringing McBride towards the first base line. His back turned to the rest of the field, McBride casually flipped to first baseman Scott Thorman for the second out. Utley never stopped running. Thorman fired home but Utley slid feet-first into the plate to score a run. Kalas exclaimed, “Chase Utley, you are the man!”

Even off the field, Utley was a boon in the clubhouse, leading by example rather than with words. In 2014, Roy Halladay after having retired made a series of tweets praising Utley, his former teammate. He wrote (I have combined his words, spread out over many tweets into one paragraph, and cleaned up spelling and grammar), “I struggle writing this due to the privacy of a man of integrity and the definition of a baseball player. In the video room in the stadium you will find a row of Heart & Hustle trophies with Chase’s name. Not because somebody chose to display them but rather a junk drawer of sorts for a man who although appreciates the honor plays the game for all the right reasons! Not to be seen or heard or for attention. No “look at me,” “see how,” or any of the me-first mentality taking over all parts of baseball, sports, etc. One of my greatest honors was putting my Heart & Hustle trophy alongside the definition of the award. There must be one on every team. I have seen two in my life: Scott Rolen and most of all Chase Utley! The award has lost meaning. It’s normally given to the guy having the best year. But if you could somehow measure that in a man, Chase has run away from the pack! What’s really sad is some are busy patting themselves on the back and missing what a true baseball player is! I kid you not when he talked to me on the field I got goose bumps every time! Please encourage your friends, family, most of all your kids to be like Chase!”

Here’s how beloved Utley was in Philadelphia. On August 16, 2016, Utley’s Dodgers were facing the Phillies in the City of Brotherly Love. The Dodgers were leading 9-2 and had the bases loaded in the top of the seventh inning. Utley had already homered and, earlier in the inning, drew a walk. He proceeded to smack grand slam off of Michael Mariot, making it a 13-2 game — a drubbing. As Utley rounded the bases, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. Say what you will about Philadelphia fans, but it takes a special crowd or a special player (or both) to give a standing ovation to an opposing player hitting a grand slam.

Utley wasn’t perfect. Sometimes he was too “old school,” like when he slid hard into Mets second baseman Ruben Tejada on a double-play attempt, breaking his leg in Game 2 of the 2015 NLDS. The slide was obviously dirty and Utley got the appropriate punishment – a two-game suspension that was, unfortunately, ultimately dropped – and scorn for his actions. But on the whole, he is exactly the type of player that every team wants on their side: someone who will be plenty productive with the bat and with the glove, then add value elsewhere with game knowledge, effort, and leadership.

Utley has had a hell of a 16-year career. He has won a championship, made the All-Star Game six times, won four Silver Slugger Awards, and made an indelible impact on both cities he called home. There many never be another player like Chase Utley.

Two injured MVPs is a major bummer for baseball

Getty Images
2 Comments

Last week Christian Yelich‘s season ended with a fractured kneecap. At the time he went down he was neck-and-neck with Cody Bellinger — I think a tad behind, though people may reasonably differ — and, at least by my reckoning, a hair or three above Anthony Rendon, Ketel Marte and Pete Alonso in the race for the NL MVP Award. As I wrote last week, I think that means Bellinger is going to walk away with the hardware when the winner is announced in November. Yelich’s injury will prevent him from making a late season surge to surpass Bellinger, but I think it would’ve taken a surge for him to do it.

Over the weekend we learned that Mike Trout’s season is over as well. He’ll be having foot surgery to deal with a nerve issue causing him pain. At the time he went down he was the clear frontrunner to win his third MVP Award. Unlike Yelich, I’m pretty sure Trout will still win the trophy. Sure, Trout hasn’t played since September 7, meaning that he’ll miss more time than Yelich will, but strained articles stumping for alternative candidates notwithstanding, his lead in the MVP race was more secure.

Trout’s 2019 ends with him setting a career high in homers with 45 and slugging percentage at .645—both of which lead the American League. He likewise leads the league in on-base percentage (.438), OPS (1.083), and in both Baseball-Reference.com’s and FanGraphs’ versions of WAR at 8.3 and 8.6, respectively. With just under two weeks to go it seems likely that Jorge Soler of the Royals will pass Trout for the home run lead, but he’s not an MVP candidate himself. Alex Bregman will likely pass him in walks. Trout seems pretty certain to finish with his lead in all or most of the other categories intact. That’s an MVP resume even if he’ll only have played in 134 games. To give the award to anyone else would be an exercise in narrative over reason. Something born of a desire to reward a guy — like, say, Bregman — for playing on a winning team as opposed to his individual accomplishments. Sure, voters are allowed to do that, but they’ve mostly eschewed such tendencies in recent years. It’d be a surprise if they backslid.

Even if Yelich’s and Trout’s injuries aren’t likely to radically change the MVP race — again, I think the NL’s was Bellinger’s to lose — they’re both still lamentable separate and apart from the fact that all injuries stink. Lamentable in a way that, unfortunately, creates a downer for baseball as it gets ready for the postseason.

The Brewers won the game in which Yelich went down and have won four of five since then. In so doing they have remained close in the race for the second Wild Card and currently stand one game back. They also have an insanely favorable schedule the rest of the way, exclusively facing the weak sisters of the National League in the Padres, Pirates, Reds and Rockies. Even so, it’s no gimmie — those Reds and Rockies games are on the road, and Great American Ballpark and Coors Field makes those bad teams better — and the reward at the end of this is likely to be a one-game play-in. You want your best player in any and all situations and the Brewers don’t have theirs. And won’t, even if they make the postseason and even if they win the Wild Card game. Having one of the game’s brightest stars on crutches for the playoffs is not something anyone at the league office wants.

The Angels have no such postseason concerns and haven’t had them for most of the season. Once again they’re terrible. As they have been for almost the entirety of Trout’s career. They’ve made the postseason only once in his career — back in 2014, losing the LDS in three games — and do not appear poised to put a winner on the field any time soon. Trout is still in his prime, obviously, but like all players he’ll either slow down or break down eventually. Given the state of the club, I’m not sure I’d put a ton of money on them being good, let alone consistently good, while Trout is still the best or even one of the few best players in baseball. The upside to me seems to be an Al Kaline situation with the Tigers, in which the team finally put it together behind him only after he began to age and miss time to injuries. Having the best player in baseball outside of the playoffs looking in is not something anyone at the league office should want either.

Yet here we are.

Injuries happen. Every contender is missing at least one and in some cases several important players. But for one MVP candidate to miss the postseason this year and another one to miss the postseason every year is a major bummer for a league that has a tough go of it marketing itself even under the best of circumstances.