Every time a big star retires — or announces his retirement at some date certain in the future — we ask whether he is a Hall of Famer. It’s a potentially troublesome exercise, however.
By immediately invoking the Hall of Fame we’re practically begging the perfect (i.e. induction to Cooperstown) to be the enemy of the good (i.e. the appreciation of a fine career regardless). It’s also just a basic case of jumping the gun. We have a five-year waiting period for Hall of Fame consideration for a reason, after all.
Yet, despite those issues, it’s still a question people ask, so let’s do our best to attempt to answer it with respect to the latest star to announce his retirement: Chase Utley, who is going to hang ’em up at the end of the 2018 season.
Let’s start big picture: Utley is a career .276/.358/.466 hitter who hit for good power for a middle infielder, topping 30 homers three times. He got on base both by plate patience and by having the knack to get plunked far more often most players (he’s the active HBP pitch leader and eighth all-time in that category). His glove was always considered to be, at the very least, above average and often superior. He’s got 259 homers, over a thousand RBI and 1,880 career hits.
Some of those numbers — like the hits total — are not particularly impressive for a Hall of Famer. Because of that — and because his career will have lasted “only” 16 seasons — some people may be skeptical of Utley’s Hall of Fame case. He’s not a 3,000-hit or a 500 homer guy and, to some, that’s just not good enough. Those career totals, though, are partially due to the fact that the Phillies of the early-to-mid 2000s had a bad habit of leaving guys in the minors too long — Utley did not debut until his age-24 season — and they obscure how good a player Utley truly was in his prime.
As Devan Fink of Beyond the Box Score wrote last year, for a ten-year period, Utley was, by Fangraph’s version of WAR, the best player in baseball and far, far better over that time than the closest second baseman to him on the list, Robinson Cano. If you are just interested in offensive peak, Utley batted .301/.388/.535 between 2005 to 2009. As Ryan Spaeder of the Sporting News noted in an article in 2015, since 1947, only four other second basemen posted a batting line like that in a season. A SINGLE SEASON. None of them have done it twice. Utley averaged that. In all of baseball history, there is a good case — as Jay Jaffe’s JAWS formula shows — that Utley was a top 10 second baseman all time, a bit higher if you weigh things more for peak value, a bit lower on overall career contributions.
Beyond the stats, Utley was a six-time All-Star, has a World Series ring by virtue of playing for the 2008 Phillies and appeared in the Fall Classic three times in all. His teams made the playoffs eight times and, if he sticks with the Dodgers all year, there’s a good chance for playoff appearance number nine. He was one of the best if not the best player on all of those Phillies teams and, while a role player in Los Angeles, he has been lauded as a team leader. We can’t, by definition, measure intangibles, but there is much to suggest — mostly the testimonials of his teammates and managers — that Utley provided value to his team that went beyond his statistical contributions.
I don’t think Utley is a slam-dunk case to make the Hall of Fame. There will be folks who push back, I suspect, based on career-length and counting stats. I think, however, that he’s deserving. He has an unequivocally worthy Hall of Fame peak and he has a strong, strong argument — maybe an unassailable one — of being the best second baseman of his era. That’s good enough for me and, I suspect, eventually, will be good enough for Cooperstown.