Chase Utley: One of the Best Ever

If you are reading this, there is a remarkably decent chance that you are a somewhat invested baseball fan. As a baseball fan, you probably ...

Chase Utley: One of the Best Ever

If you are reading this, there is a remarkably decent chance that you are a somewhat invested baseball fan. As a baseball fan, you probably know who Chase Utley is. "Longtime 2nd baseman for the Phillies", "a really good player", and "the guy who killed Ruben Tejada" could all be phrases people use to describe this guy. At his best, Utley was a very well known player. His popularity expanded within Philly fandom such that Mac from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia wrote a letter professing his love to him. Phillies fans know just how good he was, and they love him for it. Mets fans, on the other hand, are not so fond of him.

I've always gotten the sense that Utley is perceived as a really good, but not great, fan favorite type of player. A "you hate to play against, but love to have him on your team" type guy. This reputation massively undersells just how fucking good Chase Utley was.  Chase Utley is not just a good player. He is not just a great player. Chase Utley is a hall of famer. Scratch that: Chase Utley is one of the best players of all time.

This claim might seem a little absurd, but you just have to hear me out. Let's start with some pretty basic numbers. In his career, he slashed a very respectable 275/358/465. That comes out to a 118 wRC+. He hit 259 home runs, stole 154 bases, whatever. All of this screams "good player", but that's obviously not my claim. Everyone knows that Utley was a good baseball player. Since I am not just arguing that he was a good player, I need to try a bit harder. 

Thanks in large part to his +76.2 estimated baserunning runs and +117.2 estimated defensive runs, Utley ranks 68th in fWAR among all position players since integration with 62.9. Notice that I am using fWAR instead of rWAR. This is because fWAR doesn't use an incredibly noisy metric for its defensive input, a metric that impressively manages to simultaneously overfit and be less descriptive. My point is that I'm not out here arguing that Andrelton Simmons is a hall of famer. If you really want to know, Utley actually had a higher career rWAR than fWAR (64.5>62.9). While I do not care very much, at least you can sleep soundly at night knowing that I didn't cherrypick Chase Utley's career WAR total. 

Anyways, a 62.9 career WAR total is quite impressive. Around 60 WAR seems to be a general benchmark for fringe hall of famers, and Utley surpasses it. He is just behind deserving hall of famers Roberto Alomar (63.6), Duke Snider (63.5), Ernie Banks (63.3), etc. and is ahead of guys like Andre Dawson (59.5), Ichiro Suzuki (57.8, although this doesn't really do him justice, but a bit more on that later), and Vladimir Guerrero Sr. (54.5). Just in terms of runs produced above a theoretical freely available player, Utley is a pretty clear cut Hall of Famer. However, as I started explaining earlier, I think I can do much better than just citing his career WAR next to other hall of famers. Before I do that, however, some things need to be clarified.

A lot of people will respond to that most recent WAR argument by saying "WAR isn't everything." In some cases, that is a true statement. If you want to evaluate the current best players in baseball, simply pulling up the previous season's WAR leaderboard would be a mistake. There are a lot of reasons why this would be a mistake, but they all boil down to "small sample size." However, if you assume that a player's WAR represents the true WAR that he would post after a functionally infinite amount of simulations, then WAR quite literally is everything. Imagine this scenario. You're heading into the 2022 season, and you have to pick between two shortstops. One shortstop is guaranteed to produce 8 wins above replacement over 150 games. One shortstop is guaranteed to produce 6 wins above replacement 150 games. You take the one who produces 8 wins above replacement 100% of the time, no matter how he gets to those 8 wins, because winning is the goal. 

WAR, as calculated for baseball, is an amalgamation of estimated batting, fielding, and baserunning runs. FanGraphs and Baseball reference calculate batting and baserunning very similarly, and for the most part it is pretty easy to represent how a player produced in the past on that side of the ball. Defense is a whole different animal, and we are still a pretty long ways away from really getting a measure of "true production" for fielders. Unlike hitting, you cannot attribute a play to a defender based purely on the box score result, so there is a lot of gray area. When Juan Soto hits a single, you would know; it would be a lot more difficult to determine whether or not he prevented one in the field. Tracking data can only go so far, and can only measure value so much. Because of this, it is always important to take advanced defensive metrics with a grain of salt, and it is probably best to assume that the most conservative output is also the most accurate. 

 Offensive output is still imperfect as well. A good example is Ichiro, who, in his prime, produced around 1 more win per season than he "should" have, as measured by win probability added.  Win probability added is an almost perfect estimator of past production, but the issue lies in the significant variance that comes with it. In terms of win probability, players that overperform their "peripherals" (WPA neutralized for the leverage) one year do not tend to replicate their overperforming in the following season. If a player was expected to put up 0 WPA (league average) based on his counting stats, but he put up 2 WPA, you would still expect him to put up 0 WPA the next season. 

However, given Ichiro's unique playstyle and the large sample that he overperformed in, it would probably be fair to say that a stat like wRC+(or any stat that composites hits, walks, home runs, etc.) has a somewhat significant bias against him. Ichiro is an outlier in this regard, but there are probably less extreme cases in which wRC+/wOBA slightly misrepresent a player's true ability. Baserunning is also imperfect, as it, like fielding, doesn't have as much information to draw from. A ball being ever so slightly misplayed by a fielder could be the difference between scoring and getting thrown out, resulting in a different BsR on plays in which the baserunner made an equally "good" play. Baserunning production estimators probably are more accurate than defense estimators, but the point is that there remains a lot of gray area. 

None of that really matters to my actual point. WAR, in its purest form, is an all-encompassing stat that literally is "everything" and should be treated as such. When playing time differs (like a starting pitcher vs reliever) then this would not necessarily be the case, but in this context it is. All else equal, a player who produced an average of 7.5 WAR per season is objectively better than a player that produced an average of 7 WAR per season, because more wins are better. "All else equal" doesn't just apply to my point about playing time/player roles; there is also the matter of sample size in terms of evaluation.

The reality of baseball is that players' "true talents" do not fluctuate nearly as much as people want to think. It would be fair to assume that Christian Yelich was a better baseball player in 2018-2019 with the Brewers than he was with the Marlins, but not by nearly as much as his production would indicate. Production is very unstable, but true talent isn't. When someone points to a player's best statistical season as their "peak", they are actually subconsciously doing some subtle cherry picking. Players do change, mainly via aging (both ways) and injuries, but for the most part they stay the around the same. 

It's not impossible for players to improve on their game later in their career to the point that they are noticeably more productive. Marcus Semien is definitely a better player now than he was in 2016; same goes for Gerrit Cole. Barry Bonds was a much better player after he started eating healthier. I already mentioned Christian Yelich. It's just that these cases are few and far between, and often their changes in skill are still over exaggerated. On the topic of Marcus Semien, he is definitely a guy that I would expect to still be really good heading forward, but play significantly worse than he has over the past 3 seasons. (UPDATE: the Rangers signed Marcus Semien for a lot of money after I wrote this, and that might not have been the wisest decision. Only time will tell, I guess.) With this type of thinking, we can identify which players were truly better than others at their best, albeit with a good amount of uncertainty. When doing so, we will realize just how good Chase Utley was.

"He's a power hitting second baseman, Dee, you know how rare that is in the National League?" Mac's line defending his enjoyment of Chase Utley is more meaningful than you might think. Utley averaged 29 home runs per 150 games from 2005-2009, and if you take a look at the leaderboards, the only players to homer more often than him were first baseman, DHs, and some corner outfielders who sucked at defense. He combined his home run power with a good walk rate, strikeout rate, and ability to convert balls in plays into hits.  This culminated in a 138 wRC+ from 2005-2009, trailing only a bunch of fat 1B/DH types and Alex Rodriguez, who was also starting to cultivate mass as well. Utley wasn't the most dangerous hitter in the game, but he was up there. He did this while simultaneously, as Mac kind of alluded to, being the best defensive 2nd baseman in the game (sorry, Nick Punto). With 2nd base being somewhat of a premium position, his defense becomes that much more valuable. Not only was Utley a top hitter and defender, but he was also one of the best baserunners in the game. His stolen base totals weren't high, but he made the best of the attempts he had. His career 88% stolen base rate might be the best all time (don't quote me on that), and doing so on decent volume allowed him to produce 39.2 more runs than expected on the basepaths in that stretch.  Utley was as well rounded as a player can be, and when you sum the parts of his game, he looks a lot more valuable than you could possibly imagine.

Just to be clear, looking at Utley's production from the 2005-2009 would be an example of cherrypicking, but the effects are minimal. Utley didn't actually get consistent playing time until 2005, and 2009 was his age 30 season, when players tend to start regressing sharply. His 2010 season was also around what you would expect from a year of aging, and that's not included in the sample. He quickly fell off after 2010, but I would attribute that almost 100% to age as opposed to natural regression to the mean. 

Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds, Joe Morgan, Mike Trout, Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, Ted Williams, Rickey Henderson, Stan Musial, Wade Boggs, Mike Schmidt, Albert Pujols, George Brett, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, and Chase Utley. If you read all of those names, it would seem like I listed all of the best players post integration and then added in Chase Utley at the end for comedic effect. However, all of these guys share one thing in common: they are the only position players in MLB history (post integration) to post 5 different seasons in which they surpassed the 7 fWAR mark. Here's Chase Utley's fangraphs page in case you don't believe me. Again, these are the best players of all time. This isn't some Thaddeus Young type stat; we are looking at an all encompassing value metric and our cutoff is an integer. Having a single 7 WAR season is difficult. Doing it twice is very rare. Doing it five times? Well, as you can see, only the best have done it.

I'll backtrack a little. I must admit that this stat is clearly cherry picked, and I can prove it. Among these players, Utley ties for last in seasons surpassing that mark with 5, tied with Mantle, Morgan, Henderson, Brett, and Robinson. In said seasons, he ranks second last in WAR per season, 7.7, just ahead of Frank Robinson. It would be fair to say that Utley is the worst of these players (although peak Utley, I would argue, was better than peak Robinson), but that isn't exactly a stain on his legacy. Those are almost all of the agreed upon best players of all time, and Utley is right there with them. 

The majority of these players had fantastic longevity, and as a result had a lot more "prime" seasons to choose from. Take Frank Robinson for example. He seemed to be at his peak until around age 34, and since he debuted at age 20, his "prime" self had 15 opportunities to post a WAR over 7. Utley, on the other hand, was called up at age 24 and didn't get consistent playing time until age 26. In his first full season, he posted a 134 wRC+ and 7.2 fWAR. Not something you see every day. He then proceeded to post 5 CONSECUTIVE 7+ WAR seasons before father time caught up to him. It is theorized that the average "ager" starts to significantly worsen after they reach the age of 30, so it wouldn't be a stretch to say that what we saw from Utley in that span actually was his "true talent". Perhaps it would be prudent to include Utley's slightly worse but still fantastic age 31 season in the sample to avoid overestimating his ability. Even so, that comes out to around 7.3 WAR per season. Again, ridiculously good. Not impressed? Go and find any great player at all, look at his long term peak with respect to aging to avoid cherry picking. If you did this correctly, and didn't choose one of the guys that I already listed, then you probably found a player that was not as good as Chase Utley. 

I believe there are only 4 players in the current MLB that are currently better than Utley: Mike Trout, Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, and Ronald Acuna Jr.. Trout definitely was better, and the three guys I mentioned probably are as well (although I cannot say that with much certainty), but otherwise there just aren't many guys that truly stack up to Utley. The only other active player who was once better than Utley at his peak was Albert Pujols. Mookie Betts had an argument, and he could prove me wrong with a 2018-2020 Mookie-esque 2022 season, but his "struggles" in 2017 and 2021 would lead me to believe that he was not as good as his 2018-2020 production would indicate. Yadier Molina, Miguel Cabrera and Buster Posey come close, but they still don't cut it. That's just how good Utley was. Chase Utley wasn't some decent fan favorite. At his peak, he truly was one of the best players of all time, and he deserves more recognition. 

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