CHASE UTLEY'S HALL OF FAME CAREER

Now that he has returned to star status after two years of balky knees, the Phils’ great second baseman has generated talk of Cooperstown

By Lewis Gould

The Phils haven’t played a meaningful game since October 2011 when Ryan Howard ended the NLDS with the Cards by grounding out and severely injuring his Achilles tendon.

It’s been pretty much all downhill from there — 81 wins in 2013, 73 last year and it now appears the team will have to hustle to attain that mediocre number in 2014.

But there has been one bright spot in all this gloom and doom:

Chase Utley’s return to star status.

He missed great stretches of 2011 and 2012 because of his balky knees, and many in the commentariat thought his glory days were over.

But he had a good year in 2013 and started this season on fire — our own Art Beitchman even blogged that he could possibly hit .400, which no major leaguer has done since Ted Williams’ .406 in 1941, 73 years ago.

Utley has leveled off, but his numbers and his play stand out on this group of stumblebums like Scarlett Johansson in a singles bar.

The Phils are bad enough that there has been talk that the Phils should think about trading him, but GM Ruben Amaro has scoffed at that possibility. Even Ken Rosenthal at FOXSports.com has written about it.

But there is another discussion that seems more plausible — ESPN.com’s Buster Olney poses the question about whether the 35-year-old Utley should be considered for the Hall of Fame.

It’s nothing new for Utley’s career to be underappreciated. He played on the 2006 Phillies and finished with a higher Wins Above Replacement (per baseball-reference.com) than his teammate, National League MVP Ryan Howard. He played on the 2007 Phillies and finished with a virtually identical WAR to his teammate, National League MVP Jimmy Rollins. And while Rollins and Howard have settled into a post-peak with the Phillies, still useful regulars if not stars, Utley is still the team’s best offensive performer all these years later, in 2014.

In fact, for all his injury struggles, which limited him to 115, 103 and 83 games in the 2010-12 seasons, Utley would have a surprisingly strong case for the Hall of Fame if he were to retire today.

So when a New York writer asked him about his reaching the Hall of Fame, the famously humble Utley just smiled and said, “Yeah,” while leaning against his bat. His voice gets quieter when he speaks about himself.

“Honestly, it’s something I don’t think about whatsoever,” Utley said of whether he’ll eventually be enshrined. “I never played this game for accolades or awards. I play it for the passion I have for it.”

But if Utley won’t make his own case in quotes, he’s certainly doing so on the field. Entering Saturday’s game, Utley had accumulated a career WAR of 59.4. There are 13 second basemen ever who have passed that mark, and nine of them already are in the Hall of Fame, while a 10th, Craig Biggio, is widely expected to get in shortly. (Two others, Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich, really ought to be there, too, but that’s another story.)

Utley is also already ahead of Joe Gordon, next on the list and also a Hall of Famer. He’s ahead of Bobby Doerr, Tony Lazzeri, Nelly Fox, Johnny Evers — all Hall of Famers.

And there’s a reason I’m using WAR, by the way. It’s arguably the weakest part of Utley’s case, because it is so heavily influenced by accumulating playing time. Of the 13 ahead of Utley, all but one second baseman, Jackie Robinson, collected at least 8,200 plate apearances. Utley doesn;t have 6,000 yet. Among the top 30 most valuable second basemen of all-time, none of the others accumulated that much value so quickly.

One of the few who surpassed Utley’s total to date happens to be his manager, Ryne Sandberg. Never one for effusiveness, Sandberg’s appreciation for his star second baseman is clear. “Well, first of all, I love the guy,” Sandberg said. “I love his daily approach to the game. Highly prepared, studies the pitchers, very good on the video. He’s well prepared to play a baseball game. And not only that, once the game starts, he’s a very heads-up player. Plays the game the right way. A team player, he’s the full package. So I like him in those regards. He’s a good guy to have on the team.”

Ah, but is he a Hall of Famer yet?

“Well, I think it’s a little bit too early to start talking about Hall of Fame,” Sandberg said. “The guy’s still playing, and could play for another — until he doesn’t want to play anymore. But he’s in great shape, he’s healthy, he’s off to a good start, and he does a lot of good things on the baseball field to help us win games.”

One player who’s seen plenty of Utley’s greatness is Cole Hamels. And Hamels certainly thinks that’s the direction Utley’s career is taking. “He’s on pace,” Hamels said . “I mean, you look at everything he’s done as a second baseman, he’s been among the best. And I know the few times that have really held him back [were due to] his health. When he’s not on the field, he’s not able to put up numbers. But when he’s on the field, he’s putting up numbers that are the best that a second baseman can put up.”

Hamels makes an excellent point. Utley’s career consists of a terrific five-year peak — 135 OPS+ and elite defense from 2005-2009 — combined with a strong performance in the four years since, both offensively and defensively. He missed plenty of time from 2010-12, but he still managed to finish with a 116 OPS+ and strong defensive numbers when he did play.

Still, it is understandable why the Hall of Fame chatter never had a chance to get started. Between a late start — the former UCLA star didn’t reach the majors until his age-24 season, then needed to beat out Placido Polanco to get a full-time shot at age 26 — and what looked like an early finish, it was hard to project Utley as a guy who would stick around long enough and play well enough to earn that ultimate honor.

Utley has pushed back against that sense with his recent play, however. He managed to play 131 games in 2013, with an OPS+ of 125, quite in line with his career rate of 127. And though he turned 35 in December, Utley has been every bit as good so far in 2014. Entering Saturday night, his OPS+ of 156 easily led all MLB second basemen, and he’s played in 32 of the team’s first 35 games.

According to Utley, that happened not because he gave himself more recovery time this offseason, but less. “The last couple of offseasons, I’d take two, three, four weeks off to rest,” Utley said. “This offseason, I just continued with my baseball activities throughout. It worked. I’m not quite sure the reason why, but it worked, so I’m going to stick with it.”

The implications are significant not for only Utley’s career laurels, but for the fate of his team. The Phillies overall are 10th in the National League in runs scored. They need Utley to continue producing like he did at his very best, or near it, to stay in the NL East race.

If he does, and if he can stay on the field, the Hall of Fame talk ought to begin, even if Hamels, for one, knows Utley won’t do anything to spur it on. “I think it’s something that he’s not playing for,” Hamels said. “I mean, he doesn’t care. He just wants to go out and win and do his job out there. He puts in so much time before he even gets out to the field of play. So when he does get out there, he shows everybody what he’s been doing.”

Sandberg, no stranger to Hall of Fame talk during his career, said he couldn’t quite understand why it was happening to him. “I looked at it the same way,” Sandberg said. “Why are they talking about that while I’m still playing? You know, I wanted to focus on continuing to play and win games. For me, that’s all after the matter, after the playing days are over, did I want to think about that, or hear anything like that.”

It makes sense. A future Hall of Famer’s job is to play baseball. It’s our job, not his, to recognize that level of play while it’s still happening. If we wait until after the fact, maybe some people won’t appreciate what they’re watching. “It’s impressive to see,” Hamels said. “When I’m done with the game, I will associate him as the best second baseman than I’ve ever been able to witness, and fortunate enough to be able to play with.”

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