Friday, February 19, 2010
Utley still chasing gold glove, among other things
While its seems most of the media has latched onto Ryan Howard and believes it is he who makes the Phillies’ ALesque offense go while he racks up the sexier homeruns and RBI’s, it is actually Utley who is most responsible. We’ve clearly debunked the belief that the RBI is an excellent barometer for offensive production. Even so, Howard has Chase to thank for the obscenely large number of them he’s accumulated hitting behind him. Utley does so many things well that when you put them together he is quite obviously one of the best players in baseball, and has been so for several years. Utley runs well and competently. Not only is he an extremely efficient base stealer (evidenced by his 23 for 23 in 2009), but he’s an excellent base runner in general. He makes good decisions and takes bases when he can and when it’s truly worth it rather than recklessly like many fleet footed players. He hits for average, he hits for power and gets on base often. Since 2005, he’s posted OPS’ over .900 in each season and wOBA’s of .392, .389, .420, .391 and .402. When you couple that with his defense and base running acumen he’s simply a tremendous player and well on his way to becoming one of the greatest second baggers of all-time, joining Sandberg, Alomar, Kent and of course, Joe Morgan. I don’t mean to say that he’s done enough already, far from it. But like I said, he’s “well on his way.” His biggest obstacle will be how long he can sustain his current excellence, and how many (just) good seasons he can have after that. Let’s compare his WAR’s (Wins Above Replacement) since 2005 to that of another player you may have heard of:
Utley: 7.4, 6.8, 8.0, 8.1 and 7.6.
Pujols: 7.8, 7.7, 7.8, 9.0 and 8.5
As you can see, very few players are in his company in terms of providing such tremendous overall value to their team. He actually posted a higher WAR than Pujols in 2007; who is obviously most often regarded as the best player in baseball. If you add their WAR’s, Utley has less than 1 Win fewer than Pujols since 2005. What’s more, Utley also bested the WAR of the 2007 Senior Circuit’s Most Valuable Player award winner, Jimmie Rollins, who posted a 6.7 WAR to Utley’s 8.0 in that season. He is quite honestly an offensive machine. To further emphasize the value gap between Utley and Howard, digest this. Since 2005, Ryan Howard has tallied a total WAR of 21.6 to Utley’s 37.9. So, to put a number on it, Utley has been 175% the player that Howard has. I do believe he is underrated offensively but nowhere near as much so as he is defensively. After all, a good portion of his WAR is derived from his work with the leather.
Let’s get into some UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating). In 2005, Luis Castillo won the Rawlings Gold Glove (GG) with an 8.9 UZR. Utley posted a UZR of 17.8, tops for second basemen in MLB but had a lower overall fielding percentage (FP) than Castillo. In 2006, Orlando Hudson won the GG with a -1.3 UZR. Utley posted a UZR of 9.3, tops in the NL but had a lower overall FP than Hudson. In 2007, Hudson repeated as the GG winner with a 0.5 UZR. Utley posted a UZR of 15.7, tops in MLB but with a lower overall FP than Hudson. In 2008, Brandon Phillips won the GG with an 11.3 UZR. Utley posted a 20.2 (!!) UZR, tops in MLB but with a lower overall FP than Phillips. Seeing a pattern? In 2009, Hudson won yet another GG with a -3.3 UZR. Utley posted a 10.8 UZR, tops in the NL but with a lower overall FP than Hudson. Since 2005, Utley posted a total UZR of +73.8 to Phillips’ admirable 28.9, Hudson’s mediocre (at best) -1.0 and Luis Castillo’s -5.3. Utley has not only been the best second baseman over the duration of the last 5 seasons, but also he’s (very) arguably been the very best in each of them. And yet, he still has not a single golden mitt to show for it.
Getting back to the wood: Knocking him down doesn’t do a pitcher any good, either. I recall last season I went to a game, Phillies at Giants, in which Jonothan Sanchez was pitching. Sanchez wung one of his sneaky fastballs right at Utley’s head. Utley luckily was able to evade the malicious heater, albeit a seeming inadvertently thrown one. Unabashed, the sweet swinging lefty deposited one of the next offerings into the very same right field seats that Barry Bonds famously used to launch balls over, splashing them among the boats in McCovey Cove. While I already had complete and utter respect for the man, and of course wasn’t particularly pleased considering he’d done it against my Giants, he somehow suddenly deserved an ever greater level of reverence and perhaps awe. Just the other day I was reminded of Utley’s blast when John Miller* appeared on Comcast’s Chronicle Live and offered that being knocked down by a pitcher never perturbed Willie Mays. Mays faced some of the fiercest and fantastic flame-throwers in baseball history in Koufax, Gibson, Drysdale, Spahn, Ford and Seaver. Mays was knocked down countless times and while he never enjoyed it and made every attempt possible to get out of the way, he got right back up and kept swinging. Koufax is famously quoted as saying, “Pitching is the art of instilling fear.” Anyone who has pitched or truly understands baseball finds this statement infinitely true, but it seems attempting to do so was wasted on Willie and likely now is wasted on Utley. He stands right on top of the plate and though I can’t say definitively, I suspect that’s precisely where he stood after Sanchez knocked him down.
*John Miller recently had the honor of winning the Ford C. Frick (recognizing sustained excellence in baseball broadcasting) and will join his idols Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons (and Willie for that matter) in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. This came as no surprise to Giants fans who have long taken witness to his brilliance, whether in the most meaningful or meaningless of moments.
Since 2005 Utley has received MVP votes in each season and been in the top 10 in three of them, but never better than 7th. He’s been selected an All-Star in 4 seasons to go along with his four Silver Slugger awards as well. He has zero Gold Gloves to date. I’m not trying to say that he hasn’t received any respect, but it’s fairly apparent he isn’t yet placed in the company he deserves, i.e. the games elite. He’s not just better than players like Howard. Utley is better than virtually all of them, sans Pujols. He’s one player I’d absolutely love to see get his fair shake via the Gold Glove, MVP or both in the next 2-3 seasons. Unfortunately, as 2009 was Utley’s 30 year old season his peak has likely already occurred and he may already have missed his shot which quite saddens me. The days of players miraculously turning into much greater players beyond their mid-thirties is almost definitely isolated to the steroids era. It is also a bit unfortunate that Chase was just a tad of a late bloomer. His first full season of AB’s didn’t come until he was 26 years old. Morgan had his first full season of AB’s at the ripe age of 21, giving him at least about 5 more good seasons to pad his counting stats.
Utley may well one day be up for his shot to enter Cooperstown and his lack of hardware will certainly be a knock against him, but it’s at no fault to him. Given his later bloomer status and lack of hardware, the odds are probably against him, but I’ve always loved rooting for the underdog.