Despite being the best player on a big market team, Chase Utley has never received a lot of media attention. Whether it is because of his quiet demeanor, his recent injury history, or his robotic determination to take over the world, the bottom line is that he has been constantly overlooked. Is he a Hall of Fame player though?
First, the positives. Utley was the best second basemen in all of baseball from 2005-2010 and the second best player in all of baseball in that time period. He is only behind the even more robotic Albert Pujols, as he amassed 42.7 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in that time period according to fangraphs.com. Even if you do not trust WAR to determine a player's value, it is indisputable that Utley was a great player in this time period, as he posted an on-base percentage of .388, a wRC+ (weighted Runs created plus) of 136, and provided great defense and base running, all at the thin position of second base. For voters who look for peak value, Utley is as good as they get. Another factor that could boost his case with some voters is his postseason prowess. He has a career postseason on-base percentage of .402, a slugging percentage of .500, and a long line of memorable postseason moments such as his 2008 fake out of Akinori Iwamura and his Mr. October impression in the 2009 World Series. Even though clutch for the most part is a narrative sold by T.V. networks to boost ratings, there is no doubt that Utley's postseason performance would rate as clutch. Put that in with voters’ affection for players that are identifiable with one team, in which category Utley clearly fits as the second best position player in Phillies history, and it seems as if he should be a lock. As an exercise in irony, let's compare him to his current manager and current Hall of Fame second basemen, Ryne Sandberg.
Utley: 11 seasons, 5671 PA, 1410 H, .287 BA, .373 OBP, .498 SLG, 217 HRs, wRC+ 128, 44.7 base running runs above average, 101.7 fielding runs above average.
Sandberg: 16 seasons, 9282 PA, 2386 H, .285 BA, .344 OBP, .452 SLG, 282 HRs, wRC+ 115, 23.9 base running runs above average, 60.0 fielding runs above average
In the ratio statistics, defense, and base running, Utley clearly comes out on top. In counting statistics such as hits and home runs however, Sandberg has a clear edge. Utley has played five fewer years than Sandberg however and he still has some baseball left in him. If he can boost his counting numbers to be close to Sandberg's without destroying his ratio statistics, then he should be put at least in the category of Sandberg as a player if not above him. Sandberg barely got in percentage wise, as he got 76.2 % of the votes, but he got in on his third year on the ballot, so it is not as if he got in on a pity vote in his last year of eligibility.
Unfortunately, one cannot just ignore the negatives. The main negative with Utley comes with his lack of healthy years, as he was not called up to the majors until he was 24 and did not have a full time job until he was 26 because he decided to go to UCLA and because the Phillies blocked him with Placido Polanco. This late start combined with a case of chondromalacia patella in both knees that cut his 2011 and 2012 seasons short have left Utley with a relatively short track record compared to most Hall of Famers. This lack of playing time also affects his counting numbers, which Hall of Fame voters greatly value, as he only has 1,410 career hits and 217 career HR's. He has also started to decline on the field, as his once stellar defense has regressed to slightly above average to average and his 2013 walk rate of 8.5% is down from his career rate of 9.7%. If he does not have a late career push, his counting numbers will never reach the lofty standards of Hall of Fame voters. Another factor that could work against him is his lack of fame. It has very little to do with his performance on the field, but he somehow flew under-the-radar in his prime despite playing for a big market team that consistently made the playoffs and being the best player on most of those teams. He has been overshadowed by Ryan Howard, who maybe has a more sexy skill set with his light tower home runs instead of the all-around brilliance of Utley.
Overall, I think that if he has two more above average years, which is certainly possible with his 2013 renaissance, then he has a very good Hall of Fame case as a man who was among the very best in the game in his prime and had a relatively short, but brilliant career. If he gets hurt next year and never returns to form, then he is a borderline case who probably will not get in. My brain tells me that he will probably not get in anyway because his defensive brilliance will not be recognized because of his lack of Gold Gloves. My heart, however, will always hold out hope that #26 will find his way to Cooperstown. If he gets there, you can bet that I will have a ticket and come in full Utley apparel, as he has always been my favorite player.