Baseball 96

Before we get to our choice -- whose place here as 96th-best Major League Baseball player ever will probably thrill you, upset you or (most likely) infuriate you -- we have to talk about one of baseball's most basic concepts: counting. There's more counting in baseball than there is in any other sport on earth. There's more counting in baseball than there is in most other THINGS on earth.

Baseball is us at our most mathematical.

Think about it: Even baseball fans among us who despise math wheel around relatively complex mathematical ideas with the ease of John Nash. Consider ERA. You know what ERA is. You grasp its intricacies. Figuring ERA is not as easy as it sounds. You have to take the number of earned runs -- a pretty advanced concept involving many variables -- then multiply it by nine then divide by innings pitched. You figure it to the second decimal (or third for rounding purposes). OK, it's not advanced calculus, but look around: There are no mainstream statistics in any other sport as complicated as ERA. And yet EVERY baseball fan understands ERA deeply and thoroughly.

Batting average is equally complicated, maybe more so, even if the formula H / AB seems straightforward enough. Thing is, a "hit" is not a straightforward thing. Reaching base successfully on a batted ball might be called an error (in which case, for batting average purposes, it's recorded as an out even though the batter did not make an out). And an "at-bat," as we have written before, is a crazy fusion of a dozen different rules and designations involving walks and plunks and sacrifice bunts and sacrifice flies, and it's a headache if you think too much about it.

But all of us get batting average. We grew up on it. We might have learned basic division because of it.

We get it because baseball is a counting game.

We joyfully count everything we can in baseball, and because of that, certain things in the game grow large in our imagination. RBIs, for instance, are big. They're not as big as they used to be, but they're still big.* Wins are like that; they have lost much of their cachet, but they're still the first thing listed in a pitcher's record. Batting average is big.

*One of the reasons why RBIs are big, I believe, is because there's a good-looking round number goal: 100 RBIs. For a stat to go mainstream, you need that round number goal. Wins has 20. Batting average has .300. Home runs can be celebrated at several levels -- 30, 35, 40, 50, etc. For a while, hits were big because of the number 200, though that seems to have died out.

This is how the counting game goes. Certain statistics, because they count well, have become outsized in our imagination. And other important baseball things, in part because they don't count well, tend to get lost.

All of which brings us to No. 96 in our Baseball 100: Chase Utley.

[Tumult]

[Waits for tumult to end]

Chase Utley did a whole lot of amazing things that just did not count well.

* * *

In 1997, Chase Cameron Utley was drafted out of high school by his hometown Los Angeles Dodgers. His high school coach, Bill Powell -- who coached and scouted in the area for 20 years -- called Utley the best high school left-handed hitter he'd ever seen. That means a bit more when you realize that Utley went to Long Beach Poly High: the same high school as a pretty fair left-handed hitter named Tony Gwynn.

The Dodgers offered Utley roughly $750,000 to sign, and expected it to be a quick deal. If anyone was going to sign fast, it was Chase Utley. He was hardly a scholar; his high school grades were not all that great, he didn't seem the type to fixate on education. Utley was a baseball junkie, that kid who clearly lived for the game. He had prepared himself for the minor leagues. He was ready to begin the baseball life. Shortly after the draft, the Dodgers brought in their coffee-is-for-closers king, Tommy Lasorda, to get Utley to sign on the line that is dotted.

And Utley did something mind-blowing. He said the money was fine. He believed he was ready for pro baseball.

Then he said no. He decided to go to UCLA instead. Utley wanted to enjoy college life before going on to his life's work in the game.

Chase Utley has to be at least top five among the most surprising non-signs in recent baseball history.

[caption id="attachment_23177" align="aligncenter" width="309"] Utley displayed uncommon grit -- often literally.[/caption]

Then there has always been something different about Utley, something not easy to pin down. He's been called the ideal baseball player, and he's been called a vicious baseball player. He's been celebrated for getting his uniform dirty, and he's been excoriated for plays that people thought were dirty. He's the guy some managers write love songs about, and the guy other managers want to feel a fastball in the ribs.

"I never want to look in the mirror and say, 'What if?'" Utley told Sports Illustrated back in 2006, when he was just beginning. "'What if I had run harder? What if I had dived for that ground ball?'"

There were no what-ifs for Chase Utley, not along those lines. He always ran harder. He always dove for ground balls. He played the game so hard that there were endless -- ENDLESS -- stories about him getting his jersey dirty. The stories often quoted someone in the clubhouse who broke down the dirt particles on Utley's jersey like he was doing a Clorox commercial. "He's a dirt ball," assistant clubhouse manager Phil Sheridan told Sports Illustrated, something lots of people would say about Utley for one reason or another.

Utley spoke with his play. He didn't believe much in words. In 2006, when he went on his 35-game hitting streak -- he hit .405 over that span and looked so good at the plate that it seemed as if the streak might never end -- he almost never talked to the media. Even when he did talk, he said nothing. On the day that he reached 35, just about everybody else on the team talked about how great it was.* Utley quotes were noticeably absent.

*Great moment from that game -- Utley's infield single to extend the streak was at first ruled a fielder's choice. Then it was changed to a hit. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said that if they hadn't changed that, he would have called the president.

"But Charlie," one reporter said, "there is no National League president anymore."

"No," Manuel said. "The real president."

Despite his silence -- perhaps because of it -- Utley was enormously popular in Philadelphia. Sometimes a player comes along who perfectly fits a city's character, and Utley was Philadelphia. He was tough, he hustled, he hated losing, and he kept his mouth shut. He was a little bit mean. He was more than a little bit excessive. If there's a baseball equivalent to "booing Santa Clause," it's Chase Utley.

How great was Utley as a player? Well, here is where we get into the counting stats. Nobody thought he was all that great. From 2005 through 2010, the six years at the heart of his career, he was mostly viewed as a "nice" player. He made the All-Star team in each of those seasons. But he didn't win anything. He won no Hank Aaron awards. He only won two Player of the Month awards. He received no Gold Gloves; most people pegged him as an average or slightly below average defender. He never received a first-place MVP vote, and never finished higher than seventh in the voting. In 2007, his double-play partner Jimmy Rollins won the MVP. Utley had a better year. In 2008 ... well, we'll get back to 2008.

Utley was widely seen as a good player, not a great one, and it's all but impossible for a player to shake that tag. The only way to do it, I think, is to put up a massive career total in something. Craig Biggio was not viewed as a great player at his best, but he got 3,000 hits. Don Sutton was not viewed as a great pitcher at his peak, but he got 300 wins. Utley will not reach any such milestone. Now 39, he's retiring at season's end, and his career numbers -- fewer than 2,000 games and 2,000 hits, 259 homers, barely more than 1,000 RBIs, 1,110 or so runs -- will not leave much of a mark on the mind.

But let's go back to those years: 2005-2010. Six seasons. Overall, Utley was the second-best player in baseball behind Albert Pujols. As you can see by Wins Above Average, he was closer to Pujols-level great than third place.

Highest WAA, 2005-2010

  1. Albert Pujols, 40.0

  2. Chase Utley, 34.1

  3. Alex Rodriguez, 25.1

  4. Mark Teixeira, 19.7

  5. Joe Mauer, 19.6

And it wasn't just when you add things up. Utley was, by WAR, a top-five player every year from 2005 through 2009, top three in three of those seasons, and in 2008 he was basically of the same value as Pujols.

Why was he overlooked? It comes back to those counting things. It comes back to one of the fundamental arguments of baseball these days: How important are those things that are not easy to count? Stats such as WAR and WAA are attempts to reveal those things. Some people like that. And some don't.

Take the 2008 season, a year in which Utley finished 14th in the MVP voting, even though his Phillies won the National League East and, eventually, the World Series. I bring up the Phillies' success because the MVP voters desperately wanted to vote for someone on Philadelphia -- voters ALWAYS want to vote for someone on a winning team. That year, they chose Ryan Howard, who hit 48 home runs and drove in 146 runs. Love those counting numbers. Twelve people voted Howard first on their ballot, even though:

-- Howard didn't get on base much. He hit .251 and had a .339 on-base percentage.

-- He was basically helpless against left-handed pitching (.224/.294/.451).

-- He was a liability on the bases and on defense.

This combination -- even with all the home runs and RBIs -- made him a below-average player based on WAA.

Utley, playing on the same team, was seven wins above average. He was more than seven wins better than Howard. And he finished 14th in the MVP voting.

So let's look a bit closer at Utley's season. He hit .292. Good, not breathtaking. He hit 33 homers, drove in 104 runs and scored 113. Good, not breathtaking. This was mostly where the Utley analysis ended in 2008.

But Utley led the National League in getting hit-by-pitch with 27 -- that helped boost his pretty-good .292 average to a very good .380 on-base percentage. He stole 14 bases and was caught only twice. He went first-to-third and second-to-home aggressively. He hit into just nine double plays.

[caption id="attachment_23178" align="aligncenter" width="336"] Utley is beloved in Philly and L.A., not so much in New York.[/caption]

On defense, he did not win the Gold Glove, as mentioned, but by virtually every advanced and not-so-advanced defensive measurement, he was the best second baseman in baseball in 2008. Heck, he was the best DEFENDER in baseball. Look at something as simple as range factor. Per nine innings., Utley's range factor was 5.18, the best in baseball. That basically means that he made 54 more plays that year than the average second baseman. That's insanely good defense. Nobody noticed. Nobody cared. Utley had the highest Dewan plus-minus (+47) of any defender in the game, any position, and yet he did not even win the Dewan-inspired Fielding Bible Award. People refused to accept his defensive genius.

In all, Utley in 2008 was fifth in the league in runs created, and he was the best defender in baseball, and he was a superb baserunner, and if you want to throw in those famous intangibles -- respect from teammates, leadership skills, appreciation of the manager -- well nobody aced the intangibles like Utley.

"He don't like for you to say a whole lot of things about him," Manuel said. "He's one of the most prepared, one of the most dedicated, he has the most passion and desire to play the game that I've ever been around. ... I don't want to embarrass him or nothing like that, but sometimes I tell our players, 'Just play with Chase. Because if you play with Chase, you've got a chance to be a pretty good player.'"

Utley played at that crazy-high level for six seasons, which is a long time to be that great. In 2009, he stole 23 bases without getting caught. In 2006, he led the league in runs scored. Three times he led the league in getting hit by pitch. He always was a better-than-average base runner and always hit into fewer-than-average double plays. He always played superior defense. He always played the game with Utley grit that earned widespread respect and admiration from teammates, and a lot of loathing from opponents and their fans.

Now, you can ask: Is six extraordinary seasons enough to make a player an all-time great? We'll argue about this a lot. But in the Baseball 100 system, that level of sustained excellence scores really well. The Hall of Fame is a whole other story. The majority of Utley's high-end value came in those seasons. He was a good player for three or four years after that, but because his career stats fall short, I fear that when the final story is written, most people will group him with terrific-but-not-quite-legendary players like Nomar Garciaparra.

But Utley did the little things better than just about anyone. He achieved higher heights, even than Garciaparra. The rhythm of baseball changes all the time, and in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, we'll be counting stuff in the game that we're not counting now. Maybe by then, we'll find things that show a player like Ian Kinsler or Lorenzo Cain in an all-new light. We'll see.

What we know now is that the more stuff we count, the better Chase Utley looks.