Chase Utley and the Hall of Fame
Bear with me a moment as I explain how I came up with the idea for this post. I was eating lunch and looking around at the great site baseball-reference.com which I use a good amount for this blog. You could really spend hours browsing through all the players and stats. I decided to look up Clayton Kershaw’s stats, and to say the least, they are incredible. He’s only 25 and has pitched for the Dodgers since he was 20. His career ERA is 2.70, so if all goes well, he will make $30 million a year starting in 2015 when he becomes a free agent. Later he will be in the Hall of Fame.
That got me to thinking about Sandy Koufax who has been a mentor for young Clayton as well as someone to whom he has drawn comparisons. While Kershaw has been very humble about that, it is actually a very favorable comparison. Kershaw has been much better than Koufax over the first five years of their careers. Koufax made his name over the last five years of his career, and especially the last four which were probably the most dominant four consecutive years for any pitcher in modern history. Those four years he had WHIPs that were well under 1.0 and three years of 25 or more wins.
When I saw that his given name was Sanford Braun, I went to read more about his life and his career. Reading about his arm problems was pretty amazing considering how dominant he was at that time. Now as you probably know, that’s what ended his career early at only age 30. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame six years later. When you look at his career it is obvious that he was inducted based on those dominant years, because for the first six years, he was basically a below-average pitcher. I have heard the writers may have considered that he walked away from the game due to injury and took that into account because his career numbers are a bit on the lower side due to the shortened career. His career ERA and WHIP are very good, but that is mostly due to those dominant years which brought those averages down from where they were.
Here is my point (finally). I am not trying to say Koufax should not be in the Hall, although it does raise interesting questions as to how long a player should be dominant to deserve election to the Hall and if a shortened career due to injury should be a consideration.
I was thinking if the writers considered Koufax’s injury, would that help Chase Utley get into the Hall of Fame after he retires? Utley’s career trajectory is opposite of Koufax’s as Utley started off strong and then faded due to a number of injuries. Utley’s career isn’t over yet, and he is having a rebound season, but clearly his best years are in the past. However, he was on a Hall of Fame track until he started getting banged up. But even when you look at his current stats, he shouldn’t be far from Hall of Fame consideration.
Let’s take a look at one Hall of Fame second baseman who is on the same current team: Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg played about 15 years while Utley has played about 10. Sandberg’s “slash line” is .285/.344/.452 and Utley’s is .287/.375/.500, so Utley comes out better there. Sandberg hit 282 home runs to Utley’s 206, but of course Utley is not done yet and is on pace for about 28 this year. Sandberg hit 1061 RBI to Chase’s 763, but again, Utley is not done yet and RBIs are pretty subjective. One clear edge Sandberg has is stolen bases; I didn’t realize how fast he was (although players stole more bases in that era). Sandberg stole 344 with a high of 54 in 1985. Utley has stolen 125 but has a much better stolen bases to caught stealing ratio. Chase also has a better average WAR (wins above replacement; essentially how many more wins a player gives its team than a typical AAA replacement). I don’t like that stat, but Utley’s yearly average has been about 5.6 to Sandberg’s 4.5. Also, Chase Utley has a higher slugging percentage than any Hall of Fame second baseman except for Rogers Hornsby and a higher OPS than all but three: Hornsby again, Jackie Robinson (just barely), and Charlie Gehringer (again, just barely). Check out the Hall of Fame second basemen here.
One other thing to consider: there is a stat called JAWS that was developed by a sabermetrician in an attempt to gauge how hall-of-fame worthy a career has been. Here is a list of second basemen and their stats, including JAWS. You’ll notice that Utley’s JAWS average is only slightly lower than the average for Hall of Fame second basemen and is better than quite a few who are already in there. Now, this may all be “fuzzy math” to you and you may be more familiar and comfortable with traditional stats, and I can understand that, but it is something to consider.
As for fielding, Sandberg has quite a few Gold Gloves to Utley’s none. However, while Sandberg had a higher fielding percentage (but played on more AstroTurf fields, making errors less likely), their “range factor” (putouts and assists divided by number of innings played) stats are similarly good. This is reflected in the fact that Utley has led the league in putouts a few times, while Sandberg never did.
In other words, Utley compares quite favorably to Sandberg and probably more so once his career is done. Now there are other second baseman who had much better careers than Utley who are in the Hall (and some that have been worse), but Sandberg is also the most recent. When you also factor in Utley’s several injuries that almost certainly were a major factor in the decline in his numbers, I think Chase will have a decent case for the Hall of Fame.