Careers and Hall of Fame chances of Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins Quietly Wind Down in Los Angeles
After twelve years together as a double-play duo in Philadelphia red, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley were together again roaming the middle of the infield in Los Angeles Dodgers Blue. When the Phillies traded Rollins in December, they ended his 15-season tenure with the team that drafted him in 1996. Utley, a Long Beach native and graduate of UCLA, arrived in Los Angeles in the middle of August after hitting just .217 in 73 injury-plagued games with the Phillies.
The two veterans briefly reuniting was a nice story, but bringing the league’s oldest double-play tandem a couple thousand miles west might have been a better idea in 2009. After all, Rollins and Utley played more than 1,100 games together as Phillies, the most among active double-play duos and the second-most all time behind Detroit’s Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker (1,918). The two 36-year olds have plenty of miles on their tires and both showed strong signs of diminishing physical abilities this season.
Rollins had a career worst .285 on-base percentage, lower than all but five NL hitters with the qualifying at-bats. He also recorded a career low in batting average (.224), OPS (.643), slugging (.358) and stolen bases (12). Meanwhile, Utley struggled to keep his batting average above .200 all season. He had a career low in homers (8), RBIs (39), OBP (.286.), OPS (.629) and slugging (.343). Advanced metrics suggest both players’ defensive games are nowhere near their previous Gold Glove calibers.
While no one will mistake either for their glory days as perennial All-Stars in Philadelphia, they both looked like shells of their former selves and barely played in the Division Series against the Mets. It appears that their days together as Dodgers are numbered, but they can possibly bolster their respective Hall of Fame cases with another healthy season or two of play.
Utley appeared in six All-Star games, won four Silver Slugger Awards and has only modest traditional statistics — a .281 lifetime batting average, to go with only 1,648 hits and 236 home runs. However, Utley’s advanced statistics are great enough to propel him to borderline Hall of Fame status, despite his thin conventional résumé. If such a lofty placement seems surprising, it’s because Utley is one of the biggest outliers in MLB history when it comes to disparities between JAWS and traditional numbers.
The metric of Jay Jaffe’s JAWS, considers Utley to be right on the border of Hall of Fame worthiness. Among the many factors driving the discrepancy is Utley’s all-around excellence, which is sometimes difficult to appreciate without the nuance of advanced metrics. Utley has shined in every aspect of the game: hitting (for both power and contact), plate discipline, baserunning and defense. And by virtue of his peak performance, which ranks eighth of any second baseman in major league history, Utley is only a few WAR shy of that standard. In fact, according to JAWS, Utley’s (55.7) ranking among second baseman is a tick below Jackie Robinson (56.8) and Whitaker (56.4). It’s also superior to those of HOF second baseman Roberto Alomar (54.8) and the recently inducted Craig Biggio (53.4).
Among second basemen of his era, Utley has been the majors’ second-best on offense and its best on defense. Aside from a proneness to injury as Utley entered his early to mid-30s, there were no weaknesses in his game. Sure, Utley hasn’t been seen among the league leaguers year after year like some — he’s only ever led the league once in anything (runs in 2006) — but he has been better than any National League second baseman in his era, which was a rationale once good enough to earn his former manager Ryne Sandberg induction.
Meanwhile, Rollins never walked enough and never ran as hard as Utley, but his credentials also have him on the cusp of Cooperstown. He has collected a National League MVP Award, four Gold Gloves, three trips to the All-Star game, a Silver Slugger Award and even a stolen-base title. He has collected more than 2,400 hits, more than 800 extra-base hits, and the most hits in the Phillies history, a franchise that has been around since 1833.
Rollins is the only shortstop that you will find in the 400/200 club – 465 stolen bases and 229 homers. Not that there’s anything significant about the 400/200 club. But it does show us that Rollins has brought a power/speed package to his position you very rarely see. He has also led his league in runs, steals and triples – not a single other shortstop who ever played baseball has done all of that.
He is one of four players who ever lived with a 20-homer, 20-steal, 20-double, 20-triple season. He has stayed healthy enough to play at least 140 games at short in 12 different seasons, a total reached in the last 30 years by only Derek Jeter, Omar Vizquel and Cal Ripken. He also strung together the longest hitting streak (38 games) of the last quarter-century.
All that said, Rollins is still far from a lock to become a Hall of Famer. His wins above replacement (WAR) totals (46.0) surely doesn’t scream “Hall of Famer,” even though four HOF shortstops (Travis Jackson, Hughie Jennings, Rabbit Maranville & Phil Rizzuto) had fewer. The recent enshrinement of Barry Larkin, who appears on Rollins’ Baseball-Reference page as the player most similar to him, has helped Rollins’ HOF chances. Larkin has Rollins in batting average, OBP and slugging percentage, but Rollins already owns advantages in doubles, triples, homers and steals.
Rollins and Utley each make solid cases for the Hall of Fame, but they are certainly no slam-dunk to be honored. Rollins has the longevity and numbers. Utley has the HOF peak. While there is no doubt that the two are all-time great Phillies, the real question will soon become whether or not either of them belongs in Cooperstown.
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