He grinded out at-bats and played through pain. He was in the starting lineup for the sixth-most victories in franchise history.1 But Utley has only modest traditional statistics — a mere .282 lifetime batting average, to go with only 1,623 hits and 233 home runs. So does he fall into the same category as other plucky middle infielders, such as David Eckstein, whose grittiness was often extolled by sportswriters and mocked by sabermetricians?
As we saw with Ben Zobrist, sometimes the analytics adore the most unlikely of players. And Utley’s advanced statistics are great enough to propel him to borderline Hall of Fame status, despite that thin conventional résumé.
The metric JAWS,2 for instance, considers Utley to be right on the border of Hall of Fame worthiness. JAWS attempts to put a sabermetric stamp on Hall voting by balancing the number of wins above replacement that a player generated at his peak3 with the amount of WAR he compiled over his entire career, synthesizing the two counts into a single figure. In JAWS creator Jay Jaffe’s conception, a player’s JAWS should then be compared to the average score for current HOF members at the same position, which will theoretically help maintain the existing standard for enshrinement going forward.
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 career has been of roughly the same quality as the great Jackie Robinson’s. It’s been superior to those of HOF second baseman Roberto Alomar and the recently inducted Craig Biggio.
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. When my colleague Harry Enten and I were researching the career of Adrian Beltre,4 we looked at the relationship between JAWS and a quartet of metrics5 devised by Bill James to measure a player’s conventional HOF qualifications. For most players, the numbers are in sync, but Utley had the third-biggest differential of any qualified player between his real-life JAWS and the JAWS we would predict from James’s metrics.
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. Even more than the versatile Zobrist, Utley has shined in every aspect of the game: hitting (for both power and contact), plate discipline, baserunning and defense. Among second basemen of his era, he’s 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.
Even so, it’s extremely unlikely that Utley will ever get anything close to the votes required for the Hall of Fame. Early this season, I attended a Phillies game with a bunch of statisticians who uniformly scoffed when I pointed out Utley’s JAWS-based Hall qualification. If numberphiles like them can’t even get behind Utley’s case, it’s truly a hopeless cause. (Less anecdotally, Utley also falls woefully short of the average Hall of Famer in all of James’s HOF metrics.)
But if they ever open a Hall of Fame for sabermetric darlings overlooked by Cooperstown, expect the newest member of the Dodgers to be one of the first players voted in.