Chase Utley is set to return to the Philadelphia Phillies' lineup Wednesday night, none too soon for a team sitting at 36-40, eight games behind the Washington Nationals in the NL East. It's the first step in the Phillies' three-pronged hope for a second-half comeback: Get Utley back, get Roy Halladay back and get Ryan Howard back (he may begin his minor league rehab assignment on Friday). And maybe somewhere in there figure out the bullpen mess.
Utley is a wonderful player, a guy who quietly does everything well. We don't know how he'll hit or if his knees will hold up, of course, but needless to say he should still provide a nice boost to the Phillies. While he has long possessed a certain cache among statheads and fantasy players for his all-around skills, I don't believe he has ever achieved the level of national prominence he has deserved, either among the more casual baseball fan or even baseball writers, who through the years voted his teammates Howard and Jimmy Rollins as National League MVP winners (and consistently voted Howard higher than Utley) despite Utley's superior value.
During his amazing six-year peak, from 2005 through 2010, the only player in the majors who was clearly more valuable in my mind was Albert Pujols. Here are the Baseball-Reference.com WAR leaders over those six years:
1. Albert Pujols, 50.4
2. Chase Utley, 44.2
3. Alex Rodriguez, 37.6
4. Mark Teixeira, 31.9
5. Joe Mauer, 30.0
Even if you're not a fan of WAR, consider what Utley did over those six seasons: He hit for average (.298), hit for power (28 or more home runs four times), got on base via walks and hit by pitches (.388 OBP), stole bases at an excellent rate (90 for 102) and played superb defense at a premium position. Maybe it wasn't easy to pinpoint one or two skills like it was with Howard (power and RBIs) or Rollins (speed, defense), but Utley's total package made him special, even if MVP voters didn't quite recognize that. His highest MVP finish was seventh in 2006, although if he hadn't missed most of August in 2007 maybe he ends up beating out Rollins for the award.
Another way to look at Utley's run is to compare his peak to those of other second basemen. Here are the best six-year peaks of 15 all-time great second basemen, again via Baseball-Reference WAR:
What's interesting to me is that seven of those guys won MVP awards, Alomar finished as high as third and Biggio as high as fourth. While Utley hasn't been completely ignored in the voting, I think it speaks to how underrated he has been.
Bill Baer called it "Happy Chase Utley Day!" and compared Utley's career value to other second basemen. He ranks 18th all time right now. Can Utley build a case for the Hall of Fame around a six-year peak as one of the best players in baseball? Probably not, although many players have been elected on lesser credentials. Utley is 33 with bad wheels and has missed significant time three straight seasons. Can he produce three or four more quality seasons? That is the great unknown. For now, he's back on the field and that's all that matters to Phillies fans.