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Baseball’s most underrated player: Chase Utley

Perhaps a pair of homers off CC Sabathia last night will end Chase Utley’s reign as the most underrated player in baseball, although even his big night was overshadowed by Cliff Lee’s complete-game victory. Despite playing for a highly successful big-market team Utley’s excellence has somehow managed to fly under the radar, as many media members and fans seem to think of him as merely a very good player rather than a truly great one. However, his combination of big batting averages (.295 career), excellent power (30 homers and 40 doubles per 600 at-bats), strong plate discipline (.379 on-base percentage), efficient baserunning (23-for-23 on steals this year), and outstanding defense at an up-the-middle position is extremely difficult to find and makes him one of MLB’s elite all-around players. Runs Above Replacement (RAR) is a stat that combines offensive and defensive contributions to calculate the total number of runs someone was worth compared to a replacement-level player at the same position. This season Utley ranked second in the NL with 76.7 runs above replacement, trailing only Albert Pujols and his 84.3 RAR. And it’s been a similar story in past seasons:

2009 RAR 2008 RAR 2007 RAR Albert Pujols 84.3 Albert Pujols 89.2 David Wright 86.6 CHASE UTLEY 76.7 CHASE UTLEY 81.0 CHASE UTLEY 82.2 Hanley Ramirez 73.2 Chipper Jones 76.7 Matt Holliday 80.5 Ryan Zimmerman 70.7 Hanley Ramirez 75.7 Albert Pujols 78.5 Prince Fielder 67.1 David Wright 74.3 Chipper Jones 71.9 2006 RAR 2005 RAR Albert Pujols 79.5 Andruw Jones 87.0 Ryan Howard 72.4 Albert Pujols 77.3 Carlos Beltran 72.2 Derrek Lee 74.1 CHASE UTLEY 70.8 CHASE UTLEY 73.8 Miguel Cabrera 69.8 Jason Bay 63.6

In his five full seasons Utley has ranked second, second, second, fourth, and fourth among all NL position players in RAR, yet he’s never finished higher than seventh in the MVP balloting while two of his Phillies teammates have won MVPs. Pujols and Utley are the only players to rank among the NL’s top five in all five of those seasons, and if you value things like on-base percentages, positional adjustments, and defense there’s a clear case for Utley being the second-best player in the league during that time. In fact, during that time there’s a pretty good argument for Utley being the second-best player in baseball, regardless of league. Runs Created is a relatively widely used stat that measures, quite simply, how many runs a player produced offensively. For some context, this season the NL leader was Pujols with 165 and the AL leader was Joe Mauer with 138. Not coincidentally, they figure to be the MVPs when the awards are announced next month. Here are the Runs Created leaders from 2005-2009:

Albert Pujols 764 Alex Rodriguez 661 Mark Teixeira 645 CHASE UTLEY 641 Miguel Cabrera 641 David Ortiz 622 Matt Holliday 617 David Wright 613 Ryan Howard 598 Lance Berkman 594

Pujols obviously stands head and shoulders above the pack, but Utley is within spitting distance of the No. 2 spot and you’ll notice that he’s the only guy in the top 10 who plays an up-the-middle position defensively. Getting that kind of offensive production from a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman is extremely rare and hugely valuable, which is why even after last night’s heroics Utley is probably still the most underrated player in baseball.