There is no wrong answer to this topic, but in the coming days at NBC Sports Philadelphia we will look at the individual cases for Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins as the most important player of the Phillies' most successful run in franchise history.
First up: Utley
There's no right answer. But there is a best answer. That's how I feel when asked to compare Howard, Rollins and Utley. Put any one of that trio on a different team and the golden era of Phillies baseball doesn't happen. It's as simple as that. Yet, there is a first among equals in that holy trinity of the infield and it's Utley.
The passage of time can leave a haze, especially when it comes to recalling the value of athletes. It's natural to remember only the extremes, a player at his apex or his nadir.
A decade removed from their collective primes, it's tempting to think that Rollins and Howard played to an MVP level every season because they each have one of those trophies on their respective mantles. But that just wasn't the case. Utley, on the other hand, did sustain a level of excellence over an extended period of time.
There's something to be said that baseball stats can be twisted any way one wants in the interest of making an argument. But there is one statistical piece of information that clearly demonstrates Utley's superior value relative to Rollins and Howard.
Here's a look at each player's combined WAR (per Baseball-Reference) from the 2007-11 seasons, the entirety of the Phils' NL East dominance:
That is just a staggering disparity. Would it be fair to say that Utley was twice the player Rollins was and three times the player Howard was? No. But it clearly demonstrates the gap in total value that existed between Utley and his infield mates.
Put more simply, Rollins was just a good player after 2008. Howard was just slightly above average in 2010 and 2011. But Utley played at an All-Star level in every season from 2007 to 2011.
Also for consideration, Utley was headed to the 2007 NL MVP that Rollins won before the Nationals' John Lannan broke his hand on July 26th of that year.
Here's a comparison to that point in the 2007 season:
Utley: .336 batting average, .996 OPS, 17 home runs, 82 RBI, 7 stolen bases
Rollins: .287 batting average, .858 OPS, 20 home runs, 60 RBI, 17 stolen bases
It is fair to wonder if there would even be a conversation between these three if Utley didn't get hurt in 2007.
Another means of comparing the Phillies' Big 3 would be to look at All-Star appearances. Utley made six National League All-Star teams during his tenure in Philadelphia. Rollins and Howard combined to make that many in their careers (three each).
Further in the anecdotal category, I cannot shake the 2009 World Series. With the Phillies having a chance to state their case as an all-time team, one that could repeat as champions while defeating the Yankees of all teams, Utley was the only one of the Phillies' three hitting stars to shine. The UCLA product tied a World Series record with 5 home runs while posting a 1.448 OPS.
Rollins, on the other hand, failed in his chance to measure up with legendary Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Over six games, Rollins accounted for five hits and a .562 OPS. Howard posted a meager .631 OPS in the 2009 Fall Classic.
As if that weren't enough, Utley served as the conscience for that championship era of Phillies baseball. Whereas Rollins brought the swagger that the franchise needed, Utley allowed his approach to set the tone for how the Phillies were going to play. All-out and unapologetic for as long as it took to go home with a win. There's a reason Roy Halladay held Utley in the highest esteem of any teammate he ever played alongside.
Rollins and Howard will rightly be remembered as franchise greats. But only one can be the man. That's Utley.