November 3, 2009
On the Beat
Mr. October 2.0
Second baseman Chase Utley was clearly the best player on a team that chased down the Mets, making up seven games in the last 17 days of the season to win the NL East in 2007. He was also, in my mind, the best player in the league.
Utley wound up being overlooked, which seems to be the way it always goes for him. He can look on each side of him in the Phillies' infield and see MVPs in Rollins and first baseman Ryan Howard, who won the Award in 2006. Utley has never finished higher than seventh in the MVP voting, that coming in '06.
Then again, being overshadowed is a way of life for Utley, a man who seems to relish anonymity. He wasn't the most well-known player on his Little League team in Long Beach, California. Sean Burroughs, who would wind up flopping as a major leaguer, was the star on that squad, leading Long Beach to the Little League World Series title in Williamsport. And when Utley played at Poly High, scouts were focused more on classmate Milton Bradley, now the Cubs' right fielder.
Utley intentionally stays out of the spotlight, as he does nothing in the way of self-promotion. He is polite during interviews, but incredibly boring. About the only thing that stands out about him beyond his playing ability is that he uses more hair gel than Eddie Munster. While an argument can be made that the fans appreciate Utley as they have voted him as the NL's starting second baseman for the last four All-Star Games, his name never gets mentioned in any discussions about the best players in the game.
Yet consider what Utley has done in terms of WARP1, BP's metric in determining a player's worth in all aspects of the game. Since becoming a regular in 2005, his third year in the majors, here are his seasonal tallies:
2005: 7.0 (12th in the NL)
And here is how Utley stacks up among major league leaders for WARP1 totals over the past five seasons:
However, it seems the world is only just now, finally learning just how good Utley is during this World Series. He is hitting .333/.429/1.222 with five home runs in 21 plate appearances. Utley came up big Monday night at Citizens Bank Park when the Phillies needed him most, hitting a pair of home runs, driving in four runs and scoring three in an 8-6 victory over the Yankees in Game Five. Utley enabled the Phillies to keep their hopes of winning a second straight Fall Classic, though they still face a 3-2 deficit in the Series, and will need to win two games at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday and Thursday nights.
Utley sent a jolt of energy through the crowd of 46,178 in the first inning when he drilled a first-pitch fastball from A.J. Burnett into the right-field stands for a three-run home run that wiped out the Yankees' 1-0 lead. Utley added a solo shot off of Phil Coke in the seventh.
His five home runs in this year's Series tie the World Series record set by Reggie Jackson for the Yankees in their 1977 victory over the Dodgers. While the original Mr. October was the straw that stirred the drink, Utley is the guy who would rather undergo a root canal without a shot of Novocain than talk about his achievements.
In fact, Utley looked downright uncomfortable sitting at the podium in front of about 100 media members in the interview room following Monday night's game. "It's not my favorite part," Utley said of dealing with the media. "My favorite part is playing the game, but it obviously comes with the territory. You kind of learn how to deal with it as you grow. I'm getting a little bit more used to it but I'd rather just go out and play."
While Utley wouldn't brag about himself, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel will, even if he knows it might upset his second baseman a little bit. "Sometimes I don't even like to talk about him because he doesn't want me to," Manuel said with a smile. "Actually, he doesn't like to for you to say a whole lot of things about him, but he's one of the most prepared and dedicated players I've ever seen. He has the most desire and passion to play the game as anyone I've ever been around."
Manuel then compared Utley to Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett. Manuel managed Puckett when the center fielder was coming up through the Twins' farm system in the early 1980s. "I used to say Kirby Puckett was my favorite player, but now it might be Chase," Manuel said. "The only thing Kirby might have on Chase is he was more flamboyant because he smiled a lot. Chase is a little bit different. He's quiet and goes about his business in a real good way. He's a pleasure to be around and a pleasure to manage. I mean that, and I could not say enough about him."
It was a good thing Utley hadn't entered the interview room, because Manuel paid him one more big compliment. "I don't want to embarrass him or nothing like that but sometimes I tell our players, 'Just play with Chase,' because if you play with Chase, you've got a chance to be a pretty good player," Manuel said.
The Phillies played like Chase in Game Five, while he delivered another dose of understated greatness, which is why the Phils are still alive to play a Game Six.