Is Utley the Best Player in Baseball?

utley swings.jpg

I got an interesting e-mail last week from John Dewan‘s Stat of the Week:

Is Chase Utley baseball’s best player?

If you’re not into sabermetrics — if you think these crazy new stats are the work of the devil — then clicking the link probably is not for you. If you love sabermetrics — if you think they explain everything in baseball — then Lord knows what your reaction will be after reading Dewan’s take on Utley vs. Albert Pujols. If you’re like me and in between on sabermetrics — they’re valuable to use, but they’re not the Gospel — you should find it interesting.

Also interesting, Dewan had Jimmy Rollins as the third-best player in baseball over the last five years.


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Not a big sabermetric guy but, just judging from what I see on the field, Chase is definitely in the conversation.

I’m not a big Sabermetric guy at all. THe way to figure who is the best player IMO is simple-who would you choose first if starting a team and could pick from all players currently on a MLB roster? While Pujols puts up the best offensive stats year after year, is he that much better then Howard, Fielder, or a handful of other top firstbasemen? if you got “stuck” with Howard would you be crushed?
On the other hand, which 2b is close to Chase? If you don’t get him, who do you get? Cano is good, but hasn’t shown it over time, yet. Rickie Weeks isn’t in the same league…

Therefore, when I pick my team (Fantasy or regular) CHase is always my first choice. He may not be the best, but he is the most ireplacable player in Baseball

BS imo because 90 of those “runs” come solely from the fact that Utley plays 2B instead of 1B. Obviously some positions are more important than others defensively, but to rest the whole argument of who’s a better baseball player on which position they play (excluding DH of course) is BS.

zach, if the comment was regarding Dewan’s argument then I agree. If mine, then I don’t care what posistion he plays, just what other options there are. If there are 5 great players at the same posistion it really doesn’t matter which one your team has. If there is only one, you better hope he suits up for your team

zach, there is no question that first base is the least important defensive position in the infield, and arguably on the whole team. The up-the-middle positions (catcher, SS, 2B, CF) have to be strong. Every good team has good up-the-middle players and can get by with a mediocre defensive player at first base. The Phillies are an excellent case-in-point.

fij: It was directed at the linked article, not at you.

phan: Your argument doesn’t really address mine. I agree that 1B is the least important defensive position in the infield. But did you read the linked article? The author’s entire analysis supporting the argument that Utley is better than Pujols rests on the “positional adjustment”. Utley plays a more important position so therefore, even though he’s responsible for ~60 fewer “Total Runs” than Pujols over the past 5+ seasons he’s still better. That a weak basis for a “best player in baseball” argument.

Putting all else aside, would you trade Chase for Albert straight up? I would not.

The positional adjustment isn’t just a made up number, it’s developed by analyzing years and years of production from the different positions on the field, and determining the objective differences in value between them. It quantifies what we already knew — that shortstop is the most valuable position on the field, 1B (in the NL) is the least, etc. Pujols provided more raw runs at 1B, but 2B is a premium position, which increases the value of the production he provides, by a lot, as it happens. F_I_J actually expressed this in laymen’s terms pretty well — think about replacing Pujols and replacing Utley. Fielder, Howard, Teixeira, Gonzalez are all downgrades, but they still provide great value at 1B. After Utley you have a few very good 2B like Pedroia, Kinsler, and Cano, but the pool is much, much sparser. If you go back a decade or two and determine the amount of production you can get with the talent pool at each position, that’s where you derive the positional adjustment.

I think this does illustrate why sabermetrics doesn’t have widespread acceptance though, now that I think about it. I can definitely see how it looks like they’re just slapping a bunch of runs on to Utley’s total, particularly since Dewan doesn’t explain how the positional adjustment is derived. So whereas hits, RBI, home runs, etc. are all things you can look up in the box score, that an official scorer tallied, a lot of sabermetrics can seem completely arbitrary since their derivation is usually a long story, involving substantial amounts of math. But it’s important to keep in mind that they’re developed by the most dedicated baseball analysts (who happen to also be huge fans of the sport) who look for the things in baseball that contribute most to scoring/preventing runs and winning games, and develop formulas that will weigh each element properly. They’re not at all different from your or I, they just know their way around a spreadsheet.

phylan: I appreciate your comments. While I don’t do sabermetric analysis myself, I generally appreciate and value it. I guess I would like to make a distinction between “most valuable” and “best”. I don’t think the “positional adjustment” should be taken into account for the latter. How do we know that Pujols wouldn’t be an average 2nd baseman if he played there? Assuming he were exactly average, that would eliminate his 84 runs saved but nullify Chase’s 90 run positional advantage, making Pujols the “best” player in baseball. I think that illustrates the problem. Is Chase more valuable than Pujols? Quite possibly. Is he better than Pujols? I don’t think so.

Well I guess that comes down to what you want to incorporate into a value measurement. Unfortunately we will never know what kind of second baseman Pujols would be (personally I think he would be pretty bad, but that’s just a hunch). If you’re saying “Who is the best hitter in the game” the answer is Pujols, hands down. But in this case, if you’re saying “Who is the best player in the last 5 years, when you incorporate hitting, defense, and baserunning” I think it’s fair to say Utley. The fact that Pujols was putting up obscene numbers in the 4 years before Utley came into the league would, of course, lead me to still say “Pujols” if someone asked me who the best player in baseball was.

But the playing field for the “defense” comparison isn’t level. Pujols can only play the position LaRussa puts him in. I don’t think it’s fair to handicap the comparison based on that. He’s one of the best defensive first basemen, as Chase is among second basemen, so I think defense is only a slight advantage to Chase. As is baserunning. So Albert’s offense wins.

But second base is a much, much, much harder position to play. We shouldn’t credit Chase at all for that?

I wont say much. But this stat must hold some water. Two NL Championships and this stat has a Phillie at 1 and 3.

zach: “Pujols can only play the position LaRussa puts him in.” Huh? Where’s he going to play? Shortstop?

I don’t know beans about Sabermetrics (nor do I care to) but what I do know are ballplayers, and Chase is a BALLPLAYER. Nevertheless, Utley and Rollins are two of the best players in baseball, and it’s no coincidence that they play middle infield positions.
There are a lot of power-hitting first basemen, but only a handful of great second basemen. Value-wise, Utley is huge.

Oh, and it’s a big week for baseball around here. Last night I was at Yankee Stadium to witness the A-Rod/Thames home run barrage off Papelbon. Tonight I’ll be freezing my butt off (another bobblehead for my work desk) and Thursday afternoon I’ll have a blessed day off work at The Bank. Saturday, it’s the Blue Rocks. I feel like I’m semi-retired.

muleman: How about 3B, where he’s played 293 innings. Or LF where he’s played 1775 innings. Or maybe even 2B, where he played 3 innings last year. He’s even played 2 innings at SS🙂

Just doesn’t make sense to me to handicap a guy as much as that analysis does based solely on the position played (except DH of course).

Are pitchers allowed to be considered? If so, there is a guy in the Yankees bullpen that may be the greatest pitcher ever at his position: Mariano Rivera. He has had a hiccup or two now that he is 40. However, this guy has allowed the Yankees to play 8 and sometimes 7 inning games for over a decade. No single player, everyday or not, has had the overall effect that this fellow has had over his (Mariano’s) career.

To sum up the majority opinion here: the simple answer is–YES, Chase is the best player in the game.

I’m not sure that Sabermetrics can quantify every characteristic needed to determine the BEST player( for example- heart, work ethic etc.) and besides every position on the baseball field has it’s own set of requirements that must be used to determine the BEST player, at that position, in the game. As such, I’m not sure it’s possible to actually determine who is the overall BEST player. But I do know one thing, for sure, there is NOT any second baseman in either league who has both the overall skill set, determination and work ethic that Chase Utley has , especially when it matters the most. He IS the best 2nd baseman in the game . Just ask Joe Morgan, he played the position and was one of the VERY best at it.

Are pitchers allowed to be considered? If so, there is a guy in the Yankees bullpen that may be the greatest pitcher ever at his position: Mariano Rivera. He has had a hiccup or two now that he is 40. However, this guy has allowed the Yankees to play 8 and sometimes 7 inning games for over a decade. No single player, everyday or not, has had the overall effect that this fellow has had over his (Mariano’s) career.

P.S. I hate the yanks! Go Doc!

zach, Pujols played a little third base and LF very early in his career before he settled into first base. The reason he didn’t settle into one of those other positions is because he was not very good at them. If you want to have a debate about who is the best, I don’t think Pujols’ defense would be a good measuring stick in said debate. He plays first base, not because LaRusso insists on playing him there, but because he can’t play anywhere else. He has made himself into an adequate first baseman, while Chase has made himself into an excellent second baseman.
That said, I think Pujols is a better player, but by a smaller margin than MVP voters would suggest.

zach: As a third baseman, Pujols made 16 errors in 96 games, and hasn’t played there since 2002. He was barely adequate in the outfield and played one game at short and one at second. Of his 1,477 games, 1,070 have been at first. What’s your point? Once again, I stand by mine. Guys play where they should play.

Carlos Ruiz played 2 seasons of minor league ball as an outfielder and 1 at first. Is that where you’d like to see him?

phan: Pujols is way more than an “adequate first baseman”. By all sabermetric measures I can find, he’s been the BEST defensive first baseman over the past 6 years.

muleman: My point is the same as it has been this entire thread. If you’re trying to decide who the best player in baseball is, you can’t penalize a guy who’s one of the best defensive players at his position, simply b/c he plays one of the “less important” positions. Give a slight advantage to Chase for defense and baserunning, but those don’t outweigh Pujols large offensive advantage imo.

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