- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
The evaluator hesitated for about 0.2 seconds when considering the question asked over the phone: Who's the best player you've seen lately?
Utley missed 216 games from 2010 through 2013, or almost 1.5 full seasons, and by the spring of 2012 he looked as if might never get back to being what he had been in his prime -- an All-Star in five straight seasons, someone who finished in the top 10 in the NL MVP voting three times.
Now Utley is hitting .335 with almost as many doubles (20) as strikeouts (22); we're almost a third of the way through the season, and, at his current pace, he would finish the season with 72 doubles, 11 triples and 11 homers. Ninety-four extra-base hits. His OPS of .942 ranks seventh in the National League.
Utley also could be putting himself onto a path that leads to Hall of Fame consideration, which seemed completely ridiculous two years ago -- and might still be a long shot, given his modest career totals of 1,466 hits and 220 homers. If Utley is ever going to have a case, it'll be because he was one of the game's best players for a period of about five years -- and might be entering that conversation again, surprisingly, in 2014.
If Utley needs a model to follow, he can look in the corner of his dugout. Ryne Sandberg did not accumulate whopping numbers in his career -- 2,386 career hits, with 282 homers and three top-10 finishes in the MVP race, including 1984, when he finished first. But Sandberg was consistently excellent, a high-end offensive player as a middle infielder, and that always plays well with Hall of Fame voters.
I think Utley needs two great years -- this year, and another -- to build the framework of a case for induction. He needs to at least get close to 2,000 hits, and, given his recent injury history, that's not a given. But there are numbers that reflect the overall efficiency and excellence in Utley's career, and they will attract some votes.
Sandberg finished his career with a cumulative WAR of 67.5, including a high of 8.5 in his MVP season. Utley sits at 59.6, with a career high of 9.0 in 2008 and a season of 8.2 in 2009.
To put that into context, here's how some other middle infielders in the Hall of Fame fared in WAR:
Pee Wee Reese, 66.3
Paul Molitor, 75.4
Ozzie Smith, 76.5
Robin Yount, 77.0
Joe Morgan, 100.3
Luis Aparicio, 55.8
Luke Appling, 74.5
Rogers Hornsby, 127.0
Eddie Collins, 119.6
Derek Jeter, 71.9
To repeat: I'm not saying Utley is a Hall of Famer. But he's a lot closer than you might think.
For the readers: Do you think Utley is a Hall of Famer?
• Utley and the Phillies were blanked by the Dodgers on Friday night.
Around the league
• On Friday's podcast, we have an update on the role Charlie Sheen is playing in the preparation for Sunday's "Baseball Tonight," and Richard Durrett, Karl Ravech and Justin Havens all weigh in on what they think the Rangers should do in the aftermath of the Prince Fielder injury.
• Giancarlo Stanton continues to destroy the ball. From ESPN Stats & Information:
Stanton’s two home runs Friday each went at least 440 feet. The lesson for pitchers is that, if you are going to throw him a strike, you'd better locate the pitch at the edge of the strike zone. All 14 of his home runs this season have come on pitches in the strike zone, and nine of them have been center cut.
• The Red Sox have an identity crisis, writes Nick Cafardo.
From ESPN Stats & Info: Dunn had his 10th career walk-off home run. Since World War II, only five players have more walk-off bombs than the White Sox slugger.
Jim Thome 13
Frank Robinson 12
Mickey Mantle 12
Tony Perez 11
David Ortiz 11
9 players<< 10
<< Including Adam Dunn
• Evan Grant addresses the question of whether the Rangers got damaged goods in their trade with the Tigers.
• The Cardinals are in position to make a trade if they choose to, writes Bernie Miklasz.
The key question would be: If St. Louis actually sought a big-time starter, who would that be and would he be accessible? The Cubs would have to get a huge package in return to make a deal for Jeff Samardzija, and, although David Price would be a significant acquisition, would St. Louis deal for a pitcher who will be looking for a deal in the $140 million-plus range?
Price has allowed the most hits in the big leagues, writes Roger Mooney, but isn't walking anybody.
Moves, deals and decisions
3. The Phillies' bench moves continue.
6. The Cardinals are eyeing their outfielders in Triple-A.
Dings and dents
1. The Nationals' lineup continues to struggle.
6. The Padres had an offensive explosion.
• Dejan Kovacevic tries to separate the myth and reality in Bob Nutting.
• Bryan Price is getting comfortable.
• Blame for the Diamondbacks' debacle goes to the top.
• Derek Jeter climbed another statistical ladder, writes George King.
• The White Sox are staying loose, writes Seth Gruen.
• The Angels are finding reasons to believe.
A) Hernandez threw his curveball 27.4 percent of the time, his highest rate since his second start of the season. Opponents were 0-2 on at-bats ending with the curveball and just 1 of 9 swings against the pitch resulted in a ball in play.
B) Hernandez also brought his best fastball of the season. Both his average velocity of 93.2 mph and his max velocity of 94.8 mph were season highs.
C) Hernandez got to two strikes on 16 batters and did not allow a hit to any of them, walking one and striking out nine.
• The Marlins cut their beer price.
• The Rays are honoring Don Zimmer.
• A-Rod's return to the Yankees is inevitable, writes Bob Klapisch.
• New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would love to be GM of the Mets.
• There will be a very large crowd Saturday in Aberdeen, South Dakota, to remember Don Meyer.
And today will be better than yesterday.
The evaluator hesitated for about 0.2 seconds when considering the question asked over the phone: Who's the best player you've seen lately?"Chase Utley," he said, and went on to describe how Utley is getting to low pitches in a way he hadn't for a few years, in how he's driving the ball, in how he's making better contact.