Chase Utley cannot seem to stay out of the way of the baseball.
Utley missed 47 games this season with injuries, and still got hit 18 times. He got hit 24 times in 2009, and 27 times in 2008 and 25 times in 2007. If he keeps up this pace, he could break the record: Hughie Jennings was hit 287 times, or roughly seven and a half seasons’ worth of plunkings for Utley.
Right below Jennings on the list, though, is someone a bit more intriguing: Craig Biggio. Biggio will surely be a Hall of Fame second baseman when he reaches eligibility, as he had over 3,000 hits and over 1,800 runs scored for his career. He also played the game much the way Utley does. Not only did he lean into pitches often enough to get hit 285 times, he also drew a bunch of walks, played second base (most of the time) and got a reputation for being the toughest, grimiest, most aggressive player in baseball.
Utley is a different player than Biggio: He bats more in the middle of the order than its top, and relies more on power than speed for offensive value. He also proved to be a late bloomer, as he didn’t reach the big leagues until he was 24 and was nothing special until he was 26.
Ultimately, though, baseball people love Utley for the same reasons they loved Biggio: He makes the game look easy, yet expends his full effort and sacrifices everything he has available to help the team win. These two guys are pretty similar in that regard.
Unfortunately, they have one thing in common that is also common to just about all other big league ballplayers who play as hard and as often as they do: Injuries. Utley tore a ligament in his thumb this June when he tried to stretch a single into a double.*
*Incidentally, a couple of other telling things happened on that play. Utley might have been safe, or might not have been; it was hard to tell. But he quietly and simply made a case to the second-base umpire on his own behalf. Then he jogged off the field, and other than some minor flexing of his hand, it was about impossible to perceive anything out of the ordinary. The guy is nails. The injury is usually a ten-week thing. Because of Utley’s history of quick healing, the Phillies estimated it would be eight weeks. He was back in seven.
The injury put a damper on Utley’s season and held him under 20 home runs for the first time since 2004. Biggio, too, battled injuries from an accumulation of contact, and missed over a third of the 2000 season.
Utley has about 1,500 fewer plate appearances than had Biggio at his age. Otherwise, though, they are similar enough so far to use Biggio as a basis for Utley’s future projections.
2010 stats: 511 PA, .275/.387/.445, 16 HR, 13/15 SB
Career: .293/.380/.514, 177 HR, 93/109 SB
Utley is obviously one of the game’s three best second basemen, and outside New York, most people would call him the best. He has tremendous range and a good arm at second base, making him the best overall defender of the keystone sack in each of the past four seasons. He just needs to stay healthy.
1997 stats: 744 PA, .309/.415/.501, 22 HR, 47/57 SB
Career through 1997 (age 31): .288/.377/.426, 116 HR, 268/350 SB
Okay, so we see the differences here. Biggio busted out with his best season ever at 31, placing fourth in MVP voting and scoring a league-best 146 runs. He was practically Joe Morgan out there. Meanwhile, Utley got hurt at 31 and had a down year.
But there are similarities, too. In fact, Utley at 31 looks a lot like Biggio at 30, when Biggio had struggled to a more human .288/.386/.415 line and played 162 games when he probably should not have done so. Another common trait between these two is their tendency to play through injuries other guys might rest and nurse, which hurts their numbers but (because Utley and Biggio at 75 percent beat their replacements at 100 percent) helps the team.
Look, too, at their OPS numbers relative to league average. If we look at each man’s career between ages 26 and 31, we see that the two followed a similar value pattern: Each was solidly above average at ages 26 and 27, then found another gear before backsliding slightly into their 30s.
Utley is not Biggio; he just plays him on TV. The physical, cosmetic similarities ultimately outweigh the statistical ones. Still, Utley might just be ready to take the giant step forward at 32 that Biggio took at 31. His projected numbers for 2011, then, corrected for a more usual amount of playing time and a Biggio-esque improvement:
Chase Utley, 2011: 651 PA, .294/.391/.499, 22 HR, 18/22 SB
Add the best glove in baseball at second to those numbers, and look out National League.