When I think of the perfect baseball player, I envision a guy who goes out there every day, plays his best, and, most of all, does it just for the love of the game. Names like Willie Mays and Cal Ripken, Jr. come to mind.
These were guys who were icons for the sport during their career. They led their respective teams to World Championships, became fixtures on All-Star teams, and were among the best in the game in both their offense and defense.
Add one more name to that list: Chase Utley.
Utley is just a four-year starter but he has already established himself as one of the team leaders for the Phillies, alongside Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins.
From hitting a grand slam in his first Major League start back in '03 to his assault on being the best second baseman in baseball, Utley has been tearing up Major League pitching.
Utley is arguably the top second baseman in all of the Major Leagues. He has started in the All-Star Game for the National League three consecutive seasons and, along with Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and Vladimir Guerrero, Utley is one of just four players to finish in the top 14 in his league in MVP voting in each of the last four seasons.
Part of what makes Utley so successful is his passion for the game. He plays for the joy and excitement, and while he sometimes lets his emotions get the best of him (see: World Championship speech), you know that Utley would run into a brick wall to make a catch for his team.
Utley is not a natural second baseman—he would probably be better suited as a first baseman—but he studied and learned the fine art of the position well enough that he still managed to finish last season with a .984 fielding percentage and 5.05 range factor, bettering the respective league averages of .982 and 4.04.
Considering his fielding percentage was equal to or below the league average from 2003 through 2006, that's a vast improvement for Utley, and a tribute to his hard work and dedication to make himself one of the best in every facet of his game.
As a hitter, Utley is a tough and bruising lefty who always finishes among the league leaders in hit by pitches, leading the NL the last two seasons. How many second basemen hit around .300 with 25 home runs and 15 steals every year? Utley is the only one of the big three Phillies hitters—Howard and Rollins are the others—not to win an MVP award, but he's the best pure hitter and probably the most complete all-around player of the group.
Utley isn't always flashy. You probably won't see him on SportsCenter too many times. And I really don't think he cares about that.
Howard has the big bat, capable of driving a baseball 500 feet the other direction. Rollins is the double-play machine, who can also hit a single, swipe second and third before you know it, and score on a ground ball to the pitcher. Cole Hamels has the nasty changeup and that lights-out slider.
He's just reliable. Dependable. Consistent. And pretty amazing.
In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find as many as five guys in the Major Leagues who are as complete of players as Utley. Utley is one of just four players in all of baseball to hit over .300 with an average of over 20 home runs, 100 RBI, and 10 stolen bases per year since 2005. The others? Alex Rodriguez, David Wright, and Matt Holliday.
That's a pretty impressive list.
His resume speaks for itself: three All-Star selections, a World Championship, three Silver Slugger awards at second base, and four straight seasons of 20 home runs and 100 runs batted in, but what tells more than that is his hustle, determination, and a reputation as a fan favorite in Philadelphia.
Even as hands-down the best second baseman in the National League and arguably the best in the Major Leagues (either Utley or Pedroia), Utley remains underrated. He's been overshadowed in Philadelphia, first by Howard's monster 58-homer season in '06, then by Rollins' guarantee and MVP campaign of '07, and, finally, by Hamels' heroics in the postseason last October and Lidge's perfect season.
I will guarantee this, though.
The World Championship last season would not have been possible without Utley. The NL East title wouldn't have been possible without Utley. He is vital to the success of the team.
This past offseason, Utley had hip surgery, a process that was supposed to delay his return until June of this coming season.
Keep Utley out of the game until June?
He would have to have a leg amputated to miss that much of the baseball season, and even then, he still might play. Nothing can keep a player like Utley out of action.
As it turns out, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel recently announced Utley will be ready in time for Opening Day, just a week away. Utley, who is already hitting .318 with two home runs in 22 at-bats this spring, looks to be showing no ill-effects whatsoever of his surgery.
Beware, Mets fans everywhere.
It's too early to project long-term for a player like Utley, but if he can keep up his elite play, he has a chance to go down as one of the all-time greats at his position. He already is the best in the business and shows no signs of slowing down.