All Phillies…All the Time — What’s on Second?
Having previously answered the burning question, “who’s on first?” the time has come to address, “what’s on second?” The answer, unlike that given by Bud Abbott, is simple… an all-time Hall of Famer and the current best second baseman in baseball.
Oh sure, there are others worth mentioning; Tony Taylor (backwards, Ynot Rolyat), Juan Samuel, Mickey Morandini, and even Bill Hallman. But that’s about it. Second base has not been a position of a great deal of talent for long periods for the Phillies. Even if you reduce the five year minimum to include others like Dave Cash and Manny Trillo; you know what… there are still only two real candidates.
Take Sammy, to start; a combination of power and speed who set the still-standing team record for steals (72) in his rookie season. Who had as many as 28 home runs and 100 RBIs in a season (Utley-like numbers). Who led the NL in triples twice. Who had four straight years with double figures in doubles, triples, home runs and stolen bases (Rollins-like numbers.) THAT Juan Samuel. He’s also the same Juan Samuel who led the NL in strikeouts for four straight years and had an Isolated Discipline of just .047 with the Phillies, meaning he walked just 208 times in 3780 plate appearances for the Phillies. He also had a defensive WAR of -7.7 with the Phillies, and an Adjusted OPS with the Phillies of just 104 — just four percent better than average. And he’s the clear choice for the Phillies’ third-best second baseman, under the criteria in play.
The other candidates get eliminated pretty quickly just by their OPS+ figures with the Phillies…
In case you’re interested, Cash’s OPS+ with the Phillies was 99 (he was basically Samuel with less power and speed, but a higher batting average) and Trillo’s was 89.
Having disposed on the pretenders, it’s time for the contenders — Nap Lajoie and Chase Utley. Casual obervers of the game may be suprised to know that King Larry played five years for the Phillies, or that he also played mostly first base for two seasons before moving to second. A century later, he’s better recalled as either the touchstone of the 1901/1902 legal war between the National League and the American League, and the Phillies and the Athletics (a .426 batting average… the 20th Century record… can have that effect — thus there was little brotherly love in Philly at that time), or as the leader of the Cleveland American League team, a leader who was so popular they named the team after him; the Cleveland Naps they were called. But, Lajoie first came up with the Phillies by way of the Fall River Indians of the New England League in 1896, and was an immediate sensation… a 129 OPS+ in his first six weeks of action. He subsequently would go on to lead the NL in doubles, RBIs, slugging and total bases at various times, while peaking at an OPS+ of 169 in 1899. Then Phillie owner Colonel John Rogers made the mistake of trying to stiff him out of a salary increase, and he jumped to Connie Mack and the American League, where he had a successful enough career to be the leading vote getter in the second BBWAA Hall of Fame election in 1937. During his salad days, it was said that only one player could match his accomplishments — Honus Wagner.
Here are Lajoie’s numbers for his five seasons (1896 to 1900) with the Phillies…
One other thing you can probably guess from these stats; Lajoie was a notorious bad ball hitter, he’d swing at anything and get hits. Thus, he hardly ever walked. The most he had in a single season for the Phillies was 21.
Let’s then contrast Lajoie’s stats with Utley’s for his eight seasons (six full, two partial) with the 21st Century Phillies…
In one of those lovely coincidences that baseball specializes in, their respective OPS figures with the Phillies are exactly the same. Of course, Chase of a Thousand Days has played through a high-scoring era, and Lajoie played on the downside of another high-scoring era, so his OPS+ is much higher. But, you want to know something? There’s not much else where Lajoie leads Utley, outside of batting average and runs scored per game. Utley has more power, walks a lot more, and has a remarkable stolen base percentage of 88 percent. As far as their respective WARs, it looks like this…
The significance of this, beyond the numbers, is that Lajoie was considered an superb defensive second baseman in his time. As Fred Lieb, who saw Lajoie play as a boy and a sportswriter commented, he used to glide around the infield with the grace of a tiger. And, in fact, his defensive WAR (DWAR) with the Indians was an excellent 10.5. However, he came up with the Phillies as a first baseman, and he didn’t become a good second baseman until he left for the AL. Utley, on the other hand, is maybe the best second baseman to have never won a Golden Glove… a very strange omission in the voting process that specializes in strange results.
Lajoie was a tremedous player for a long time, including when he first came up with the Phillies. The Hall of Fame vote on him was not a mistake. Chase Utley is a tremendous player. If he continues to play at the level he established during his first four consecutive all-star years (2006 to 2009) for say another half dozen years, he’ll essentially double his counting stats, giving him 2200 hits, 450 doubles, 350 home runs, and 1300 RBIs — sure Hall of Fame numbers for a second baseman. Ryne Sandberg, for instance, finished with 2386 hits (one with the Phillies), 403 doubles, 282 home runs, and 1061 RBIs.
However, that’s not the point of this exercise — we’re looking at what Utley has done to this point as a second baseman with the Phillies. In that regard, he’s also a superb fielder (much better than Lajoie was with the Phillies), has played in 500 more games than Lajoie, and, no small consideration, has hit 10 post season home runs in 41 games, including five in a single World Series. He has also been, mark it down, the best player on a team that has won four straight National League East titles.
It’s hard to vote against an all-time great (and Lajoie was), but, based on their contributions to the Phillies, Chase Utley is the best second baseman.