The Dodgers re-signed Chase Utley to a one-year deal. The 38-year-old will serve as Logan Forsythe’s backup at second base. Utley still has a bit left in the tank, posting a .716 OPS and 2.0 WAR last year, but by all accounts he wasn’t asked back for his stats but rather his leadership.
Coaches tell the story of a game in which the Dodgers had a big lead in the top of the eighth inning when one younger, enthusiastic teammate stole second base, which ticked off the opposition. When Utley got to the plate in the ninth, he told the opposing catcher to have the pitcher drill him. Then his teammate would understand there are consequences for showing up the opposition.
Then there was a game last year in which Kershaw wasn’t getting strikes he thought he’d thrown. When the Dodgers got back to the dugout, A.J. Ellis was hollering at the home plate umpire. Utley warned Ellis not to get ejected. Chase grabbed a batboy’s skull cap,a jacket, got a towel and rounded up a bunch of fresh baseballs and went out to give the umpires the balls, which is the batboy’s job. When the umpire asked him what he was doing, Utley told him he was not going to embarrass the ump, that no one would notice he was out there, but Kershaw had to have some of those pitches. Having spoken his peace, Utley ran back to the dugout like just another clubbie batboy.
Alright, laugh if you must. Utley does come off as some sort of cartoonish throwback in these anecdotes. Progressive baseball minds love nothing more than dismissing the antiquated ways of the past and the stupidity of unwritten rules. But Utley is a perfect example of how both things are not simply still a major part of baseball, they are valued elements.
One can bemoan the persistence of a loosely-defined moral code governing the sport, but that won’t make it any less real. What Utley showed was significant self-sacrifice in asking to get plunked. Sure, it was macho and masochistic but the pitcher was likely going to hit someone.
Utley literally offered to take one for the team and, perhaps, helped diffuse a future situation that could have resulted in injury to one of the Dodgers’ big bats. His ball-delivering trick is a small thing that turns into a big thing if Kershaw gets a borderline pitch in a key situation.
All of this to say: Utley may be a dinosaur, but he’s a useful dinosaur. Quibble with his methods all you want. Devalue the importance of being a good teammate. Mock the luddites and their reluctance to move on from less-instructive stats. Just know that going too far in the other direction creates the same problem. Things are missed — especially the more human things.
Quantifying what Utley brings to the table is difficult. Clearly, though, there’s a benefit to those intangibles. At this point, I sound like a broken record here: appreciating baseball requires a holistic approach — one that takes into account both new- and old-school metrics.
Maybe, just maybe, Utley, going into his 15th Major League season, gets it more than an outsider.