FOR THE SECOND straight year now, Chase Utley leads all National League players in All-Star votes. Consider that for a second. He has never won a batting title, or a home-run title, or been named Most Valuable Player. He is a sabermetrician's dream, yes, but it isn't clear how many of them vote.
Utley led before and after the Phillies won the World Series, so it is more than simple fame. He plays a position, second base, where he is clearly the class of the league, and that helps the numbers, certainly - and the converse complicates the life of St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols, seeing as how Pujols has somebody like Ryan Howard drawing votes from the same pool. Pujols is second to Utley in the overall voting, as he was last season. The numbers: Utley, 2,273,355; Pujols, 2,158,036.
So part of it is position. At the same time, Utley does nothing to cultivate public opinion. He hates talking about himself. It isn't as if he has a slew of national advertising deals. He would rather eat glass than sit still for an interview. He seems entirely uninterested in promoting his personal brand.
Well, that very persona might be why.
"I think he is absolutely recognized as the gamer in our game," Phils president David Montgomery said last night. "I don't think there's any question about that."
When they vote for Utley, people are really voting for this idealized notion of yesterday, of what they think the game used to be. Take Sunday. There was this moment during the Red Sox game when he intentionally dropped a soft line drive with a runner on first base, attempting to turn one out into a doubleplay by means of a little bit of gamesmanship.
The umpire saw through it right away and called the play for what it was - a catch by Utley, one out, case closed. But you could see the look on Utley's face as he kicked the ball around at his feet, trying to make it look good. It was this impish smile of a kid who got caught, but it was more than that. It was this look of a guy who is always looking for an edge.
Every fan who lives and dies with this team, who eats and sleeps the game, likes to believe that Utley is the kind of player they would be if they were ever given the chance.
"He has the respect, clearly, of our own team and our own fans," Montgomery said, during a segment of Comcast SportsNet's "Daily News Live." "I think he gets the respect of other teams and other players . . . When people talk about playing all-out, and they cite examples . . .
"He is into the game to a degree that others just can't get. They just can't anticipate."
There are also numbers, by the way, numbers that back up the intangibles. VORP is a widely used statistic by baseball numbers people. VORP: value over replacement player. It's basically a calculation of how many more runs a player produces over the course of a season than an average player would produce if given the same opportunity.
Well, Utley has been the leading second baseman in the major leagues in VORP for four seasons running. In the overall calculations, he was 11th among all major leaguers in 2006, 11th again in 2007, sixth in 2008 and seventh so far this season. Pujols was first last year and is second this year (to Minnesota's Joe Mauer).
So, there are plenty of modern numerical justifications for Utley's popularity. But Mets third baseman David Wright has similar VORP numbers, plays in a bigger market, is an American player like Utley - a white American player like Utley, for that matter - and Utley still has more than 1 million more votes than Wright.
The reason is the rest of it: the willingness to get hit by an inordinate number of pitches to get on base; the decision last season to play with a hip injury that obviously bothered him and required offseason surgery; the gamesmanship and stoicism and all of that.
Modern numbers and old-time values. It is a combination that makes Utley tough to beat. *
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