Bill Hall vs. Chase Utley

Okay, if this were actually a bout, I’d probably go with Hall, in the baseball world, I’d go with Utley. Nevertheless, Chase Utley’s recent contract extension might give Bill Hall an idea of what to expect in the near future. Consider these points coming into the 2006-2007 offseason:

  • Hall was coming off his Age 26 season in which he hit .270/.345/.553; Utley was coming off his Age 27 season in which he hit .309/.379/.527
  • Hall was heading for his second year of arbitration, with two more seasons left to play before free agency; Utley was arbitration eligible for the first time, with three season to play before free agency
  • both were middle infielders for the 2005-2006 seasons, and both were above average fielders in 2006, according to Out Ratio
  • both were tops at their positions in hitting in 2006: Utley was first in MLV and VORP amongst all MLB 2B, and second in SLG; Hall was first in SLG amongst SS, 9th in VORP, and 4th in MLV.

They are similar players, both in terms of ability and contract situation. Let’s take a look at how they differ in both, and how each might affect Billy’s contractual dealings in the next couple of weeks and years.
Utley is a year older, but a year further removed from free agency.
This bodes well for Billy in more ways than one. First off, should he go to arbitration this year, he will not only have the facts that he played above average defense at THE premium defensive position and hit 10 more HR than the next best SS (Jimmy Rollins — Chase Utley’s double play partner), but he also gets to site the fact that he did it all at an age when he’s still likely to get better. In addition, he will be younger (29) than by two years should he become a free agent in 2008-2009, than Utley would have been (31) in 2009-2010.
Considering age and proximity to free agency, this makes Billy far less likely to sign a long-term contract this off-season. He’ll still be under 30 for his walk year, he’s likely to get a big raise from the $418,000 he made last year, and another raise next year. (The Brewer’s offered $3mil, so he’ll get at least 700%.) Two more seasons with even slight improvement would lead to a 6-year $80mil contract (and I’d say that’s conservative), richer in yearly average than Utley’s deal, which ties him up through 2013. Say Billy does just that — he’d make about $88mil over the next 8 years, through 2014 (once again, I think this is the low end). Utley will make $85mil through 2013 and then have to sign a new contract for at least $3mil at Age 35 to match Billy’s potential earnings.
Utley has a bit better track record, and a more stable future on Philly.
If we go back to their pre-MLB days, we find a more convincing track record for success in Utley’s past. He mashed in two season with UCLA, and then was very solid through the minors. He might have gotten to the majors a bit late, but there was really no reason to believe he wouldn’t succeed when he got there.
Billy’s gotten more on the job training via the utility role. This might mean that the Brewers probably had lower expectations for his future, as teams often leave their best prospects in the minors until they are ready to play everyday — not just off the bench — in the majors (which allows the team to pay the player less for a longer amount of time by not starting his MLB service time, and the player to play everyday in the minors). When Billy proved useful, the kept him around and he eventually prospered. Sammy Sosa is third on Hall’s comparable players list according to PECOTA. Sosa also didn’t have much of a track record in the Rangers’ and White Sox’s systems until he finally broke out with the Cubs as a 24-year-old in 1993. It’s not that a player can’t still develop power and find his stroke at 25 or 26, it’s just that with only one season like that to prove it, we can never be totally sure if Billy is more Sammy Sosa, or more Max Alvis: Billy’s #1 comparable with a lifetime .692 OPS.
Utley’s got two full seasons of mashing under his belt, whereas Billy, although his 2005 season was pretty good, is really working mostly with his 2006 success. This might actually make Bill more likely to sign a longer contract this off-season. If he regresses at all, he jeopardizes what he accomplished last year, and 2007 (and probably 2008, too) will see him doing whatever he does from a less lucrative defensive position than he did in 2006.
They get on base in different ways.
While this might not affect the contract very much, I thought it was an interesting distinction to make between the two, if for no other reason than to illustrate different types of good hitters.
In 2006, Billy actually walked in a higher percentage of his PAs (10.5%) than Utley did (8.5%). But Utley gets on base in other ways. While Billy hardly ever gets hit by a pitch, Chase loves to do it. In addition, Utley is a better contact hitter, and as the potential to hit ?.300 over the life of his new contract. I think Bill will struggle to hit .300 in the majors. There’s simply no precedent for it.
Utley’s contract gives Doug Melvin a starting point.
Gord Ash has told me that the Brewers offered Bill Hall a long-term contract last off-season, which would have bought out his arbitration years and one or two years of free agency. Billy resisted then, but a lot has changed. It’s likely that the offer Ash refers to was maybe 4-5 years, $10-12mil, and if that’s the case, Billy was right to decline.
But what if Melvin got clearance to offer Hall the same contract that Utley just got: 7 years, $85million — and average of $12.14mil per year? Baseball Prospectus’ MORP values Hall at $66mil over the next five years alone, an average of $13.2mil. That would spell savings for the Brewers already, provided his value didn’t plummet in the last two years of the hypothetical deal. Or suppose the team over-paid a bit to shorten the contract, say 5 years, $70mil? They’d have the leverage of saying that he’d be making more per year than Chase Utley, who’s a better player, and still be young enough at the end of it to net another reasonable contract in free agency. In the meantime, he doesn’t have to wait two years to get rich, and he doesn’t risk a steep regression or injury that would cause his stock to drop.
In short, if the Brewers could pull off such a five-year deal, I’d probably do it. If nothing else, it will be a very tradable contract. At best, we get a half-decade of good value from a very versatile player. If we’re talking a 7-year deal, I’d be a bit more hesitant, but if the Brewers could front-load the contract, or make a couple of option years, or get the average year down to ?$11mil, I would have to consider it at least.
Unless Billy is delusional, he can’t possibly perceive his value to be higher than that of Utley’s. As such is the case, he probably can’t turn down 5 and ±70. But in the absence of such an offer from the Brewers, what is the best that can happen? Would a 2-year, $8mil deal be fair at this point? I think it would, and that is my best guess at what will happen in the next couple of weeks if the two sides don’t reach a multi-year deal.

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