Every now and again, I'll stumble across some hypothetical that doesn't pass the instant smell test and doesn't even strike me as all that plausible, but sticks in my head for one reason or another nevertheless ... and with pitchers and catchers finally reporting today but little of actual substance yet transpiring in Surprise, this seems like an appropriate enough time for me to purge it from my thoughts by means of the written word.
Nine days ago, MLB.com's Peter Gammons fired off this tweet: "Michael Young [averages] 199 [hits] per season. He's 34, doesn't walk. If he [averages] 190 hits [over the] next six years, gets to 3,000 and has won GG @ SS & 2B...HOF?" My first instinct was to dismiss this out of hand because, well, Young is a player who is generally regarded as good, and sometimes very good, and more occasionally great, but isn't somebody you're immediately compelled to associate with Hall of Fame-level greatness. But flippant dismissal doesn't fly in baseball analysis unless the proposition is so incredibly and overtly ludicrous that even a casual fan could justifiably crush it, and virtually every player in the 3,000-hit club is also enshrined in Cooperstown, and Young, based on the evidence furnished by Gammons, would at least seem to have a shot -- so, why not?
Last March, Scott Lucas took a statistical sledgehammer to some annoyingly simplistic analysis written in the weeks previous regarding Young's chances of reaching 3,000 hits, and concluded that he was "highly unlikely" to attain that milestone, with even the eternal optimists in the crowd probably having to admit that based on the evidence presented by Scott, Young's chances of pulling it off are no higher than 20 percent. At that time, Young had amassed 1,662 career hits, requiring him to average 191 hits per season over his next seven seasons to reach the 3,000-hit plateau; as of today, he's sitting at 1,848 hits, which will require now require a 192-hit average over the next six seasons -- a feat he hasn't pulled off since 2007, despite having logged two 700-plus-plate appearance seasons since then.
"Ah," you exclaim, "but the designated hitter spot will bolster Young's offense!" All dubiousness of this claim aside (and I've seen it put out there a few times this winter, and I'm not sure I buy it), the reality of the situation is that Young is 1,152 hits shy of where he needs to be, and only five players in major league history have surpassed that figure or come reasonably close to doing so in their age 34-40 seasons (note the generosity in giving Young a seventh year): Sam Rice (1,446), Pete Rose (1,360), Paul Molitor * (1,308), Ty Cobb (1,209), and Honus Wagner (1,149). If we trim that back to ages 34-39 again, only Rice (1,239), Rose (1,220), and Molitor (1,144) even remotely remain in the picture.
[* -- And by the way ... can we please cut it out with this Molitor-Young comp, at least beyond anything relating to positional usage? Yes, they'll be similar in that they'll both be DHing at the age of 34, but through the age of 33, Molitor's average OPS+ was 121, and he posted an OPS+ north of 125 five different times (including a 161 OPS+ at the age of 30). Young, by comparison, has averaged a 105 OPS+, and has only eclipsed the 109 OPS+ mark twice. Comparing their triple-slash AVG/OBP/SLG lines doesn't work for a number of different reasons, including the differences in era, league difficulties, and ballparks. Molitor's name is usually invoked whenever the argument for Young being able to attain 3,000 hits is made, but the problem is that Molitor was vastly superior offensively through the point in his career that Young is at now.]
But since this wouldn't be much of a story if we simply refuted Gammons by saying "well, Young probably won't reach 3,000 hits, so I'm moving on," I began thinking -- what if he did pull it off? Where would he rank in relation to other members of the 3,000-hit club, and how would he rank compared to other Hall of Fame-inducted infielders? In other words, would 3,000 hits be his lone meaningful Cooperstown calling card, and therefore perhaps not the automatic ticket to enshrinement that it has proven to be historically? Are the hallowed numbers like 3,000 and 500 losing some of their significance in the context of Hall of Fame balloting?
To do this, I mowed through the Baseball Reference Play Index database -- note that it uses a different version of wins above replacement (WAR) compared to FanGraphs, although in Young's case the career WAR output is virtually identical between the two metrics -- and made the very favorable assumption that Young will somehow average three WAR per season over the next six seasons, which is probably being too generous ... but, again, we're assuming that Young amasses nearly 200 hits per season over that same period, so one assumption sort of follows the other in this particular instance.
In this day and age of Hall of Fame balloting, 60 WAR is usually thought of as a major inflection point -- that is, if you're beyond that point over the duration of your career, you probably have a pretty viable case working for you, and if you're at least close, you rightfully deserve a place in the conversation, and if you're not even close ... well, if you're not even close, sometimes you get in anyway, but it's a far more questionable proposition, and it becomes more questionable the further away you are from the mark. In Young's case, he would find himself catapulted into the vicinity of 43 WAR, which would be the second-lowest career mark out of 27 existing members in the 3,000-hit club (second only to Lou Brock's 39.1 WAR), along with arguably the lowest career OPS+ out of the bunch.
"Okay," you're thinking, "so what about his place next to other middle-infielder types who are already in the Hall of Fame? How would he compare to them WAR-wise?" The answer is better, but not excessively so:
|13||Pee Wee Reese||66.7||98||1940||1958||21-39||9470||2170||126||.269||.366||.377||*65|
What's interesting about this list is the preponderance of pre-World War II players, particularly from No. 25 on down. Joe Posnanski recently pointed out that around 30-50 percent of all players who amassed at least 5,000 career plate appearances and retired between 1930 and 1959 were inducted, compared to consistent sub-20 percent induction totals from 1960-present; this is partly a function of heightened standards with the passage of time, and -- as Posnanski pointed out -- also a function of a far less generous Veterans' Committee in recent years, to whom a good number of those lower-ranked Hall of Famers owe their deepest gratitude. In fact, only one player (Rabbit Maranville) below the No. 24-ranked Luis Aparicio was inducted by way of formal BBWAA ballot, which I suppose says something about the way the present-day BBWAA itself perceives fringier middle-infield candidates.
And, of course, it's not completely about career numbers -- you also need very good peak numbers, which are indicative of your dominance during the prime of your career and a major component of the "fame" bit. My curiosity on this bit drove me to compare Young's career path with that of two similar-WAR players (Phil Rizzuto and Nellie Fox) and the BBWAA-elected Aparicio, with the idea being that at least each of these three played out the majority of their respective careers after World War II and better reflect baseball's "modern era." Each player's best single-season WAR is plotted at the far left, and gradually descends from left to right:
So, even assuming entrance to the 3,000-hit club, Young's best years still figure to be a few ticks worse than the best years of some of his most viable comps in his WAR bracket; in other words, he would have the longevity and the milestone, but neither the career-long nor the peak performance needed to justify a serious Hall of Fame bid, which could very realistically leave him as the only non-gambling-or-steroids-tainted player in the 3,000-hit club to be on the outside looking in. Again, his fortunes are likely changed in a different era -- on top of everything else, the amount of attention increasingly being paid to modern-day defensive metrics has severely diminished the luster of Young's single Gold Glove award (not two at two different positions, as Gammons purports), so one really can't point to defense as a virtue the way that they can with many of the other players in Young's WAR bracket.
To be clear, I do wish Young all the best. I hope he does pull a Molitor-esque run out of nowhere, and I hope it happens in Texas. But I'm also a pragmatist, and there are so many obstacles standing between Young and these aforementioned high-level achievements that I almost cannot fathom Young pulling off the things that some people still believe he might yet be able to pull off. You might say that I'm arguing a point that no rational person would make and that I've just wasted my time, but if you've read this far and still feel that's the case, I would surmise that you still learned a little something along the way. That's what I'm going after, and with that, back to Surprise we go again.