Friday, January 31, 2014

Young Bows Out

Young is leaving the game before his performance starts to suffer (ESPN)
It's fitting that two days after Lance Berkman called it quits, Michael Young is following him out the door. Fitting because they were both gifted hitters who made their names playing 257 miles from each other in Texas: Berkman in Houston and Young in Arlington.

Born eight months apart in 1976, they retired just two days apart in 2014, each at the age of 37 after enduring back-to-back disappointing seasons. But whereas Berkman was more or less forced out by injuries, Young is choosing to leave the game on his own terms after playing 147 games for the Phillies and Dodgers last year and batting a respectable .279 with a 102 OPS+.

Even still, their careers overlapped pretty well, which is funny considering how different they were as ballplayers. Berkman was a native Texan and a lumbering, switch-hitting slugger who played first base and left field, while Young hailed from California and was more of a slap-hitting shortstop. It's surprising, then, just how well some of their career totals match up:

Berkman: 1,879 G, 1,146 R, 422 2B, 86 SB, .293 Avg, 3,485 TB, six All-Stars
Young: 1,970 G, 1,137 R, 441 2B, 90 SB, .300 Avg, 3,491 TB, seven All-Stars

And here are some other similarities:

-Berkman debuted in 1999, one year before Young played his first big league game
-Both played at least 100 games at four different positions (not counting DH) and were very poor fielders
-After having somewhat down years in 2010, both bounced back for one last big season in 2011, when each made the All-Star team. Berkman finished seventh in the NL MVP voting while Young placed eighth in the AL race
-Both were traded away from their Texas teams and finished their careers elsewhere (though Berkman eventually made his way back to Texas to play for the Rangers)
-Neither won an MVP or Silver Slugger
-Both played in two World Series, including the 2011 Fall Classic when Berkman's Cardinals beat Young's Rangers in seven games

But that's enough about Berkman. I haven't written extensively about Young since he got his 2,000th career hit back in the summer of 2011--his last great season. He batted .338 with 106 RBI--both career highs--while sharing the major league lead for hits (213) with Boston's Adrian Gonzalez. At the time, he seemed to have an outside chance at 3,000 hits.

Then the following year, at age 35, his numbers dropped dramatically. His batting average plummeted more than 60 points, his OBP nearly 70, and his slugging by more than 100. Sensing the end was near, Texas traded him to the Phillies with cash for a pitching prospect (Lisalverto Bonilla) and a nothing reliever (Josh Lindblom).

There was hope that Young might be able to revive his career in Philadelphia, but all he did there was round out an aging infield of washed-up stars that already included Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Young's numbers were almost identical to his 2012 production, and at the end of August the Phillies dealt him to the Dodgers for a pitching prospect (Rob Rasmussen) with a 6.46 ERA in Triple-A. Young was lucky to jump off the sinking Phillies ship and climb aboard the contending Dodgers just in time for the playoffs, but his last shot at that ever-elusive World Series ring was derailed by an old nemesis (St. Louis) in the NLCS. Young didn't do much to help matters there, coming up empty in all seven of his plate appearances.

So rather than hang around to pad his hit totals and chase a ring, Young called it a day. He can protect his .300 career batting average and leave long before he hits rock bottom. It's better this way.

A couple months from now Derek Jeter may have wished he'd done the same thing. I bring up Jeter in part because he is another shortstop in his late 30s (soon to be 40, actually), but also because I want to call attention to just how similar they were for a full decade. Check out how close they were from 2002--Young's first full season--through 2012--Jeter's most recent (and probably last) full season.

Jeter: 7,644 PA  1,153 R  2,105 H  336 2B  156 HR  .309/.376/.435  .811 OPS 114 OPS+
Young: 7,616 PA  1,028 R  2,134 H  396 2B 166 HR .304/.350/.447 .796 OPS 106 OPS+

I'm really surprised Jeter doesn't show up as one of Young's comps on his B-R page. They were very durable. They also struck out a good amount and bounced into a lot of double plays. Defensively they were about the same, with Young costing his team 8.6 wins and 126 runs with his glove while Jeter cost the Yankees 7.8 wins and 160 runs. Jeter, of course, was a much better baserunner with almost three times as many steals, and compensated for Young's power edge by getting on base more often. The point is that Young was very nearly Jeter's equal as a hitter for a long time. Take away 2002 (when Young had a .690 OPS) and 2012 (.682), and he comes out ahead.

That said, it can not be ignored the degree to which Young's numbers were enhanced by playing half his games in Texas. Like many hitters, Young got a big boost from his home ballpark. He batted a George Brett-esque .320/.368/.479 in Arlington, and if he had hit that well everywhere else we'd probably be discussing him as a serious Hall of Fame contender. As it were, his road OPS is more than 100 points lower.

For that reason (and others), Young was simply not as good as his numbers suggest. FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference agree he was worth around 25 WAR for his career, which leaves him well short of the Hall of Fame. JAWs has him as the 92nd best shortstop of all time, which seems baffling considering a lot of his counting numbers rank within the position's top 20. On the surface, a .300 career hitter who played the vast majority of his games at shortstop, second base and third base (all premium positions) would appear to be a very valuable player. Where was the disagreement between perception and reality coming from?

For starters, Young's offense really wasn't worth that much--about 60 runs for his career according to FanGraphs. Taking everything into account, that makes sense. Yes, Young got a lot of hits (six seasons with more than 200) and hit for some power (almost 700 extra base hits), but he didn't walk that much (typically around 50 times per season) so his on-base percentage of .346 is merely good, not great. Most of his power was in the form of doubles which obviously are not as valuable as home runs, so his career .141 ISo and .342 wOBA aren't very impressive either.

When he did get on he was a slightly above average baserunner, but any value he provided there was canceled out by his propensity for grounding into double plays. He also struck out quite a bit for somebody who never hit 25 home runs in a season. Throw in his friendly home park and the high-scoring era in which he played, and his numbers aren't anything special, as his .265 True Average and 104 wRC+/OPS+ indicate. He was only 61 runs better than the average hitter over the course of his career, which works out to be about 4.36 runs above average per year.

Then add to the mix his subpar glovework (2008 Gold Glove notwithstanding) which subtracts about a win per season from his value (two in his later years), and we're left with a slightly better than average hitter who has some nice counting numbers.

I don't mean to take anything away from Young. He was a good player for many years, a batting champion who set Rangers franchise records in numerous categories. But he's not a Hall of Famer (even though five of his ten best statistical comps are, and he probably would have been had he played in the 1920s or 30s), and not as good as some of his numbers suggest. Young is a perfect example of how advanced metrics and analysis can paint a more complete picture than those old-school statistics (like hits, RBI and batting average) ever can.

1 comment:

  1. Jeter, while highly overrated, was just better at a younger age. Otherwise, I would take Young for the past 10 or so years. Jeter was probably a little better of a baserunner, but not as much as you imply. There's a lot more to baserunning than just SBs. Jeter didn't deserve any of his GGs, and wouldn't change positions for A-roid, who was a GG SS before joining NY, while Jeter had none at that point. Young was a 2B by trade, and moved to SS for Soriano, and then to 3B for Andrus, probably a good idea regardless, but still. He was the ultimate team player. Young won a GG at SS, and his team was the worst defensive team in the league that year, which I think was a first in history or pretty close at least. With that being said, Jeter should be a HOFer, while Young shouldn't.

    But, your advanced metrics geek in you needs to stop. Young was the best clutch hitter in baseball for about 5-6 years. He needed a few more good years, and would probably deserve making the HOF. His home park didn't help him as much as you imply either. Left field to center is very deep. He never really hit that many HRs. Parks aren't going to really affect your average that much. He liked to go oppo, but still hard to get many HRs that way. But, same with Jeter. Jeter would often go oppo, and much easier at Yankee Stadium than anywhere else to hit RF HRs. Jeter benefited from his park much more Young did from his probably.