Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Lance Berkman and Michael Young Retire: Reflecting on Two Texas Stars

A pair of iconic Texas baseball players retired this past week. Like I do any time notable players retire, I wanted to take the “Hall of Fame” aspect of the discussion and run with it. So, are Lance Berkman and Michael Young Hall-worthy?

Let’s start with Berkman, since his announcement came first. I’ve always liked Berkman. As a non-Astros fan who moved to Houston in the post-Bagwell/Biggio years, Berkman was easily always the most fun player on the team to root for. His key role on the 2011 Cardinals only cemented that image of him for me.

It’s still easy to overlook just how dominant his run in the 2000s was, though. From 2001 to 2008, he had an OPS+ over 150 five times, with an overall OPS+ of 151 in that time span. His best mark, though, was his 164 mark in that 2011 season, something that will probably irk Houston fans a little (although four times in Houston, he fell between 160 and 163). The man could flat-out hit.

His 366 home runs rank fourth for a switch hitter, behind only Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray, and Chipper Jones (and 76th all-time). On top of that, he managed a solid 422 doubles. His 1905 hits may seem uninspiring, but he reached base another 1201 times via the walk. It all added up to a .293/.406/.537 batting line, making him one of only 25 players with a .290/.400/.500 line in 6000 at bats. It also adds up to a career 144 OPS+ in fifteen seasons, 44th best all-time. It ties him with, among others, Hack Wilson, a Hall of Famer that he compares well with.

With those numbers, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t among the best in the game. He didn’t ever win an MVP, but he placed third, fifth, and seventh twice each, with six All-Star appearances. And while he ended as a first baseman/designated hitter, he still spent more time overall as an outfielder, adding to his positional value (and on top of that, he wasn’t as bad of a fielder as I thought-I guess that image of his late move back to right field for the Cardinals stuck in my mind more than it should have).

Both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs put his career Wins Above Replacement in a similar place, with B-R at 51.8 and Fangraphs at 55.8. His strong peak gives him a 98 Hall Rating over at the Hall of Stats. I think you can easily give him extra credit for his strong postseason play on top of that (a .317/.417/.532 batting line in 52 games). As I mentioned recently, my borderline for first baseman in the Hall is Fred McGriff, and while Berkman isn’t as much of a first baseman, I would still say that he’s a better player. I would put him in, although I suppose I can see why others wouldn’t.

Michael Young will be a more interesting case, as the composition of the electorate will more or less determine how strong of a candidate he is. Young has always seemed to appeal more to what I suppose you would call the “traditional” baseball writer. Although maybe that’s not fair, given that he’s also ranked 195th on the Baseball-Reference ELO Rater. That’s even ahead of several easily better contemporaries at similar positions, like Chase Utley (210), Robinson Cano (203), Dustin Pedroia (220), Miguel Tejada (332), and so on.

It’s not particularly hard to see why he’s well-thought of. He has some superficially great numbers. He had a .300 batting average exactly, and 2375 hits. He probably could have hung around to try for 3000 hits, or at least, he could have if he played in an older era before more advanced analysis showed just how severely he had declined.

Looking at the rest of his numbers, though, it’s fair to think that they seem a little weak for someone who played his career in the hitter’s haven that is Rangers Ballpark during a great era for hitters. His .300 batting average comes with only a .346 OBP and .441 slugging percentage. For his career, that only translates to a 104 OPS+, with only one season above 130 and only two others above 110 (both were above 120, though).

One other thing that I find interesting is his fielding. Comparing his hitting to Berkman, while interesting, isn’t totally fair due to position difference. However, there are two components to fielding: where you play and how well you play it. Michael Young lost almost as many runs with his poor fielding as Berkman did from playing easier positions. Berkman’s positional adjustment, as per Fangraphs, was -99.7 runs for his career, but his actual fielding was only -9.3 runs. Young, conversely, was granted 22.7 runs for his position but cost his teams 102.1 runs with his poor fielding. Basically, Young and Berkman were only 3 wins different by virtue of their defense.

Combine that information with the earlier information about their bats and it’s fairly clear which one has been the better player. Most value computations agree with that assessment as well: Young scores only 26.9 fWAR and 24.1 rWAR, as well as a measly 30 Hall Ranking. And yet, Young attended more All-Star games than Berkman. Neither won an MVP (although Berkman did score noticeably better in the voting over his career, with 2.00 career MVP shares to Young’s 0.55). Both fall in the 150-200 range of the ELO Rater. It’s easy to lump them into a similar category, given those facts and their positions as longtime franchise faces in Texas. That’s partly why I’m interested in seeing how the Hall voters handle them when 2019 rolls around.

This isn’t to diminish either player. Both were great, and I’d be surprised if both don’t wind up earning retired numbers. But seeing how many votes each gets, or even what’s written about them, could be an easy sign of how much research writers do when casting a ballot, and overall could show which way the overall electorate is trending.

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