On January 30, 2014, Michael Young announced his retirement.
There's already been a significant reaction to his announcement. There will be much and more in the coming week. There will be another swell around Spring Training (pitchers and catchers report in just a bit more than two weeks). There's a good reason for this; Mike Young was a pretty good ballplayer, and he played baseball here for a long time.
The thing is, you can encapsulate his career with that phrase - “Mike Young was a pretty good ballplayer, and he played baseball here for a long time.” There's no need to dig further in, intrinsically. However, it's impossible to simply analyze Michael Young, baseball player. He's a local cultural phenomenon. He casts a cult of personality like almost no other athlete I've ever seen. He's divisive, just by his mere presence.
There's two clear sides to the Michael Young debate, and they both have merit. Analytic metrics peg him as a good-average player with stark weaknesses; the kind you're glad to have around as the fourth or fifth best player on your team, but move on from as they age into big paydays. Classical, non-analytic types have a stronger appreciation for the non-tangibles a player brings; for the extra work put in after games answering questions or making a habit of putting in extra work.
Neither side is really right. Neither side is really wrong. In some respects, it's a false division, because everyone who likes baseball likes stats and just about everyone who likes baseball likes decent human beings - it's just a question of how much weight you put into each versus the other. The point of this blog has been, since day one, to provide a bridge between the two sides (I know, sometimes the work I do here is counterproductive to that, but... you've got to let a dog have a bone every now and again). Maybe that's a foolhardy goal. I prefer to think not, because if so I've wasted three years putting up nonsense and all I've got to show for it is a lot of personal satisfaction and fun and interesting content I've created that I'm proud of and a few hot dogs and some press access adventures that were awesome.
Mike Young was a flashpoint between the two philosophies, and he shouldn't have been. “Mike Young was a pretty good ballplayer, and he was here for a long time” should have satisfied both sides. Young was never really great; he was terrible at the end, but most players are. He lead the American League in Batting Average in 2005, which was the high point in his career. I've railed against batting average many times, but the raw truth is getting hits is very valuable, and hitting .331 is always at least a good thing. The problem with batting average (keep your torches away!) is it just doesn't convey any information beyond how many hits a player had- it doesn't tell you the quality of the hits (extra base hits are key to producing runs, which are key to winning games) or how many times a player reached base other than via a hit (which is the entire point of baseball).
In 2005, Young was 24th in the league in On Base Percentage. That's good! It's hard to be an unproductive baseball player and be 24th in the league in the one statistic that I (and a lot of other people) would argue is simply the best rate indicator of how a batter succeeds or fails. Yet, it's also hard to look at a player's absolute peak (his .385 OBP in 2005 was his career-best mark in a season) and see 23 players better and call him elite.
Likewise, Young's Slugging Percentage in 2005 was .513. That's good! In fact, .500 is a common line of delineation for a really, really good slugging line. It wasn't quite the greatest slugging season of his career (in 2009, he slugged .518) but it was really, really close.
That .513 was good for thirty-second in the league in 2005. Again, this is his peak, and slugging is an important metric. Doubles and home runs are much, much better at scoring runs than singles. Runs are what wins ballgames. It's not a be-all, end-all metric, but if your argument is that a player is elite, it's hard to contend with the fact that so many players were so much better at important things than Michael Young was when he was at his best at those same things. Mike Young was a pretty good baseball player, and he played here for a long time.
Of course, the flipside is in 2005, he was a shortstop, which has traditionally been a tough place to find offense. It's the most demanding position on the diamond from a defensive standpoint (aside from catcher, which seems to kind of be in a universe by itself). Since the expectations from a shortstop are traditionally lower, you could say being in the mid-thirties in key metrics is, in fact, an example of an elite player.
The sad truth of it is that Michael Young just was never very good at defense. His range was limited (especially to his glove side). For his career, Fangraphs saw Young as worth -79.4 Runs defensively (and had him as worth 59.8 runs offensively). Defensive metrics are still young, and they're growing and evolving, so that shouldn't be taken as gospel - but some facts should be apparent. Even with that, Mike Young was a pretty good baseball player, and he played here for a long time.
Part of Young's curse, and his blessing as well, was the cast of characters he had around him during his stint as a Ranger. In his first full season, Alex Rodriguez, Pudge Rodriguez, and Rafael Palmeiro were here. Pudge was and is, of course, revered, with very good reason; Palmeiro wasn't yet, but would become one of baseball's biggest finger-pointing villains. No player was as polarizing as Alex Rodriguez, though. From the second he inked his 252-million-dollar deal, A-Rod was a target of scorn. He was too cocky, not clutch enough, too pretty, and he didn't pitch effectively. Mike Young was the perfect counterpoint to him. In fact, Young likely owes much of his career to the simple fact that he was the quiet, non-flashy opposite of his double play partner. The media loves to build one player up as a means of tearing another down (see the cyclical argument about the Cowboys' Triplets).
Once Rodriguez left in 2004, the dark period really began. The player A-Rod returned, Alfonso Soriano (let's forget about Joaquin Arias, and forget about the fact that the team chose Arias over Robinson Cano, because I don't want to have a rage stroke) had the misfortune of playing second base, which was the same position Michael Young played. The team broached Soriano about a move (he was pretty bad at second base) but he balked. Young stepped in and volunteered to move to shortstop, a move for which he was hailed and for which Soriano was excoriated. The opinion at the time was that if the team asked you to dent your pride and market value to change positions for the betterment of the team, then that's what you should do- a position which would reverse itself in the popular media when Young was asked (told) to move.
I've always wondered, myself, why the switch wasn't viewed as selfish on Young's part. Shortstops are more valuable than second basemen. It's like volunteering to move out of accounting and into sales. Moving to shortstop made Young a much more valuable commodity.
The 2004 season was actually a high-water mark, as they muddled to an 89-win year, the most for the franchise since 1999 and a mark that would not be matched until 2009. That was still only good for third in the AL West, though, which raises another point; Michael Young was simply a good player on a series of very bad teams. Again, this isn't demeaning Young; Mike Young was a pretty good baseball player, and he played here for a long time. But, again, the image of Young was always greater than the production, and a part of that was that he was fairly bright on some very dull teams.
Maybe it is that there's something to longevity that gets underrated. After all, it's hard to stick in one place for a long time and be a terrible person. Except prison I guess, but you'd be hard-pressed to call the pre-2009 Rangers as bad as prison. Dirk Nowitzki is a Dallas treasure, and with good reason; he's been an elite player, and he was here his entire career. We were also fortunate to have Mike Modano, Darren Woodson, and Jason Witten here for (virtually) the duration of their careers. Those were all elite players. Each one should have his visage on Dallas Sports Mount Rushmore, should they ever have the terrible idea to build it.
Still, Carl Everett played for eight teams in twelve years. Milton Bradley played for eight in twelve years. Josh Lueke has yet to stick with a team for more than two seasons. Barry Bonds only played for two teams, but he was the best player of his generation and probably had two to three more years of production left when the league blackballed him (steroids or not). Maybe Young's longevity here was a product of his value as a person, and that brought more to the team than a better player but lower quality of a person would have brought. That's outside my area of expertise, and I've found that things that are quantifiable are often more valuable. If you don't believe that, I've got a couch that holds all of my hopes and dreams I'll sell you for a million dollars. It really ties a room together, too.
There's a key aspect of the Michael Young narrative that I've yet to address; The Contract. In Spring Training of 2007, the Rangers signed Young to a five-year, eighty-million-dollar extension. Extending your players before they hit free agency is often wise, but the path is fraught with perils. The Young deal was done a full two seasons before Young would hit free agency; while some will argue that it was a sign the Rangers would step up and pay players, the fact that the team's payroll did not hit ninety million dollars until 2009 highlighted the problem. The team gave Young a big-market contract, then gave the rest of the team small-market money. It's a sign of a team that doesn't know it's identity; if you don't immediately see that as a problem, consider the team that plays on the other side of the Ballpark's parking lots.
One of the points sabre-centered fans repeated often once the contract was signed, was that at no point during the deal was the contract worth it. When the contract kicked in, no team would have given Young a 5/80 deal if he were a free agent. One year in, no one would have given him 4/64. Even in his last year, no one would have given him a one-year deal for sixteen million dollars; when the Rangers did trade Young to the Phillies, they had to send over ten million dollars to facilitate the swap. Ultimately, it's not fair to hold the contract over Michael Young's head; each player has every right to get as much money as they can, because at some point they have to walk away from the game (such as, right now). He didn't twist Jon Daniels' or Tom Hicks' arms to get the deal (that I'm aware of... it seems pretty outside of Young's character to be violent towards anyone but Vicente Padilla).
And, I think, is the main thrust of what I want to say; a lot of the factors that lead to negativity against Young weren't his fault. His image in the media, and the outspacing of his actual production, weren't his own creations. Of course, it would have been nice if he would have actually produced at the level some local media types would have you believe he produced at, but there's no evidence that Young was ever anything but a hardworking guy who tried hard to be good at baseball. He apparently had the backing of his manager as a defender; if your boss tells you you're doing a good job, who am I tell you you're not?
Of course, there was a dark side to Young (aside from socking Vicente Padilla, which I think we'll all agree we're pretty ok with). In 2008, when Young's defensive deficiencies were coming to a head, Elvis Andrus was steaming his way through the minors. Young bristled at fan suggestions that he wasn't a good defender, which is actually pretty ok with me because I'd prefer guys who have pride in what they do opposed to someone saying 'Yeah, you're right, I'm pretty awful I'm going to go home and be emotional.' The issue is, Young was quoted as saying “Show me a guy with turbo range out there.” Now, I’m not one to suggest that major league players should be really aware of minor league prospects, because those guys are largely there to take your job. It's a sad fact. I'm not out actively recruiting bloggers to take my spot, because I like having a job. That said, the quote rubbed many (including myself) the wrong way, and in a lot of ways was a catalyst to fans being ready to break up with the player. The issue was, the Rangers did have a guy with turbo range, and he was pretty much ready to contribute. The only issue was the player in his way.
Then, in 2009, a low point. The Rangers decided to make the leap to committing to Elvis Andrus at the shortstop position. The team was dedicating itself to defense much more than before, and Andrus is likely the best defensive shortstop the Rangers have ever had. Young's response was to request a trade.
Requesting a trade rarely works. Partially because trading in baseball is largely a poker game, and broadcasting your desire to be relocated puts your team in a bad spot, and partially because it puts the player in a lose-lose proposition; if they are traded, the relationship with the trading city is likely done. If they aren't, they're stuck in the town they were just crying they wanted out of. This is another situation, though, where the laws of physics don't apply to Michael Young. He was applauded, in local media, for the same thing Soriano was excoriated for. Where Soriano was selfish, Young was fighting the man, standing up to management like so many people wish they could (me, personally, I've got a pretty great relationship with my management team, both in my day job and here at the WFAA. It's important to me that they read that, and know that they're great, and the microwave was like that when I found it. It was probably Dale.). Again, it's facile to hold the way the media treated Young against him, but the fact remains the act itself was selfish and contrary to the success of the team. And, worst of all, Young was wrong, because Elvis is and was a great baseball player.
Young eventually cowtowed, in part because every team passed on trading for Young. Remember above when I said no one would give him a contract in 2009 for four years and sixty million? There's a data point in that argument. Young would hold third for two years. They were, at the time, two of the greatest years in Rangers history.
Then, late in the winter of 2010, the Rangers signed Adrian Beltre. You know the calculus; Young had to move again. Young, again, requested a trade. A trade, again, failed to materialize. Once again, Young was recalcitrant in moving to accommodate a clearly superior player, and was rewarded for it. Young responded, strangely, with one of his best offensive seasons ever. The team made the World Series, and it turned out that individual performance amid the most successful team in franchise history was a strong panacea for relationships.
The less that's said about 2012, the better. It... it was not a good season.
The Rangers traded Young, finally, before the 2013 season. Young wasn't good, and the Rangers had problems but won 91 games. The two players the Rangers received for Young, Josh Lindblom and Lisalverto Bonilla, both look to have positive effects on the team moving forward (although Lindblom's output will be tied to that of Michael Choice and Chris Bostick, the two players the Rangers received for Lindblom and Craig Gentry). Moreso, the fact that Young has agreed to retire as a Ranger is pleasing on several levels; one, in that Young is willing to move on and repair a fractured and strained relationship and two, in that it's just satisfying to have the player symbolically walk off in the the team he spent over ninety percent of his career with. Young was a pretty good player, and he played here for a long time.
If you go by fWAR (and you should, it's great) Young is the 597th best player of all time. That could sound like a slight, but it's anything but. Saying a player is one of the 600 best players ever in the past century-plus of baseball is no insult, at all. Unfortunately, Young will likely have a vocal local minority (have you heard of my new band, the Vocal Local Minority?) pushing his Hall of Fame credentials in five years. Once again, the normal physics of baseball won't apply to Mike Young, and saying what he was (Mike Young was a pretty good player, and he played here for a long time) will be called an insult. It's anything but.
I joked before that the team could find Young a spot in outside sales if he wants to join the franchise, but, in truth this might be the job he was always destined for; the face of the franchise. I've come to realize that data-backed decisions tend to be very unpopular; Mike Young explaining the tough decisions Jon Daniels makes may be the best of both worlds, the jock and the nerd. I'm glad he's retiring, and I'm glad he's retiring as a Ranger, and I'm glad I don't have to see grounders go past him because they were hit four feet to the right of where he was standing when the ball was hit.
Mike Young was a pretty good player, and he played here for a long time.
Joe Ursery is a seasoned WFAA contributor who appreciates analytics and hialrious parantheticals. You can follow him on twitter at @thejoeursery