Selflessness. Of the many cliché words we use in defining the careers of our favorite athletes, "selflessness" was the first word that came to mind when I heard Michael Young was finally hanging them up. In our current state of professional sports, you could look back and argue that he became somewhat of a Unicorn. Think about it. How many times do we see prominent athletes demanding trades or transferring from schools because they’re too prideful to agree with coaching and management that they need make a position change or take a lesser role for the betterment of their team?
From 2004 until his final year as a Ranger in 2012, fans watched Young make position changes three times, play all four infield positions in 2011 and 2012 serving as a designated hitter almost double the amount of games he played at any defensive position during that time, all while he was being shopped around in trade talks every offseason after 2008. When you look at it that way, it starts to make a little sense why he might have become a defensive liability from an advanced metric perspective, particularly after the move from shortstop to third base. I realize he didn’t handle that move as cheerfully as the others, because in that case he did request a trade, but can you really blame him? The guy had just come off a 2008 season in which he won a Gold Glove at shortstop and combined with Ian Kinsler to have one of the best single seasons by a shortstop second base defensive tandem in Major League history. How would you handle a move like that at your job?
Forget defense for a minute, though. The word most commonly associated with Michael Young’s career is undoubtedly "consistency," this pertaining to him as an offensive player. As a hitter, Young recorded at least 150 hits every season from 2002 to 2012, six of which were 200 plus hit seasons (2003-2007, 2011), and he’s retiring as a career .300 hitter. However, it appeared to me that he became a victim of his past successes in 2012 as many Rangers fans--or "Post-Cliff Lee Trade" fans as I like to call them—began acting like spoiled children when he didn’t produce the usual cookie-cutter numbers he had in his previous nine seasons, failing to understand that an off year for Young is a benchmark for an average Major League hitter.
Nowadays around the water cooler, your basic baseball card stats hold no weight in arguments regarding a player’s production, and scientifically speaking, it’s indisputable that Young had a down year at the plate after being deemed the club’s "Super Utility" Designated Hitter in 2012. Hell, you could even say he hurt the team considering he posted a negative WPA that year. But what amazed me in 2012 was the amount of backlash he received from fans. If you followed Twitter closely during games that year, nearly every time he struck out, flew out, or grounded out, there were fans expressing this growing sentiment that he had received more credit than he was due and that the perception of him being a "veteran leader" or "classy ballplayer" was the only reason he continued to see the field, in spite of his declining offensive production. The reason it shocked me so much was because he had just put up one of the best years of his career at the plate in 2011 as he led the league in hits (213), posted a .338/.380/.474 slash line, and finished Top 8 in the American League MVP race. I’ll even go so far as to say that he was the unsung hero for the Rangers when they made the postseason in 2011 as he had to fill in at third base for Adrian Beltre after a hamstring injury caused him to miss 37 games, during which he posted a slash line of .354/.399/.469, 21 RBIs, and a .645 WPA. Yet the increasing resentment of him in 2012 made it seem as if none of that ever happened.
From a personal standpoint, the final word I would like to affix to Michael Young’s career is "unorthodox." Growing up a lifelong fan of DFW sports, I often like to make comparisons of Michael Young and Dallas Mavericks Power Forward, Dirk Nowitzki. I could bore you with numerous reasons as to why I do this—trust me, it’s a completely different article in itself---, but I’ve always been awestruck by how they’ve managed to take the most difficult aspects of their respective sports and turn them into the prominent reasons they have had such successful careers. Dirk is continuing to play out a Hall of Fame career that has been defined by an indefensible, off-balance one-legged fade away that had never been seen before. NBA players take off-balance shots all of the time, but there has never been a player make a career out shooting them the way Dirk has. And even as more and more players attempt to mimic it, we may never see it again.
While it’s not nearly as unprecedented as Dirk’s signature "Flamingo Fade," Michael Young’s uncanny ability to hit to the opposite field is comparable when considering the level of difficulty and the fact that both have had consistently prolonged success. Ask any Physics Professor what the hardest skill to master in all of sports is and I can almost guarantee nine out of ten will say hitting a baseball, because in order for it to work, two round objects have to make contact squarely. Casual fans, feel free to take a moment to wrap your mind around that if you need to. Now pair that with the fact that hitting to the opposite field is the most difficult aspect of being a successful hitter, and you should have a little more appreciation for Young’s craft when you consider that this is where he made his money in the league. His production never came from the long ball, but he managed to make hitting hard line drives into right center field the staple of his offensive proficiency. So to reiterate, Young’s mastery of a skill you rarely see a player find consistent success with for a sustained period of time is just one reason why I love to compare him to Dirk, besides my bias for all things DFW.
As a Rangers fan, if you took a true "Seamheadian" approach in your analysis of Michael Young’s career, I get it, science and sabermetrics don’t come to his defense, even though he was ranked as a Top 40 hitter from 2003 to 2011 according to WAR. But you don’t go about owning franchise records in runs, hits, doubles, triples, and total bases by being a mediocre player, especially when your franchise has featured prolific hitters like Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, and Rafael Palmeiro. Sure, Young was a poor defender at different times during his career. This may come as a newsflash, but Derek Jeter has been one of the worst defensive players in the league for more than a decade. How many Yankees fans have you met calling for his head? Sure, Young had a couple of spats with management, but did he ever put himself ahead of his team by failing to comply? Like I said earlier, I will always acknowledge the sabermetrical aspect of baseball. Personally, I love studying sabermetrics. They’ve created a new cult of baseball fans and it’s been tremendous for the game. But at some point I think fans need to see beyond the numbers with Young when it comes to evaluating him and appreciate the fact that he served the game the right way for more than a decade, realizing that he’ll be one of the last "good guys" to come through professional sports. And let’s face it, I can sit here and continue to attach more adjectives about how I view Michael Young’s career, but what’s the point? It’s more for me to type when I could just tell you to go Google the damn Boy Scout Law.
Of course I’m sad he’s calling it quits, but I can’t blame him. Look at all he’s accomplished in his career. The Batting Titles, the All-Star Game appearances and MVP, and all the club records he holds in Texas. Look at all the awesome memories he gave Rangers fans that starved for a competitive team in the mid 2000’s before helping lead them to the franchise’s first ever postseason series victory and back-to-back American League titles. The only thing he had left to do was chase a title on a contending team, and the only team knocking on his door with the intentions of making him a starter was the Brewers. Sure, Young won’t be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and you can always point to science when debating his value. But after watching him play the game the way he did for 14 years with his exceptional combination of versatility and durability, I stand firm in my belief that if you had a team full of competitors like Young, they’d likely contend year after year.