Intangibles. The term was once highly mockable in the world of nerdy baseball analytics, and while an argument for or against a particular player rooted in unmeasurable qualities is still easily dismissed, there is more room at the table than there used to be for consideration of a player’s value to a team beyond that which we can count.
Smart people in important positions in baseball make transactions all the time that don’t fit what our cookie cutter statistics-based analysis would suggest is an intelligent move. Alone, this fact isn’t enough to justify those moves, but it is enough to suggest that there is more to be considered than a player’s numbers. In fact, we’ve come to accept the fact that things don’t always occur inside a neat and tidy little vacuum. When it comes to team building, there are several factors to consider outside of that which is easily accessible.
Perhaps more than any other current Major League Baseball player, the reputation of Michael Young benefits from what is considered and called intangibles. That’s not to suggest that over the course of his thirteen year career Young hasn’t contributed value in ways that can be counted. He can easily be considered an above average hitter, who has even flirted with excellence during his 2005 and 2011 seasons.
Unfortunately for Young, 2012 has been a different story. At the age of 35, the designated hitter who probably shouldn’t be relied on any longer to play any infield position other than first base, is putting up the worst numbers of his career. Among MLB regulars, only Jeff Francoeur has a lower WAR. Young has the third worst wRC+, the fifth worst isolated power number and the tenth worst OPS in all of baseball.
Despite all this, Young has started 126 of his team’s 134 games this season, with three of his eight absences due to a brief paternity leave. Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington explained to MLB.com reporter Anthony Castrovince why he continues to put Young’s name on the lineup card.
Intangibles. He leads even when things are not right. That’s what leaders do. If you didn’t look at his numbers, you wouldn’t know Michael Young is struggling. That’s how he handles himself. He comes every day with the same tempo, same attitude, cheers on his teammates every night and busts his ass every night.
In order to justify his place on the team and in the starting lineup, Young’s work ethic, handling of himself and cheer leading would have to account for approximately 15 additional runs over and beyond what his teammates would provide without him. If this was the case, he truly would be the MVP candidate that Dallas Morning News columnist Evan Grant believed he was when he gave him his only first place vote at the conclusion of last year. Sadly, it’s not, and it’s not even close.
What’s not mentioned here is that Young could still provide all of those wonderful intangibles that Washington recognizes and admires while simultaneously being used in a fashion that also allows him to provide value with his bat. The curious case of Michael Young’s playing time doesn’t have to be an all or nothing scenario. Even in this wasted year, Young has managed to hit left-handed pitching quite well, putting up a .770 OPS, .334 wOBA and 105 wRC+ in 150 plate appearances. Matched with a Mitch Moreland or David Murphy, Young would be a very capable partner in a platoon.
However, Washington has instead fallen in love with the idea that Young provides a value that can’t be measured by playing everyday. Even if we assume that he is correct in this assumption, it’s difficult to believe that this value is enough to justify the very real and tangible his playing fails to provide.
This is all very reminiscent of the 2010 World Series, when Washington insisted on playing Vladimir Guerrero in right field to keep him in the lineup. The results were embarrassing for Guerrero, which in turn embarrassed Washington for putting his player in a position where failure was the most likely outcome. While that occurred over the course of a single game, Washington’s misuse of Young with invalid justification has been happening for the better part of the entire season.
Even with our most open minds, it’s impossible to justify the lost value of having Young in his current incarnation bat against right-handed pitchers. If he truly is as wonderful of a teammate as Washington suggests, could he still not provide that intangible value while sitting on the bench for half the time?
I wonder if, based on Washington’s statements, the admiration for Young isn’t based in part at least on the player fulfilling the duties that the manager is supposed to handle. The things that we can’t really measure or grasp that are often referred to under the umbrella of team chemistry, and these aspects of a baseball team are normally the responsibility of the manager. If a veteran player makes those duties easier, and by all accounts, Young may be just the type of player to do that, it makes sense that he might be valued by the person who is most knowledgeable of how difficult these duties are.
Perhaps that recognized value is blinding to the more tangible value, or in Young’s case, lack of tangible value being provided through his presence in the lineup. What I can’t wrap my head around is why this intangible value only plays for other players when Michael Young is in the line up, and doesn’t carry forth when he is not. Or why a happy medium can’t be found wherein some of the intangible value is diminished, while some of the tangible value is increased by him occasionally not playing.
There has to be a more valuable solution to the Texas Rangers. I’m just not certain that the team’s manager is all that interested in finding it.