With a home run in his second at bat*, Derek Jeter joined the 3,000 hit club, an exclusive group of hitters who have combined consistency with longevity and production.
*Though he also had 185 hits in the playoffs, which don’t “count” towards career milestones, other than playoff hit records and such of course.
I’m immediately reminded of the night George Brett, my favorite player growing up, reached the 3,000 hit mark.
The Royals were on the road at the end of the 1992 season. Brett, 39 at the time, was at 2,996 hits and, after years of hustling, hard play, was clearly at the end of his career. He missed two games in Anaheim but finally returned on September 30. The Royals would head back to Kansas City for the final series of the year the next day, so it seemed as if he’d have opportunity to share the achievement with the hometown crowd.
There are some (like our own Kevin Scobee) who see such milestones as arbitrary, and for the most part I agree. In Jeter’s case, he reached 3,000 meaningful hits long ago when considering his playoff numbers. In Brett’s case, why is there more attached to his 3,00oth hit than, say, his home run off Gossage to send the Royals to the World Series in 1980, or his performance in Game 3 of the 1985 ALCS where he went 4-4 and kept the Royals alive?
To me, it’s more ceremonial; more of a celebration of a career by looking at an achievement.
Brett had four games to get to 3,000, and, ideally, would get to it before the end of the season. At the time, it wasn’t clear that he’d be back for 1993, so to reach the milestone in the last week of the season carried some importance (as far as milestones go).
On this particular night, Brett wasn’t far from his boyhood home of El Segundo, California, facing Angels starter Julio Valera. Brett, batting third, doubled to left in his first at bat. In the third inning, he singled past the second baseman.
At this point, listening at home, I grabbed a cassette tape to record the AM station broadcasting the game (1400 KAYS, for those scoring at home). Being a school night, this was also the point where I started to lobby to stay up later, since the Royals were on the west coast.
In the fifth, Brett singled up the middle for his third hit of the night – one away from 3,000. After three hits in as many at bats off Valera, the Angels brought in Tim Fortugno and Brett came up against him in the seventh.
Brett lined a shot past Ken Oberkfell at second that Denny Matthews speculated should be hard enough to be a hit, but could have been fielded cleanly. After just a moment of drama, it was ruled a hit and Brett had reached the magic number. The game stopped, I jumped around my bedroom in celebration and when the game started up again, Brett, lost in the moment, was picked off of first base while the crowd was still on its feet.
But that’s why 3,000 matters – that moment when a player has worked over the course of his career and reached a group that has very few members relative to the number of guys who come through and play this game. It was a special night, and while Brett’s spot in the Hall of Fame was safe anyway, adding the 3,000 hit achievement to his resume cinched a near-unanimous first ballot election.
The club has a limited membership for good reason. It’s difficult enough to hit at the big league level, but to get 150-200 hits a year every year for nearly two decades is even harder. A player has to be good from the first day of his career until the last (or at least be good enough to hang around).
Johnny Damon is close to the mark with over 2600 hits, but most of those have come since leaving the Royals. If we’re looking for a Kansas City player to get there, it’s going to be a while – but it’s not out of the question.
Enter Billy Butler.
Butler has 671 career hits after Saturday’s game (his 621st). At his 2011 pace, he’ll have 745 at season’s end (assuming he plays in every game the rest of the way). That’s almost exactly one fourth of the way there.
He averages about 1.08 hits a game, which would require him to maintain that pace through 2772 career games. That equates to 17+ seasons. Since he’s already played the equivalent of about 3.8 full seasons, he’d be in the vicinity of 3,000 around 2024. At 25 years old right now, he’d be 38 (and a half) years old at the end of that 2024 season. In Jeter’s first four full seasons (623 games), he had 795 hits, and reached 3,000 at a spry 37 years and two weeks old. Butler may be starting behind that pace, but while he could reach it at an older age, he can still reach 3,000.
This assumes Butler will stay healthy and play in enough games to get that far. Brett lost more than three seasons worth of games due to various time on the disabled list. To reach 3,000 required some incredible seasons and proficient hitting ability. If Butler finishes this season around 750 hits, he’ll need to average about 173 a season over the next 13 seasons. That’s both incredibly difficult and seemingingly attainable at the same time. If, of course, Butler plays that long and doesn’t miss large chunks of time.
Butler, to this point, has remained healthy. Over the past two and a half seasons, he’s missed just nine games as a Royal. While his size, range and glove have him on the path to career DH, that may help his chance to stick around the big leagues. Provided he stays in shape to hit every day, he won’t have quite the grind he would if he played nine innings in the field every night. Much of Brett’s time was at third base, often on the unforgiving turf of then-Royals Stadium. Butler has the luxury of taking half of the game off most days.
Butler’s also a hitter who makes a lot of contact. He strikes out just once every 6.84 at bats. Putting the ball in play that often often results in good things, and his approach tends to allow him to hit more line drives and to hit the ball hard on the ground and through the infield. He’s not a guy who swings for the fences and is just as satisfied with a shot to the gap as he is with a bomb (and probably more so).
As a 25-year-old, Butler may be playing in his pre-peak years. The generally accepted peak seasons happen when a hitter is about 27-29 years old. If there’s anything to that, Butler’s only going to get better as a hitter. If he’s one of the best in the American League now, with two (potential) years of improvement and a few peak seasons to look forward to, his pace my quicken to reach 3,000. An improved Royals lineup around him will possibly force pitchers to throw to him, rather than pitch around him, as well.
He’ll still need some luck. There’s a reason 3,000 isn’t reached very often. In Butler’s case, as he gets older, he’s going to lose speed (yes, it IS possible). That might be negligible, as he’s not running out many infield hits anyway, but it’s not going to help him. Brett was never much of a speedster, but if he had to, he could hustle out a chopper for a hit. Butler can’t and won’t do that often, if at all.
His bulk (at least relative to most hitters in baseball) could create more injuries as he gets older. He’s 6’1″ 240 lbs now at 25. If, by age 28, he’s added 15 pounds or so, that’s not going to help his knees, DHing or not. At some point as he ages, Butler’s bat speed will decline, too, and he’ll start striking out more often. His power may improve, and as it does, he could swing for the fences more, negating the current approach that just wants to put the ball in play.
Butler has an advantage in that he started in the big leagues at a young age, starting hitting very soon in his career, and has himself on a pace right now to at least approach the mark, even if it is a long way down the road.
How many Royals fans will complain about the percentage of those hits being singles, I don’t know…