Miguel Cabrera lashed a single to the right field in the first game of a doubleheader Saturday, delighting a packed stadium of Tigers fans as he recorded his 3,000th career hit — and became the latest member of a prestigious MLB club. Now 33 members strong, that club has grown much more crowded in recent years, as before Cabrera, one player each joined the 3,000-hit fraternity in 2015 (Alex Rodriguez), 2016 (Ichiro Suzuki), 2017 (Adrián Beltré), and 2018 (Albert Pujols). Across the whole wild-card era, there hasn’t been a single half-decade-period without a new player joining.
This rapid population does not follow the historical pattern. Between 1925 and 1970, with World War II interrupting many stars’ careers, Paul Waner and Stan Musial were the only players to join. But as the league expanded to 30 teams and the season lengthened to 162 games, more players had more opportunities to record more hits. At the start of the divisional era in 1969, the club had only eight members. In the next half-century, that number quadrupled.
But that speedy growth is ending with Cabrera. Since the 12-year wait from Musial in 1958 to Hank Aaron and Willie Mays in 1970, the longest gap between 3,000-hit-club inductions has been seven years, from Rod Carew in 1985 to Robin Yount and George Brett in 1992. Based on the underwhelming group of candidates to reach 3,000 hits next, the post-Cabrera gap might challenge that drought, if not extend even longer.
The short-term problem is that the only active players with more than 2,000 but fewer than 3,000 hits are Robinson Canó, who’s 39 years old and fading; Yadier Molina, who’s retiring after this season; and Joey Votto, who’s now 38 years old and still 965 hits short of 3,000. After that trio, the candidacies aren’t much more promising. Next on the active hits list is Nelson Cruz, who’s 41 years old and not even at 2,000 hits yet; Elvis Andrus, who’s been one of MLB’s worst hitters for the past half-decade; and Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria. That pair might seem more promising, because they at least hit in 2021 — but there’s almost no precedent for players with their ages and hit totals eventually reaching 3,000.
The only 3,000-hit-club members with fewer hits than McCutchen’s 1,826 through his age-34 season are Cap Anson, who became the club’s first member in the 1800s, and Ichiro, a hitting wizard who would have reached the MLB-only milestone much earlier if not for time spent in Japan. Longoria, meanwhile, has fewer hits (1,818) than any club member did at his age (35).
The long-term problem, which perhaps explains why so few players are knocking on the club’s door after Cabrera, is that hits are harder to come by these days than in recent decades, if not ever before. Prior to this season, leaguewide batting averages had dropped roughly 30 points since the 1990s and mid-2000s, when the recent 3,000-hit-club inductees racked up many of their hits. In 2021, MLB batters — with pitcher-hitters excluded — hit a collective .247, which was the lowest in a full season since the so-called Year of the Pitcher in 1968.
And that figure has plummeted even more so far this season. Through Sunday’s games, the league is hitting .232 — which, even acknowledging that offense rises in the summer months, represents a disastrous fall compared to any previous season, even from the dead ball era.
How can anyone hope to amass as many hits as they need to reach 3,000 in this sort of offensive environment? In the 2000s, 5.8 players per year reached 200 hits. In the 2010s, only 2.3 players per year reached 200 — the lowest mark for any decade since the 1950s, when the seasons were only 154 games instead of 162. In two of the past three full seasons (2018 and 2021), nobody reached 200 hits at all.
Furthermore, the pandemic-shortened 2020 season cut 100-plus hits off the top players’ ledgers, which isn’t a death knell for their career totals but certainly doesn’t help amid all the other modern obstacles. ZiPS projections in April 2020 for a possible full lost season, rather than partial, estimated that “on average, two [players] who would have achieved the 3,000-hit feat will now fail to do so as a result of a lost 2020 season. ”
Because of these structural issues, the best candidates to follow Cabrera to 3,000 show up farther down the active hits list. José Altuve has 1,783 hits and Freddie Freeman has 1,723, both are still going strong, and both are only at the start of their age-32 seasons. Yet even Altuve and Freeman are still a good seven years away, even if they get there. And they probably won’t: Besides Altuve and Freeman, 37 other players in league history have amassed between 1,700 and 1,800 career hits through age 31 — including 18 Hall of Famers — and only three reached 3,000. That’s a success rate of 8 percent.
Altuve and Freeman probably have a better chance than just that 8 percent. Though Altuve is on the injured list at the moment, both have hit well since the start of last season and should remain starters for years to come. But they’re still much more likely to fall short than to reach the milestone. According to ZiPS projections near the end of last season, Altuve has a 34 percent likelihood to join the 3,000-hit club, with Freeman just behind at 28 percent. They’re the only active players above 20 percent.
If neither Altuve nor Freeman reaches 3,000, we might have to wait another decade for the first entrant after Cabrera, if not longer. The ZiPS projections didn’t give any member of the generation led by Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado better than a 5 percent chance to reach 3,000.
Even Trout, the best player of his era, has seen his hits pace slow dramatically because of injuries. From 2012 to 2016, Trout averaged 178 hits per season, but from 2017 to 2021, he averaged only 100.4. Trout ranked 14th all time in hits through age 24, one spot ahead of Hank Aaron. Then he fell to 113th all time in hits through age 29, one spot ahead of Billy Butler.
Trout also runs into another problem that plagues prospective 3,000-hit batsmen: He’s counterintuitively too good to collect all the hits he needs. The seven best hitters in AL / NL history are Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Barry Bonds, Trout, and Mickey Mantle, according to wRC +, which adjusts for park and league context. None of them reached 3,000 hits. (To be fair, Trout still might, and Williams almost certainly would have if not for three missed seasons due to World War II.)
Why did they fall short? One common trait among the group is a high walk rate: Because pitchers feared Ruth and Bonds and Co., they pitched around those batters a lot — which meant they still reached base and helped their teams, but didn’t collect hits in the process . Look at this graph, which showcases the differences between those best hitters in MLB history and the players who did reach 3,000 hits. (Trout is excluded from this graph.)
The two best walk rates belonging to 3,000-hit-club members are from Rickey Henderson (16.4 percent) and Carl Yastrzemski (13.2 percent). They compensated for those “lost” hits with tremendous longevity: Yaz and Henderson rank second and fourth in league history, respectively, in career plate appearances.
A modern player like Juan Soto, who debuted at age 19, could theoretically play as long as those Hall of Famers did — but that’s an impossible prediction to make so early in his career. For now, all we know is that Soto, like those other all-timers who came up short of 3,000, is “losing” some hits due to an 18.7 percent career walk rate — the fifth-highest in history, behind only Williams, Bonds , a 1920s second baseman named Max Bishop, and Ruth. For comparison, the average member of the 3,000-hit club has a walk rate of 9.8 percent. If all of Soto’s “extra” walks above that figure were singles instead, he’d have an extra 900 hits in a career of 10,000 plate appearances.
Even so, Soto is one of six active players with one feather in their prospective 3,000-hit caps. These half-dozen hopefuls are all ahead of the median pace of players in the 3,000-hit club through their respective ages, as of the end of last season:
- Manny Machado had 1,425 hits through his age-28 season, ahead of the median pace of 1,355. Machado’s on fire to start the 2022 season, and he’s remained healthy, playing more games than any other player since 2014. Yet in Machado’s two full seasons in San Diego so far, he’s posted lower hit totals than he managed in any healthy season in Baltimore . I’d take the over on his 3 percent odds from the ZiPS projections, but he has a long way to go and little margin for error.
- Ozzie Albies and Rafael Devers had 613 and 598 hits, respectively, through their age-24 seasons, ahead of the median pace of 588.
- Soto and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. had 485 and 372 hits, respectively, through their age-22 seasons, ahead of the median pace of 329.
- Wander Franco had 81 hits through his age-20 season, ahead of the median pace of zero. (Yes, zero — most club members started their careers after age 20.)
To summarize: No active player has a realistic chance to reach 3,000 hits in the next half-decade. Altuve and Freeman each have about a 1-in-3 chance, which they’d complete in seven years or so. If they both fall short, Machado might be the next-best bet, a decade from now. And if he falters, too, then we’re probably waiting another 15 years for one of the game’s brightest under-25 stars to break what would be the longest drought in, at that point, nearly a century.
Unless the sport fundamentally changes by implementing new rules to reverse the ongoing decline in hits totals, we’ll have a long time to go until a new member joins the 3,000-hit club — which means we should celebrate Cabrera’s accomplishment, and Pujols’s and Beltré’s and Ichiro’s before his, all the more in the meantime.