On May 4, in the fifth inning of a game at Safeco Field against the Seattle Mariners, Albert Pujols flared a single into right field, a common act freighted with uncommon meaning. Los Angeles Angels teammates streamed from the visitors’ dugout and mobbed him in the infield, a celebration of his 3,000th hit. The game stopped, in a visiting park, to recognize Pujols.
The milestone continued a relative spate of 3,000th hits. Each of the past four seasons — starting with Alex Rodriguez in 2015, followed by Ichiro Suzuki, Adrian Beltre and Pujols — have seen a player reach the plateau, the first time in MLB history that players reached 3,000 hits in four consecutive years.
The 3,000th has become an annual sight. It will not remain so for long.
The hit, for so long a simple standard of batting prowess and the game’s primary point of action, has taken a beating. The dominant trends in how the game is played in Major League Baseball — an emphasis on power and patience, infield shifts on defense, high-octane relief pitchers, exploding strikeout totals — have both devalued and decreased hits. The leagues recorded 2,762 more hits — and 2,967 more singles — a decade ago than last season. This year, MLB hitters have nearly 500 more strikeouts than hits.
The increase in whiffs and plummeting of hits has raised questions about the game’s future, convincing the league office to discuss limiting shifts or altering how teams are permitted to deploy relief pitchers. The trends also invite the possibility of a generational wrinkle: Will the changes in approach by — and evaluation of — hitters lead to the endangerment of the 3,000-hit career, in the same way the evolution of pitching made the 300-win pitcher extinct? And will the meaning of 3,000 hits evolve with the game?
For certain, there will not be a fifth consecutive season with a 3,000th hit next year. Miguel Cabrera, the sub-3,000 active leader, sits 324 hits away. Cabrera seems like a safe bet to reach 3,000, but it’s no lock after the way his 2018 season ended, with surgery to repair a torn biceps. He has five years remaining on his contract with the Detroit Tigers after this season, and his skills as a hitter are so sublime that they will likely be willing to play him even as age erodes them. But he is 35 with the mileage of a player even older, and will be coming off a significant injury.
After Cabrera, the closest to 3,000 hits is Robinson Cano. He needs 583 hits to reach 3,000 and the Mariners have him under contract through 2023, but like Cabrera, his situation is murkier than simple math. Cano, 35, was suspended 80 games this season for using performance-enhancing drugs. Unlike most aging stars, the suspension may rob him of the goodwill needed to allow him to hang on to a roster spot long enough to reach 3,000, and it’s unknown how much pharmacology helped his production in the first place.
If Cabrera and Cano cannot reach 3,000, then the wait could be long. Nick Markakis is next up, with 2,145 hits. He’s having his best offensive season at age 34, having already compiled a National League-leading 93 hits. He is one of MLB’s most durable players, and his defense is good enough to keep him in the lineup even if his offensive skills decline.
Bill James, the godfather of baseball’s modern statistical analysis, used Markakis as an example to counter the notion that 3,000-hit careers are in trouble.
“We’re kind of at a moment when most of the stars of the game are younger, and not yet in position to be seen as 3,000-hit candidates,” James wrote in an email. “But the conditions of the game are such that even a relatively modest talent like Markakis … Nick Markakis is a good player, but not what we usually think of as a 3,000-hit type player . . . but the conditions of the game now are SO favorable toward 3,000-hit campaigns that even a player like that remains alive as a 3,000-hit candidate until late in his career. Conditions for a 3,000-hit career have rarely or never been as favorable as they are now.”
But for Markakis to reach 3,000, he would also have to reverse another emerging trend: the squeezing out of the late-30s veteran hitter. If Markakis averages 171 hits — his average over the past five seasons — over his next five years, he’d reach 3,000 in his age-39 season. A free agent this winter, Markakis would likely need to sign two more contracts to make it. The second deal no longer seems a given after this winter revealed a new, extreme unwillingness among front offices to sign veteran hitters.
Superstars from a different generation benefited from a different outlook toward mega-contracts for veterans. Pujols, 38, might have struggled to find work this offseason had he been a free agent after producing a .672 OPS and minus-1.8 WAR (according to Baseball-Reference.com’s calculations) in 2017. Instead, he is in the middle of a 10-year, $240 million deal that runs through 2021, leaving the Angels with little choice but to try to salvage their investment. The Angels paid for past performance when they signed Pujols, and the contract he earned from his peak left no doubt he’d reach 3,000 hits. Those kind of deals, combined with improved conditioning and medical care, created the conditions for four of baseball’s 32 3,000th hits to happen in the past four seasons.
“The different salary structure in baseball will have tended to keep star performers on the field longer,” MLB official historian John Thorn said.
Thorn predicted “you may hit a lag” with 3,000-hit players, “but I think the long-term trend is for another burst of 3,000-hit players” despite the modern forces working against the hit.
Jose Altuve, 28, is 1,648 hits away, and if he stays on his 204-hits-per-season pace from the past five years, he’d reach 3,000 at age 36, in the middle of the 2026 season. Mike Trout, just 26, already has 1,126 hits. At his current superhuman rate, he may find a way to reach 3,000 by, like, next August. Elvis Andrus, Eric Hosmer, Freddie Freeman and Giancarlo Stanton have all reached 1,000 hits before age 30.
By the time those players are nearing 3,000 hits, though, the way we look at the milestone may have changed. For pitchers, 300 wins used to be an automatic ticket to Cooperstown. Now, as modern analytics have revealed the win statistic as empty, wins matter less to Hall of Fame cases, and 300 wins is viewed as an impossibility, anyway.
Even the 3,000-hit mark has evolved over baseball’s long history. Thorn pointed out that Sam Rice retired, in 1934, just 13 hits short of 3,000, mainly because nobody viewed 3,000 as a magical number until at least the 1940s.
If front offices value walks and on-base percentage so much, it stands to reason historical evaluations will start to align. “It is possible we should look at some point instead to hits plus walks,” Thorn said. “If we’re going to do counting measures, if we’re going to count stats, maybe we should count walks and hits instead.”
Baseball-Reference’s times on base stat, which includes hit by pitches, would give far more credit to players outside the 3,000-hit club. Ted Williams fell more than 300 hits shy, but only 12 men reached base more often. Barry Bonds needed less than 100 hits for 3,000, but only Pete Rose reached base more than him.
“We measure things more cleverly now,” Thorn said. “Not only more intricately, but also more smartly.”
For now and the foreseeable future, the number 3,000 still holds a special allure, the power to halt the game itself. It’s difficult to see that changing, but then baseball has a way of changing slowly at first, and then suddenly, all at once.
Read more on MLB: