After the 2009 season, it wasn't too hard to imagine a future bust in Cooperstown for Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira.
Through seven seasons and just over 1,000 games, Teixeira had hit .290 with a .378 on-base percentage and a .545 slugging percentage. He was averaging 35 home runs per season and already had 242 for his career, ranking in the top 250 home run sluggers of all time. And 2009 had been arguably his best season yet. In his first season in the Bronx, Teixeira clubbed an American League best 39 home runs and 122 RBI, made his second All-Star team, won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards for the third time in his career, and finished second in MVP voting to Joe Mauer.
Teixeira, at that point, was on a Hall of Fame track. Specifically, Teixeira's career arc through age 29 was exceptionally similar to a pair of post-integration Hall of Fame first baseman. Back in 1965, a 29-year-old Harmon Killebrew had just finished his seventh season as a full-time player with the Minnesota Twins franchise, and was a .261/.368/.534 hitter with 297 home runs in 1,108 games. And in 1971, a 29-year-old Tony Perez had just finished his seventh season as a regular in Cincinnati and owned a .285/.343/.481 line with 162 home runs in 1,007 games.
This trio played in vastly different eras, from the neo-deadball era of the 1960s to the last breaths of the steroid era in the 2000s. But for all its weaknesses, one of the great strengths of the Wins Above Replacement statistic is its ability to adjust for differences in eras, parks and leagues. By FanGraphs' version of WAR, Teixeira, Killebrew and Perez had nearly identical careers through their 20s:
The two Hall of Famers, Perez and Killebrew, continued to rake into their 30s. Killebrew led the major leagues in home runs twice in his 30s and his 1.011 OPS in 1969 as a 33-year-old fell just one thousandth short of his career high. Perez had five 20 home-run seasons in his 30s, one more than in his in his 20s, and he maintained at least a 118 OPS+ with at least 135 games played every year through age 36. Even with great play through his 20s, Teixeira needed longevity and consistency throughout his 30s to make a Hall of Fame case.
Thus far, he's had neither. Sunday afternoon, Mark Teixeira returned from the disabled list after a hamstring injury sidelined him four games into the season. The Yankees will not be expecting Hall of Famer stats from Teixeira after his steady decline the past four years. After a .948 OPS in his first year in the Bronx, Teixeira's OPS has fallen to .846, then .835, then .807, and finally .609 in 2013, when he played only 15 games due to injury.
More concerning than the statistical decline has been Teixeira's health. He has played in just 19 of 180 Yankees regular season games since 2013. Since August of 2012, Teixeira has missed games due to left wrist inflammation, a left calf strain, right wrist strains and finally the right wrist sheath surgery which ended his 2013 season. The surgery required six months of rehabilitation and recovery, one of the toughest surgeries for a hitter to overcome.
The post-surgery careers of a pair of prominent hitters, however, can provide some positivity. Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista underwent the same surgery late in 2012. He has hit .258/.370/.509 with 34 home runs over 136 games since then and remains one of baseball's biggest power threats. Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks underwent the surgery in 2009 and the next two seasons ranked among the best of his career, as he hit .269/.360/.466 with 49 home runs in 278 games. Weeks hasn't looked the same since, as a brutal ankle injury in 2011 and a hamstring injury in 2013 have rendered him a shell of his former self, but his recovery from the wrist surgery can only be described as a success.
The Yankees hardly need a Hall of Fame hitter at first base. Kelly Johnson has been serviceable in Teixeira's stead, providing power with three home runs, but the Yankees rank 19th in OPS and 24th in OBP from the position behind just a .238/.294/.429 line from its first basemen. If Teixeira can bring 20-homer pop with his typically excellent plate discipline, as he did from 2010 through 2012, the Yankees can live with a batting average that has languished in the .250s after years of flirting with .300.
And maybe, just maybe, if the old Teixeira shows his face in Yankee Stadium this year, we can reignite those Hall of Fame discussions.