At the start of the season, the Minnesota Twins were said to have more outfielders than spots available. “We have outfielders that can start for most teams,” opined Denard Span, back in spring training. Gardenhire also boasted of his embarrassment of outfield riches, claiming that he wasn’t even sure how the playing time would play out.
Three-quarters of the way through the season, the conventional wisdom seems to be that the Twins were overly optimistic in their predictions. The Twins seemingly have two solid everyday outfielders in Span and Michael Cuddyer, and two fourth options in Gomez and Young. While Gomez offers vastly superior defense, base-running and humorous fall-down moments, Young has gotten basically equal playing time this year. This would make sense if Young was lighting the world on fire at the plate to compensate for his defense, but he’s not, posting a measly .264/.288/.383. His OPS totals for the last three years have been paltry: .723, .741, and .671 this year. Gomez, for his part, has looked almost worse at .239/.292/.351, his OPS totals for the last three years being .592, .657, and .643 this year.
At this point, a very logical argument to make is that Gomez’s defense makes him more valuable to the Twins than Young – the basic argument being: Bad Offense + Great Defense = average player (Gomez), and Moderately-Better-But-Still-Bad Offense + Terrible Defense = terrible all around player (Young). I don’t want to make this argument because it’s been made in other places previously, relies on complex defensive metrics that are entirely valid but cumbersome to explain, and ignores the reality that you have two young players that could still develop on offense. In Young’s case, he’s a big strong guy who seems like he should be able to hit for power. In Gomez’s case, he’s an athletic freak who may be the fastest player in the game and needs to hone his plate discipline. Unfortunately for Young, even ignoring defense, Gomez should still be playing more often than Young. To understand why, we have to look deeper than the triple-slash line.
First, Delmon Young. When the Twins traded Matt Garza for Young, the thought was that they were getting an outfielder who could hit for power and lessen the blow of losing Torii Hunter to the Angels. After all, Young posted a very solid .476 slugging percentage as a rookie, hitting thirteen homeruns and driving in 93 runners at the age of twenty-one. Since then, of course, Young has yet to post a slugging percentage above .410, despite having about 3 ½ big league seasons and over 1600 at bats under his belt. For comparison, consider another below-average defensive corner outfielder who developed into a decent power threat: Michael Cuddyer. By the time Cuddyer reached 1500 AB’s in 2006, he was on his way to a season where he slugged .504; he had also previously posted slugging percentages of .422, .440, .431 and .429. By the time he reached the 1500 AB mark, Cuddyer had seemingly put it together and become a good major league hitter.
We have yet to see any such progression from Delmon Young, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to put it together any time soon. Young for his career has hit 50.4% of all batted balls on the ground, 30.3% fly balls and 19.2% line drives. It obviously doesn’t look like he’s going to hit many homeruns if over half of his batted balls don’t ever have a chance to get over the fence. Some other batters that pound the ball into the ground at similar include Joe Mauer, who obviously has become a homerun hitter this year. However, it’s worth noting that his ground ball rate is the second lowest of his career, and his home run total this year possibly has been inflated by almost 23% of all fly balls resulting in home runs. (It could also inflated just because he’s Joe freaking Mauer.) Some others with over a 50% ground ball rate include Denard Span and Luis Castillo (over 60% for his career). The obvious difference between Young and these players is that Mauer, Span and Castillo all walk, whereas Young has a career on base percentage of .320 and strikeout/walk ratio of roughly 5-to-1. In short, unless Young starts elevating more balls, developing an elite Home Run rate, or transforms himself into a patient hitter who frequently walks, we’re unlikely to see his offense stop regressing as it has over the last three years, much less improve to any substantial level.
Gomez, on the other hand, is another story. Acquired from the Mets in the Johan Santana trade, Gomez had been rushed through the Mets system without adequate time to develop his skills. He was known as a speedy player who could play great outfield defense with extremely limited offensive (in)abilities. The problems with Gomez’s offense were readily apparent last year, as he posted a measly .258/.296/.360 line, which was inflated by his ridiculously successful bunting. For the year, he was successful on almost 46% of his bunt hit attempts, good for a whopping 30 bunt hits. Taking away a .455 batting average on 66 bunt attempts, Gomez was a .230 hitter. It’s hardly surprising then, that this year, with only 5 bunt hits, Gomez is hitting .239.
Still, the fact remains: Carlos Gomez is a better option on offense than Delmon Young, and the reason is that, where Gomez shows signs of turning a corner, Young shows no indication of improving power or ability to get on base. While Gomez’s on-base percentage is roughly the same this year as last year, he’s showing signs of improving his plate discipline. Consider that last year Gomez swung at almost 37% of all pitches outside the strike zone. This year, he’s reduced his undisciplined swings by 8%. Also, when Gomez does hit the ball, he shows the raw ability to do so more effectively than Young. Let’s compare Gomez and Young’s batted ball statistics for the year:
|Contact %||Line Drive %||Ground Ball %||Fly Ball %|
Not only does Gomez make contact more often than Young, he also makes good contact more often than Young by getting 4.7% more line drives than Young. Now, one could argue that this is a rather small sample size, given that Young and Gomez have been basically a platoon this year in the outfield. Certainly, a larger sample size would be better, but when comparing them, we have to take what we’ve got. What we can do is look at this year’s numbers, as well as the progress or regress each player has exhibited from last year.
|Contact %||% of Swings on balls outside Strike zone||Line Drive %||Ground Ball %||Fly Ball %|
|Gomez Difference||+.5||-8.0||+ 3.4||+0.4||-3.7|
|Difference in change||Gomez + 4.3%||Gomez + 5.6%||Gomez + 4.6%||Gomez + 3.8%||Young + 8.2 %|
The interpretation here gets a little tricky with the batted ball percentages, but you can glean some general trends from this. Gomez has improved his contact percentage while Young has fallen off. Gomez has also has started stinging the ball more by hitting a good percentage of line drives and cutting down his fly ball rate slightly. His plate discipline has also greatly improved. Young, on the other hand, has had a significant drop in his contact percentage. He has also shown better plate discipline, but not by nearly the margin that Gomez has improved; indeed, Young still swings at almost 9% more balls out of the zone than Gomez does. Young makes worse contact this year than last year, turning some line drives into fly balls. To be fair, he’s also not hitting the ball on the ground as much, but compared to just about any big power hitter, he’s not hitting nearly enough fly balls to be a power hitter, nor does he show any signs of improving his plate discipline to a point where he could be an on-base player.
In short, Gomez is showing marked signs of improvement in some area and slight improvement in other areas. I would argue his plate discipline is the most promising sign, given that a player with his speed should excel with an average ability to get on base. Young, on the other hand, isn’t showing improvement in any areas to warrant claims that he’s going to turn it around and the Twins should continue to be patient with him. At 1600 career at-bats, we may be looking at all we’re going to get with Delmon Young. Gomez, on the other hand, has less than 1,000 career at bats and is showing peripheral signs of improving. If there’s a player it’s worth being patient with on offense, it’s Gomez.
(Of course, consider defense, and it’s absolutely no contest.)