In spring training, much was made about Delmon Young reporting to camp 30-35 pounds lighter. Word was that his attitude had improved as well, and all in all no one seemed the least bit concerned that the Twins’ outfield defense figured to be significantly weakened with Young taking over daily duties in left and Denard Span replacing the offensively inept but defensively stupendous Carlos Gomez. Young started horribly in 2009 but finished superbly. Through the end of June, Young had failed to post a wOBA above .290 for any month. While some speculation was fair that he was being affected by the death of his mother, other speculation was equally fair that the Twins would be lucky if Young ever became a league-average player. After all, 2009 would see Young eclipse 1800 career plate appearances. Midway through last season, in my first post on this blog, I wrote that, “At 1600 career at-bats, we may be looking at all we’re going to get with Delmon Young,” and that the Twins would be better off going with Carlos Gomez on a daily basis, even before factoring in Gomez’s vastly superior defense.
Young proceeded to turn his game around; his monthly wOBA from July through September/October was .358, .328, and .375. That hot finish and the good news regarding Young’s weight and attitude this spring had many fans convinced that Young would finally make good on ancient scouting projections that he would be a star player. Others, such as myself, were skeptical but naturally hopeful.
From just my own untrained observation, I think it’s fair to say that Young is a different looking player this year. While he still makes the occasional maddening gaffe in left field, he’s also turned in a few stellar plays that he certainly would not have made with last season’s extra poundage. So far, Young’s UZR score is a very encouraging 1.3, and his UZR/150 is an acceptable -.6. Of course, it’s far too early in the season to know whether this is an actual improvement or simply the result of a small sample of plays (UZR scores are typically only deemed “reliable” after three years of data (on this note, if anyone is a regression expert and wants to weigh in, please do)). Still, my own observation of Young in left coupled with these early statistical returns makes me think he actually has turned a corner defensively.
He has similarly shown improvement on offense. Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of Young’s game since arriving in Minnesota had been the lack of any sign of power. His isolated power (ISO) in 2008 was a paltry .115. In 2009, it was better at .142, but it was still not anywhere close to the .180 or better that you’d want from a power hitter. This season, Young’s ISO stands at .167, with 3 homers and 4 doubles already and a .423 slugging percentage. These numbers aren’t spectacular, but they’re extremely encouraging for two reasons. First, Young is a notoriously slow starter. If he is to get hot in July and August, we might see some substantial offensive performance from the seventh spot in the order (and from the right side of the plate). Second, Young’s early numbers have been deflated by bad luck, as his BABIP stands at a mere .250, or 8% less than his career average. Basically, Young has had an inordinate number of batted balls turn into outs. He should only see his average on balls in play increase, and when that starts to happen, his other numbers should improve.
Strictly relying on a BABIP turnaround is rather shallow analysis, though, because other factors might reveal that a player is making their own bad luck – they might be swinging at more bad pitches, for instance, or just be making poor contact. In Young’s case, the first is not true, but the second is. Young’s plate discipline and bat control are markedly better this year. He is swinging at 37% of pitches outside the strike zone – a high number, but lower than his career rate of 40%. He is swinging at 74% of pitches within the strike zone, down from a career rate of 82%. Most encouragingly, his contact percentage outside the zone has skyrocketed from a career rate of 55% to 70%. Overall, his swing percentage is 55%, down from his career average of 61%. All in all, this has translated in a strikeout rate that has plummeted from a career mark of 19.6% to 11.5%, and a walk rate that has more than doubled from 4.2% to 9.1%. The only part of Young’s game that remains problematic is the quality of his contact. While he has hit a greater percentage of flyballs than his career percentage, his line drive rate currently sits at 14%, and his groundball rate is 52% – downright ghastly for a power hitter. In sum, Young’s low BABIP is not due to poor discipline on his part – his early numbers indicate a hitter that is remarkably more selective and patient than in years past. However, that by itself is not enough to guarantee a big offensive turnaround. If Young is going to become a good offensive player, he has to start making better contact and hitting more balls in the air.
Overall, the pieces seem to be falling into place for Young, at least so far as the early numbers indicate. While I’m typically skeptical of such a small sample of numbers, there are reasons to think that these are not simply anomalies of a small sample. Young is physically in the best shape we’ve ever seen him; the effects have been apparent from watching him run the bases and field flyballs. Furthermore, his average on balls in play is low enough to think that his numbers should, if anything, improve rather regress, and his reputation as a strong finisher gives further reason for optimism. Finally, his plate discipline numbers indicate a hitter who has reformed his old bad habits and is waiting for his pitch. If he can making good on that pitch and change out some of those grounders for liners or flyballs, we might finally see Delmon Young make good on that nebulous “promise” we’ve all been hearing about for two years.
Toolbox: For those curious, I’m including a brief description of the statistics I use and a link to a better explanation.
wOBA: Basically, this is super-duper-OPS. It assigns value to a particular offensive event by estimating the run expectancy of the event compared to the run expectancy of making an out. It was designed to look similar to OBP. A .330 wOBA is approximately league average. If you’re curious/skeptical, the top five career wOBA leaders are Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, and Jimmie Foxx.
UZR: The estimated runs a player saves on defense, considering range, arm, errors, and ability to turn a double play. That’s the extent of my understanding, but that’s the gist.
UZR/150: Basically an estimate of a player’s UZR performance over a 150 game period.
Isolated Power (ISO): A measure of a player’s raw power, most typically arrived at by subtracting batting average (which does not account for extra bases) from slugging percentage. This effectively removes all singles from a player’s slugging percentage and thereby “isolates” their power. There is also a much more complicated way to calculate ISO.
Batting average on balls in play (BABIP): The percentage of all non-homer fair balls off a player’s bat. The league average for BABIP is typically around .290-.300. It is more constant for pitchers than it is for batters (for instance, Joe Mauer’s BABIP is typically above .340, due to his ability to hit line drives, which are much harder to convert into outs than ground balls or flyballs).