Delmon Young and the Illusion of a Breakout Season
Delmon Young has enjoyed a resurgence this season – currently 7th in the AL in both Batting Average and RBIs, much to the delight of all those that trumpeted the 5 tool player as a can’t miss prospect that the (then) Devil Rays chose 1st overall in the 2003 draft. The first four seasons of Young’s major league career were disappointing to say the least – however, 2010 has put most of those memories to bed, and as Young doesn’t turn 25 for another 3 weeks, perhaps Young has finally tapped his massive upside.
Do the numbers support this idea? Young’s slash line through August 23rd sits at 313/344/507. Young’s career average is .295 and career OBP is 327 – however, his wOBA is up to .363 in 2010, due in large part to a power surge (Young’s 2010 ISO is .194, up from .130s previously).
Our first inquiry is obviously the increase in batting average. The biggest change we see is Young’s strikeouts — having consistently posted K% between 19% and 23% throughout his career, Young has nearly halved his strikeouts this season (only 48 Ks in 459 plate appearances thus far in 2010).
Where is the strikeout decrease coming from? Of 77 AL hitters qualified for the batting title, Delmon Young is ranked 75th in pitches per plate appearance, seeing 3.19 pitches per plate appearance (ahead of Vernon Wells and the immortal Yuniesky Betancourt) – so it is clear that Young swings early and often. In fact, Young has consistently over the past three years swung at 60% of the pitches he’s seen. However, the chart below tracks Young’s swings at pitches out of the zone, as well as contact rates at the plate:
|Year||O Swing%||O Contact%||Swing Str %|
The massive jump in contact rate outside the zone certainly explains the drop in strikeouts.
If that swing percentage outside the strike zone appears high, that’s because it is. Through today, nine players have an OSwing% above 40% (next to their O-Swing%, I have inserted their wOBA in 2010:
Looking at the list and breaking down the eight players besides Young at a high level: Vlad Guerrero is a freak of nature, and a category unto himself. Three (Betancourt, Francoeur and Alex Gonzalez) are terrible hitters. Though he has had success in his career, it would appear that AJ Pierzinski’s horrific plate discipline and the rigors of catching have finally caught up with him at 33, and he is ready to join the ranks of the prolific outmakers. Brennan Boesch showed some flashes early, coming from nowhere for the Tigers, but is now starting to post lines more in line with expectations. Alfonso Soriano and Pablo Sandoval have had success in the big leagues, but both seem to be struggling to maintain their early career success.
The biggest lesson I draw from this group is that hitters who chase this many pitches outside the zone have an incredibly difficult time being even league average hitters. (Though I suppose perhaps someday we’ll see another Vlad, were I a major league GM I wouldn’t bet on anyone in particular getting there).
The other thing Delmon Young has been able to do this season is hit for more power. Young has managed to lop 5% off his GB%, and turn those formerly weak ground balls into fly balls. The chart below shows his yearly HR totals, along with distances (courtesy of our friends at Hittracker Online) and HR/FB%:
What to conclude about Young’s power surge this year? Young isn’t hitting the ball any farther, and is hitting the same number of his fly balls out of the park – however, as noted above he is hitting more fly balls, and consequently more are leaving the yard.
So where does this leave us? 7 years ago, Delmon Young was the #1 pick in the country straight out of high school, and sometimes (see Alex Gordon) these heightened expectations can obscure actual production. Has Delmon Young taken a step forward this season? Absolutely – he’s figured out a way to make more contact on pitches outside the zone, and hit a few more fly balls. Unfortunately, given his horrendous plate discipline and awful range in LF, there is little reason to believe he can be anything more than a low end starter in LF – though at 24 years of age, he does have a couple seasons to grow. The Minnesota Twins are a very smart organization, and I expect that they’ll watch Young very carefully in 2011 to see whether the increase in power and decrease in strikeouts can be accompanied by a better approach at the plate.
 Nine players that currently have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title