June 5, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez (30) pitches in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE

Matt Young's Singularly Inauspicious Debut

Maybe “singularly” is putting it a little bit too hard. Matt Young struck out 4 times in 4 appearances, but I’m sure he’s far from the only guy to ever do it.

With the injuries the Tigers have had, I’m sure Young will get at least a few more chances to show that he’s a better hitter than he looked against Cleveland yesterday. If he doesn’t, he’ll probably be heading right back down with Justin Henry called up to take his place. Still… it worries me (and probably not for the reason that you’d expect).

Who is this Matt Young? He’s a minor league free agent that the Tigers signed as part of their second-base depth push. He also plays some outfield, which is what he has been doing in Toledo (since a team can only fit in so many second basemen) and what he’ll presumably be doing for as long as he’s in Detroit. Before that he was a longtime member of the Atlanta Braves system where he posted good on-base percentages but not enough of any other tool to do much to excite Atlanta. He got a 20-game cup of coffee with the Braves last year, but did not impress and wasn’t kept in the organization.

As a minor-leaguer he hasn’t been a spectacularly high-BABIP guy (like Austin Jackson, to name one) and he has struck out a bit, though within reason. What he does is walk. 516 times compared to only 454 strikeouts. That isn’t a low-minor artifact either, in 4 AAA seasons he has more walks than Ks and he had more walks than Ks in Toledo this year as well. Walking more than one strikes out is – at the major league level – one of the most reliable indicators of a truly talented hitter (power aside) but… depending on the raw tools of the prospect, it doesn’t necessarily suggest that the guy will be a success at the major league level. Take Don Kelly, for example. As with all talents, the key always winds up being how well that particular individual can make the adjustment to the stiffer competition.

And now to return to Don Kelly: if you are a long-time reader at MCB (and I’m sure there are at least a handful of you out there) you may remember one of the things I have written about the major league Don Kelly relative to the minor league Don Kelly. The gist of it is that minor league Don Kelly (statistically speaking) looked like Juan Pierre while the major league Don Kelly looked like Brandon Inge. He added power, but started striking out and stopped walking almost entirely. It’s easy to chalk all that up to a lack of talent and I’m sure that’s what most Tigers fans do. I am inclined to blame Jim Leyland and his crew.

Maybe “blame” is the wrong word… if things were going well (which they are not) a charitable guy could give Leyland “credit”. What we have is an issue of organizational philosophy: the Tigers are a BABIP team. Not a base-clogging OBP team what takes pitches and works walks. The Tigers are a team taught to look for their pitch and hit it hard. They are taught the virtues of first-pitch hitting and to swing at 2-0 pitches. This isn’t a purely bad thing. A single is better than a walk, not to mention extra base hits. But for this to be working, the Tigers ought to be slugging and they ought to have a relatively high team BABIP. Last year they did. Criticism of Leyland muted. This year they don’t. Criticism of Leyland dialed up to 11. Seeing the Tigers failing to work walks from a wild Jimenez certainly fits the narrative.

One issue, in my mind, is that certain guys may have the tools to thrive in Leyland’s system while certain guys just don’t. Working counts means taking pitches “all the way”. But.. if you take the pitch you “should have hit”, you’re going to get yelled at and if your playing time is tenuous as is… The only kind of top-of-the-order hitter you’re likely to get in a system like that is a speedy BABIP monster like Austin Jackson – I ought to mention that he’s really a perfect fit. You could get a lot of value out of a guy who goes deep in counts and works walks and slaps singles when he’s behind in the count. I would argue that this is the “kind” of hitter that Don Kelly and Matt Young represent (extent of skill aside). The Leyland system tells these guys that, to earn the respect of the coaching staff, they need to stop doing that and make all or nothing swings to drive doubles into the gaps. Problem is, unlike Austin Jackson, they lack the tools to do that well. So… I’m immediately, before ever seeing the guy face a major league pitch, concerned that Leyland’s guys are going to hobble Young. Could that be why he went 0-4 with 4 Ks?

And now, finally, I’ll come back to Tuesday’s game… Was this an example of Leyland and his guys badgering a pitch-taker into swinging and missing? If ever there was a situation in which Matt Young, specifically, should have been set up for success that was the game. Ubaldo Jimenez is a righty, Young a lefty. Jimenez has had big-time control problems this season, with over 6 walks per 9 innings, and Young is a pitch-taker by nature. What’s more, Young was batting right in front of Miguel Cabrera – better protection, I would imagine, than he has ever had before. The results were anything but successful: 17 total pitches. Young made contact with only three, all fouls. But: the blame here has to go squarely on Young… he only swung 7 times (three of those were pitches out of the zone). He took 6 called strikes, and according to Pitch/FX none of those were even borderline pitches. All three of his strikeouts against Jimenez came swinging (against Pestano in the 8th he took a called 3rd strike) but he was getting himself into holes by taking pitches down the middle. His performance in Tuesday’s game has been referred to as “overmatched” (by kffl.com) – if I had to use an adjective I’d probably say “petrified”.

So… while the Tigers as a team did swing at a lot of 2-0 pitches with poor results yesterday, there is little to suggest that Matt Young’s personal failure was in any way related to the Tigers philosophy at the plate. That’s not to say they aren’t related, but really it just seems like Young couldn’t tell a strike from a ball. Lets give him another few games, but if he’s still swinging at balls and taking strikes I think we can safely say that Young’s K/BB rate is not going to translate.

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