This one isn’t going to be about Delmon Young’s defense, or his on-base percentage or his salary. Delmon Young is penciled in as the Tigers #5 hitter, batting behind on-base machines Miguel Cabrera (.448 OBP in 2011) and Prince Fielder (.415 OBP in 2011). That is one of the most advantageous lineup spots an RBI guy will ever see, and Delmon Young is batting fifth in order to be that RBI guy. How do you define an RBI guy? An aggressive hitter with power that makes decent contact. Delmon Young does not walk. So what? A walk won’t score Cabrera from third. A single to the gap would. A fly ball launched to deep left center will. Especially if it makes it over the wall.
Those on-base percentages make the number 5 spot perhaps the most important in the 2012 Tigers lineup: the 1 and 2 guys aren’t going to be doing an exceptional job of setting the table, so Cabrera and Fielder must score runs. The question I have is whether Delmon Young can be that RBI guy… particularly that POWER hitter… that the Tigers need him to be hitting after Cabrera and Fielder. In his time with the Tigers last year – split between 40 games in August and September and 9 in the postseason – Young looked like the perfect guy for the role. His 13 homers and .265/.299/.495 slash line looked like that prototypical RBI guy – the guy whose pop and lack of patience might make him overvalued overall, but ideally suited for hitting with men on base. With the Twins in 2011 prior to his acquisition by the Tigers Young was anything but, with a .266/.305/.357 line that looks more like a prototypical slick fielding middle infielder that gets buried in the 9 hole (which, of course, is how he wound up in Detroit). Big things were expected from Young after a breakout 2010 at age 24 which saw him hit 21 home runs (and 112 RBI) and post a career best .493 slugging percentage. And then came 2011… and for the 2011 regular season as a whole, Young posted a career worst slugging percentage of .393.
So… what changed? Why did the power come on in 2010 and then go out in 2011? Can we have a reasonable expectation of seeing the 2010 Young, or at least the Young that we saw in the tail end of 2011? The one with pop?
For a bit of reference on who Delmon Young, the hitter, is I’ll refer you to a piece written after the 2008 season for the Hardball Times. Ah, but that was more than 3 years ago when Delmon Young was only 22! We’ll address that later, most of what they had to say about Young rings true today. One particular quote to draw your attention to (quoted in THT from Cam Bonifay after the 2003 draft):
“[Young] is one of the finest power hitters our scouts have evaluated, not only this year but over the years. He’s the kind of guy that you don’t get out of your seat and go buy a hot dog when you know he’s coming to the plate. You want to stay there and watch him hit. He lights up your eyes.”
And as a very young prospect in the minors, Delmon Young did mash in the minors. Yet between 2006 and 2009, Young managed an ISO of only 126 (like Austin Jackson last year). What? People had been waiting for him to develop into that 30-homer power threat for years, so 2010 seemed like a big step in the right direction. But… The main reason that Young has not been (over his career as a whole) much of a power threat is that he doesn’t hit enough balls in the air and not enough of the balls that he does hit in the air go over fences. He’s no Juan Pierre. Only 22.8% of Pierre’s batted balls are flies and only 1.2% of those go for home runs. But neither is he Marcus Thames, with 51.1% flies of which 16.9% go into the stands. Over his career, Young has a high-ish 48.3% ground balls and a low-ish 33.6% fly balls (his line drive rate is a middling 18.2%). Of those fly balls he does hit, 9.2% have gone for home runs. The single player those breakdowns (as well as his strikeout rate and BABIP) most resemble is former Rays teammate Carl Crawford. “Carl Crawford is a star”, you say? Well, since Crawford entered the league in 2002 he has 427 steals and has contributed 12 wins with his glove alone. As far as ‘pure batting’ Crawford edges out Young a bit, but they don’t look all that different. And Crawford, while he is a multi-tool guy, is definitely not a pure power hitter or your ideal #5 batter.
So… anyways. What Young has been overall (especially through 2009) is Carl Crawford without the speed or the defense. We don’t want him to improve his speed and his defense to be a more complete version of Carl Crawford. We want him to drive the ball with more authority and be the Carlos Lee that the Tigers need in the 5 spot. In 2010 he was Carlos Lee, but not before or since. Why? One thing to clear up right off the bat: with his 112 RBI Delmon Young was not ‘good’ in 2010 due to a lucky BABIP. The three years before 2010 he had BABIPs of .338, .338 and… .338. It would seem that his true BABIP might be .338? In 2010 it dropped to .312 and then in 2010 dropped another notch to a (very slightly) above average .302. He also seems to have lost some footspeed over that time and the two might be connected, but neither speed nor BABIP in general explain why he made that leap in 2010 or fell back in 2011.
In certain ways it is tempting to assume that the 2006-2009 and 2010-current Delmon Youngs represent two different hitters as there are some clear correlations. New Young has lost speed and BABIP, he is swinging at fewer balls out of the zone and making better contact when he does – but he’s also seeing fewer strikes to begin with. If we average those years, he’s walking a tiny tad more and striking out a little less. He is hitting fewer balls on the ground (from 50% to 45.5%) and more in the air (from 30.1% to 37.9%) – important things for a potential ‘power hitter’, though the dip in line drives doesn’t bode well for that non-power hit tool. His home run to fly ball ratio has edged up from 8.7% to 9.8%, though 9.8% is still nowhere near what we expect from a true slugger.
The problem is that in some of those categories (not the balls out of the zone and the like, but the results) Young did regress in 2011, which is a big part of why he failed to achieve the results of 2011. He struck out 16.9% of the time in 2011 – not as bad as his 19-ish% from 2006-2009 but not nearly as good as his 13.2% in 2010. His 46.6% ground ball rate was better than old Young, but worse than 2010 as was his 35.1% fly ball rate. His HR/FB ratio of 8.7% was a pure reversion to his pre-2010 average. To compound all that (though this may be a simple statistical anomaly) lost a strength in avoided infield popups, going from 6.6% to 12.3% of his flies. All together that combined to get Young far fewer balls ever making it to the outfield, and Young does not have the speed to make that kind of thing work.
In short – 2010 was merely a step in the right direction, but by no means marked the true progression of Delmon Young into the power hitter we want him to be. As he did in 2008, he still hits too many balls on the ground and doesn’t mash those flies as hard as he needs to. He might, might, have developed as a hitter with regards to strikeouts and he might have developed enough to offset his apparently stable loss in BABIP. As regards power – what we will see this year is if 2011 marked a slump on an otherwise upward trajectory in terms of FB% and HR/FB or if 2010 was a statistical outlier. If it’s the former, we’re going to see numbers from Young that look a lot like what he did for the Tigers in 49 games last season and we fans will be thrilled. He’ll wind up with 120 RBIs and find that teams are actually pursuing him as he enters free agency. If it’s the latter, we can really only expect an extremely slight improvement from Young over his 2011 full season numbers (which were atrocious) based on fewer infield flies. EVERYTHING else that he struggled with – aside from a BABIP declining towards league-average – was simply a partial reversion to his own career averages. Delmon Young’s projections (Bill James, RotoChamp, etc…) predict, based on past data, that he will wind up with a 2012 BABIP in the .320-.330 range as opposed to one close to 2010-2011 or the league mean. Personally, while I think that a .325 BABIP is possible for him (since big deviations from the mean are always a possibility) I don’t see any reason to expect it.