June 21, 2010

The new and improved Delmon Young

I come to praise Delmon, not bury him.

- William Shakespeare (if he was a Twins fan)

In the fall of 2007 the Twins acquired Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, and Jason Pridie from the Rays for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan. I wasn't a fan of the trade, in part because I felt Young was an overrated prospect and in part because I felt the Twins were selling unnecessarily low on Garza and Bartlett. Three years later I still believe those things to be true, and for the first two years the trade looked worse and worse for the Twins.

Young batted just .288/.325/.413 with an ugly 197-to-47 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 260 games through his first two seasons in Minnesota, which along with horrible defense made him one of the worst regulars in baseball. While he was being disappointing on nearly every level, Garza logged 388 innings with a 3.87 ERA and Bartlett hit .306/.361/.429 in 265 games as the Rays had the first two winning seasons in franchise history and advanced to the World Series.

In terms of value gained from the trade it was a blowout in the Rays' favor after two seasons and the scale may never swing all the way back to the Twins' side, but this season for the first time the gap isn't widening. And it's not because Garza has turned into a bum (his ERA is 4.16) or the Twins are getting value from the other two guys in the deal (Harris is hitting .157, Pridie is at Triple-A for the Mets). No, it's because for the first time Delmon Young is playing well.

After starting slowly for the third straight year Young has been on fire for the past month and is now hitting .307/.345/.502 in 61 games for the sixth-best OPS among AL corner outfielders. He's still not walking much, but after two frustrating seasons of flailing away at breaking balls and grounding out weakly to second base or blooping singles into right field on fastballs Young is finally making the solid, damage-creating contact that was supposed to be his calling card.

Even better, after losing 30 pounds during the offseason Young's defense in left field has gone from horrible to merely poor, with the occasional flashes of good mixed in with the still-present penchant for cringe-inducing awkwardness. He certainly hasn't turned into the second coming of Frank Robinson or Albert Belle that so many comparisons at the time of the deal laughably suggested, but he has turned into the guy the Twins thought they were getting in 2007.

How has he done it? Well, first let's look at some of the basic components of his performance:

              BB%      SO%     K/BB      GB%      FB%      LD%     ISOP
2008-2009     4.5     19.0     4.19     53.0     30.2     16.7     .125
This Year     6.2     11.2     1.64     45.7     37.2     17.0     .195

Not only is Young walking 38 percent more and striking out 41 percent less compared to those disappointing first two years in Minnesota, he's hitting the ball on the ground 14 percent less. In other words, his approach at the plate has improved dramatically and the type of balls he's putting in play have gotten much better as well. He's putting together much better at-bats and giving himself a chance to actually for hit for power by getting the ball in the air.

Young has eight homers in 61 games, which puts him on pace to shatter his career-high of 13, but the actual percentage of his fly balls that have gone over the fence hasn't really changed. Last season 11.4 percent of his fly balls were homers and this year 11.4 percent of his fly balls have been homers. The big difference isn't that he's suddenly crushing longer fly balls, it's that he's simply hitting more of them. Young's fly-ball rate is up 23 percent compared to 2008/2009.

When the Twins traded for Young the widely held assumption was that he'd hit for big power because he's a big guy and that's what the glowing scouting reports from his high school and Single-A days said, but grounders never turn into homers and guys who're among the league leaders in ground balls never turn into power hitters. Young still isn't putting the ball in the air nearly as much as the game's best sluggers, but he's now doing it enough to inflict damage.

How is he walking more, whiffing less, and hitting the ball in the air? Here are his swing stats:

              ZONE     SWNG     CONT     Z-SW     Z-CN     O-SW     O-CN
2008-2009     50.2     59.6     75.8     80.3     85.4     38.7     55.6
This Year     47.9     57.8     83.6     78.7     90.3     38.7     71.0

Based on the improved strikeout and walk rates you'd think he's been swinging at fewer balls outside the strike zone, but that's not actually the case. He's swinging at essentially the same number of pitches as 2008/2009, including nearly identical rates on pitches inside and outside the strike zone, but the difference is that he's making contact significantly more often on both types of offerings.

The biggest change is that Young has made contact 28 percent more often swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. He's still hacking at more pitches than anyone in the league except Vladimir Guerrero and still chases non-strikes as much as before, but this year he's actually hitting those pitches. I'm not sure whether that can be chalked up to randomness or a change in approach--or whether it's a sustainable improvement either way--but the difference is huge.

Breaking the pitches and swings down even further, here are his results by pitch type:

               FB%     FB100      CH%     CH100      SL%     SL100
2008-2009     53.6     -0.36     10.3     +0.25     19.8     -1.35
This Year     56.4     +0.23     10.6     +4.02     17.0     +1.07

Young has never been a great fastball hitter, but he's been better against the pitch this year, generating 0.23 runs above average per 100 fastballs (FB100) after previously being sub par. He's also gone from decent to amazing versus changeups (CH100) and from awful to strong on sliders (SL100). Not shown above is that he continues to struggle against curveballs, which makes drawing any strong conclusions from the pitch-type data even more difficult than usual.

Observationally, the biggest change on a pitch-type basis has been his ability to lay off sliders outside the strike zone late in counts, which is something that really dragged him down in the past. For the most part the numbers back that up with his non-strike contact rate and overall success on sliders. Of course, that he's still hacking at just as many non-strikes muddies those waters, although perhaps Young keeps swinging early but now has more late-count discipline.

Interestingly, while Young has improved across the board his batting average on balls in play is a career-low .308 after he had a .338 mark in 2008/2009. That may very well be due more to randomness than anything else, but it could also be due to the same change in approach that has led to more fly balls and fewer ground balls. In fact, that has almost certainly played a part because in general ground balls go for hits more often than fly balls.

Basically, he's been less effective getting bloopers to drop in and choppers to get through the infield, which is certainly a tradeoff worth taking for more pop. It may also suggest that Young has actually been somewhat unlucky this season--particularly since after losing 30 pounds and getting noticeably faster it should be easier to leg out infield singles--in which case even if his high contact rate on non-strikes declines a bit his overall performance may not suffer a ton.

The top five items on my wish-list for Young likely would've been fewer strikeouts and ground balls, more walks and fly balls, and better range on defense. He's improved all five areas and the result is a far better player who has gone from liability to strength. He deserves credit for getting into shape and hitting coach Joe Vavra deserves credit for altering his approach and stance. Now hopefully he can keep it going and, at age 24, perhaps even build on those gains.

I come to praise Delmon, not bury him.

- William Shakespeare, if he was a Twins fan.

  • http://www.thatstwinsbaseball.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/coverfinal2.png bennyc50

    Interesting statistics. I may be crazy but doesn’t it seem like since he’s been on this streak, he’s been predominantly a dead pull hitter? I remember earlier in the season he would swing at inside pitches and inside out them over the dugout or be literally falling backwards and popping out to right. Now when he swings out of his shoes he rarely moves and if so he falls over the plate. For the last 2 weeks it seems big hit after big hit are all pulled.
    Am I insane?

  • Brian

    I am glad to see you are finally writing positive things about Delmon.

  • maxisagod

    I’ve been waiting for “a Delmon has improved” article from you all season. Exciting to see the improvement take shape, and to think he’s still younger than a lot of the prospects we’ve been pulling for.

  • Chris

    He’s writing something positive about Delmon because for the first time, there’s something positive to talk about.

  • http://kkvb.blogspot.com Karl

    Delmon Young is the only guy that could move me to do actual research for no pay.

    I have waited (like many of you) for him to show that he is a credible major league hitter.

    Apparently, it is not all that uncommon for super high draft picks that DONT come from the steriod era to have a natural breaking in period. Comparing DY to some very good to HOF type players drafted really high is kind of eye opening. What is really shocking is the number of players that don’t even become everyday major leaguers for any sustained period of time – and most of the good ones don’t start really coming into their own until 24 or older.

    Here is Delmon’s first 4 seasons:

    .288/.316/.408 .723 13HR
    .290/.336/.405 .741 10HR
    .284 .308 .425 .733 12HR

    .307 .345 .502 .848 20HR (Projected)

    Delmon Young @ Age 24 Drafted #1 Overall

    And now some others…

    .288/.333/.377 .710 OPS 4HR
    .293/.323/.428 .752 OPS 9HR
    .267/.308/.371 .679 OPS 8HR

    .293/.321/.519 .840 OPS 23HR

    Robin Yount 24 @ Age 24 #3 Overall

    .283/.320/.403 .722 OPS 3HR
    .244/.306/.371 .678 OPS 12HR
    .296/.347/.429 .776 OPS 12HR

    .342/.375/.446 .821 OPS 4HR

    Barry Larkin @ Age 25 #4 Overall

    .255/.281/.405 .686 OPS 13HR
    .271/.321/.469 .790 OPS 25HR
    .280/.333/.443 .776 OPS 20HR

    .304/.361/.541 .903 OPS 29HR

    Harold Baines @ Age 25 #1 Overall

    .265/.318/.438 .756 OPS 20HR
    .267/.354/.403 .756 OPS 15HR
    .283/.366/.431 .797 OPS 13HR

    .275/.335/.467 .801 OPS 25HR

    Dave Winfield @ Age 25 #4 Overall

    .188/.240/.339 .578 OPS 8HR
    .205/.251/.410 .662 OPS 8HR
    .202/.242/.455 .697 OPS 18HR

    .277/.319/.488 .807 OPS 33HR

    Matt Williams @ Age 24 #3 Overall

    .176 .176 .235 .412 OPS 0HR
    .275/.307/.467 .775 OPS 13HR
    .262/.298/.409 .707 OPS 15HR

    .302/.335/.514 .849 OPS 29HR

    Joe Carter @ Age 26 #2 Overall

    I’m not sure what you can extrapolate from this as far as how Delmon’s 2010 and beyond go. However – if his career arc followed any of the others that resemble his early seasons – I’m sure the trade will be looked back upon more fondly than currently.

    This is coming from one of Delmon’s biggest critics.

    I am thisclose to embracing him – flame tatoo and all

  • Chris

    Ramos and Manship for Lee?

  • truth

    All in all, it’s been a bad past several weeks for AG and the rest of you DY haters :(

  • Neil

    Yes, the biggest number with Delmon remains 24 (he turns 25 in September). He’s still a pup by Major League standards. If he can keep progressing, he’ll be a very good hitter in another year or two. Give the Twins credit for sticking with him.

    It was still a horrible trade, but maybe now it’s not as bad as the Johan deal, since essentially all we got for him is J.J. Hardy, who’s looking more and more like the Joe Crede of shortstops.

    Twins get Santana on Saturday in New York. That should be fun…

  • Joe

    “…ability to lay off sliders outside the strike zone late in counts”

    To save time you could probably just call this Michael Cuddyer symdrome.

  • Corky

    It still amazes me that he’s only 24 years old. Gotta give him props for making an effort to improve himself. He’s no longer a liability in LF, and he’s making a case for being one of the better corner outfielders in the league.

  • Large Canine

    Young at .307/.345/.502 at 2.6 million (age 24) vs Cuddy at .269/.333/.431 at 9.4 million (age 31). Career numbers= .292/.325/.425 vs .270/.343/.455. Cuddy finally hit the bigs when he was 24 and hit .263 that year. Why do I have this sinking feeling that the Twins will resign Cuddy for over 10 mil and let Young go because they will say he is too expensive. Don’t most players with over a .300 career avg make it to the hall? Way to early to tell , but I believe Delmon will continue to hit over .300 for his career. I guess my question has become: is Cuddy better than Young? I say no and question why Cuddy bats 5th and Young 7th?

  • Large Canine

    BTW, I really like Cuddy. Just don’t understand why noone appreciates Young. Where is the love?

  • Large Canine

    one last question: Young is fat at 6’3″, 202 (232 last year), but Cuddy is a stud at 6’2″, 225?? 5 bucks says Delmon kicks Mikes butt in the 40.

  • mike wants wins

    Who “hates” Delmon? Criticizing a baseball player for not be ing effective does not equal hating him. I’m not sure why people struggle to understand that. I’ve never met the guy. I have no reason to hate him. I do, however, until this year, have reason to say he’s just not a good baseball player. Like most Twins’ fans, I’m thrilled that he’s playing well this year. He’s certainly a big reason why they are winning.

  • By Jiminy

    My wish list would have included not swinging at more balls out of the strike zone than anyone except Guerrero. Since that isn’t happening, it’s hard to be confident this is anything more than a hot streak.

    Though I am encouraged by Benny’s observation that he’s finally pulling the ball. That does seem like one thing that could lead to lasting improvement in his power numbers.

  • Brian

    Delmon was great at the end of last year and great this year so far. AG has hated on Delmon forever and now was forced to write this Delmon was young and always improving and now he is doing what we expectyed him to do. He is finally at the age when most players are just now getting to the majors. It has been a tough year for Delmon haters like AG.

  • Large Canine

    I wouldn’t call a mere 15 pints over his career avg a hot streak. If we threw out his typically crappy April and May career numbers, he is probably at his career avg. I am confident that Delmon is more the .307 hitter then then the .292 career numbers reflect. I will be surpised if he drops below .300 again until he starts to decline at age 33 or so. In fact, show me a career .292 hitter at age 24 (with 4-5 years MLB experience) who went on to hit sub .300 for his career. Ovbiously I’m too lazy to do the research here at work. Maybe tonight when I get home.

  • Chris

    Aaron is not and never was a Delmon Young hater. He’s simply a guy who pointed out correctly that Delmon Young was a bad baseball player prior to this year – and always with good solid evidence. It’s not like Delmon didn’t give plenty of reason for people not to like him though, with his bat throwing incident and stubbornness to accept coaching. I’m happy for Delmon that he’s finally starting to show some of his potential and has by reports become a good teammate but let’s not make him out to be some sort of martyr.

  • ThatGuy

    Large Canine- Delmon has always had a decent average but it takes more than a batting average to make a baseball player. It was his poor defense, inability to take a walk, and little power(He already has more doubles this year than last, and is almost past his last year HR) that he was critized for. As far as the Delmon and Cuddy weight comparison Cuddy carried his weight far better than Delmon did, that is obvious by just looking at them. Cuddy is a little stocky, but it looked like Delmon had a beer gut last year.

  • Jake

    I find it interesting that nobody brings up the angle that this is Delmon’s contract year. In the NFL the media solely atributes a good year during the contract year as a money motivated thing where the player tries harder just that one season to get the next big contract. Kind of like Albert Haynesworth.

    Not meaning this as a knock on Delmon but you have to wonder if he’s just busting his butt this year to get his next contract and then go back to eating Cheetohs all offseason.

  • Dave T

    Nice article, AG. I have come to rely on your analyses that go deeper into a player’s performance than I can go. Please disregard the buffoons who substitute emotion for thought. From where I sit, Delmon has become a dangerous hitter. I still hate the trade though. The Twins wrecked their infield by including Bartlett in that trade.

  • mike wants wins

    Fangraphs (I think it was them) had an article on contract or “walk” years recently. The evidence is that there is no evidence that players play better in those years. Some do, some don’t. It’s just that the media tends to focus on the ones that do as evidence that there is a correlation (or, I’m remembering the article wrong, but I don’t think so).

  • jo

    Criticizing a baseball player for not be ing effective does not equal hating him

    Sure, but with Young people went WAY beyond objective analysis. With Gleeman, it sure came off in his writing that he was enjoying Young’s struggles because it made his early analysis look good.

    How about acknowledging the possibility that the scouts were right – that his success this year has something to do with the skills that scouts identified back then?

  • Tony Boliva

    I was encouraged from August of last year that Delmon was changing some of his bad habits and was pleased to see that continue this season. I am curious how “First Pitch” Young ranks against other Twins in terms of the number of pitches seen per at bat. It seems to me that he is consistently seeing 4 and 5 pitches per at bat instead of 1 and done.

  • pk

    Is a corner OF that hits .300 more difficult to find than a solid, if not great, .300+ hitting SS?
    I really don’t know but my guess is if the Twins could do it over they’d take Bartlett back and let the Rays have Young.

  • http://twins.gearupforsports.com/blog/ Steve L.

    Nice to see a D-Y article. I’ve always defended Young (whether right or wrong at the time). I’m extremely excited to see him evolving into a big piece of the Twins offense!

    http://twins.gearupforsports.com/blog/2010/06/delmon-young-is-breaking-out/

  • Jake

    AG went beyond just pointing at Delmon’s bad numbers. Most Delmon believers defended him saying that he’s so young in age that we should expect major improvements from him defensively and offensively. AG continually countered that argument by pointing out how many at bats and games Delmon already had compared to older players just making it into the bigs. Basically AG asserted that total at bats was more important than physical age in terms of quantifying how much improvement due to experience one could expect.

    I think had Delmon not had his mother’s illness and death to deal with last season we would have seen him improve over the previous year such that this season wouldn’t look like such a drastic change. His head is clear, he’s lighter and quicker, and nobody can question his natural ability to slap the big part of the bat onto the ball.

    He really does have a natural see the ball hit the ball ability that you just can’t teach. If he could couple that with a more elite strategic approach the guy could be a top 10 OPS type of player.

  • Mike Green

    Delmon signed for $2.6 million in 2010. There are probably 10-11 million reasons for him to play well for the rest of the year. But, he’s going to do it in a way that makes him look better than he is, high batting average, more homers, but a wOBA that will be merely above average (right now, he’s fifth in the AL among left-fielders).

    Unless the Twins are rolling in money, the deal still looks pretty terrible for them.

  • toby

    Certainly Delmon’s BABIP is down in part because of all the flyballs he’s hitting at the expense of groundballs, but in checking this out a little further a weird discrepancy in the firstinning vs. baseball reference/fangraphs BABIP numbers (firstinning has him at .320) led me to realize that part of the reason his “traditional” numbers look so good is that he’s hit a bunch of sac flys. I mean, it’s VERY rare to see a guy’s BABIP and BA be identical, but with 6 Sac Flies (outs in BABIP, which firstinning didn’t correctly factor in) vs just 24 Ks, that’s what Delmon’s posting: .306 in each.

    Even given that, there’s no WAY I’m writing his traditional metric success off to “lucky flyballs in sac fly situations,” though, as his contact numbers can’t be all (or, I think, even mostly) flukey. I’d love to see his fliner/FB/LD breakdowns, as it seems to me his .219 BABIP (that’s good) on flyballs has to have something to do with what my eye/memory — flawed though they be — tells me is a lot of well-hit balls with fliner-type trajectory and drive. And his other BABIP breakdowns — .239 on groundballs for a guy with (now) good speed hitting them mostly to the left side? .677 on linedrives? — point to less-than-stellar luck, so all other things being equal, Delmon’s line could end up looking even BETTER than it has to date.

    Karl made a great post and its bottom line bears repeating: HE IS ONLY TWENTY FOUR.

  • large canine

    Mike Green, if Delmon’s contract looks bad at .306/.343/.502 at 2.6 mil, then I am curious to know how you feel about Cuddy’s contract at .269/.333/.431 for $9.4 million??

  • TFan13

    lol, this bandwagon filled up fast… like they all knew 100% sure this was coming all along (including him getting into incredible shape this off-season).

    I think it’s fair to assume any semi-intelligent Twins fan has been pretty critical of Delmon Young the past few years due to who he was traded for. I also think it’s fair to assume that most of those same people got high hopes as well when they seen him make a choice to get into excellent this offseason. Bandwagon’ers I think you can stop the flaming on other Twins fans and enjoy the run this team is on (along with DY).

    Also I do believe AG had a couple write-ups with high hopes for DY turning it around this year after his offseason. Like I said in the beginning, any intellegent Twins fan had a right to be critical of DY and his potential just like most of those same people had high hopes for him to start progressing this season.

  • Steve

    Great WORK AG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    a comparison to Carlos Gomez would have been kinda nice; at the time I know you thought we dealt away the wrong guy in Gomez, but now all things considered we waited just right on with Delmon….

    I was waiting these last 2-3 days for you to say something about Delmon and this Article TOPS ANYTHING i was expecting

    Great WORK!!!!

  • Chris

    When will Waldrop and Slama move over to the Twins???

  • Chris

    16year-old Max Kepler, from Germany, signed by the Twins last year…hit 3 of 5 in his Minor League start in Rookie League, with 1 double and 3 RBI…opposing pitchers all were 19 to 23 years old..thats is what i call amazing…

  • Kunza

    The Twins would make that deal 100% of the time. Every single one of you trying to rip that trade are forgetting the most important thing…. Gardenhire.

    Gardenhire HATED, HATED, HATED Bartlett and Garza and wanted nothing to do with them.

    So Bartlett his .320 last year with some decent pop….. what’s his average this year? .215???? Garza has been decent but is he really that much of an upgrade over Slowey, Baker, or Pavano? Blackburn, yes….. but…

    IF we had Bartlett on the roster yet, you know we would have made a deal for someone like Feliz our Kouzmanoff for 3B(which would have been our biggest need with a SS on the roster), Nick Punto would be splitting time at SS with Bartlett anyways. There isn’t anyone in this state that could argue that there wouldn’t be a Punto/Bartlett platoon.

  • Mike Green

    large canine, I was referring to the Bartlett-Garza/Young deal, not Young’s current contract. Young is earning his money (and then some) in 2010. It may be the last year that he does so.

  • jo

    I think it’s fair to assume any semi-intelligent Twins fan has been pretty critical of Delmon Young the past few years due to who he was traded for.

    But fully intelligent fans would realize that Delmon didn’t broker that deal. They would also make fun of the semi-intelligent fans for making such a stupid argument.

  • John P.

    @jo: Where’s the love? We talk nice here. I think you should stop calling people stupid. It’s a 6 year old’s way of arguing.

  • jo

    I called the argument stupid, dodo brain.

  • TFan13

    Jo – I know your daddy taught you life is fair, but…

    players involved in trades are always compared/critiqued based on who they’re traded for. Especially talent that’s already at the MLB level. But, if you didn’t once look back at garza/barletts production compared to DY/Harris over the past couple years and think what if… then god bless ya.

    I also still hear or read tidbits about the the Johan trade still being alive and comparing it to JJ hardy’s production.

  • jo

    Judging a trade and judging a player are different things.

  • TFan13

    You just live in a happy, perfect little world don’t ya…

    I’m not arguing that point, you’re absolutely correct that a judging a trade and player are different things. But when talent is swapped between two teams – fans, players, writers etc are gonna compare and critique a player based on who they’re traded for. Obviously it’s not Delmon’s fault, it’s part of the game and life. That criticism could be a big reason why Delmon changed his workout.

  • ?

    “The Twins would make that deal 100% of the time. Every single one of you trying to rip that trade are forgetting the most important thing…. Gardenhire.”

    Gardenhire doesn’t make trades.

  • Dan

    Gardenhire doesn’t make the trades, but he certainly has input into what players the Twins keep and don’t keep. If he doesn’t want certain players around, he is certainly going to let the GM know. And while the GM doesn’t have to listen, why wouldn’t he want to know what the manager – who deals with these guys on a daily basis -has to say?

    That being said, I think too much is determined by what Gardy likes – i.e. crappy players like Punto and Crain – and dislikes, instead of putting the best talent out on the field.

  • CS

    In case anyone comes back later and reads this… my theory is Garza was never going to amount to anything with the Twins anyway, he needed to be shaken up (a.k.a., traded).