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.