Chris Young v. 2.0(10)

04242010-phi-jw0620.JPG
Photography: Jon Willey

By Dan
Strittmatter

 

One of
the great disappointments of 2009 was the season of D-backs outfielder Chris
Young. Young slumped for much of the season, culminating in a trip to Triple-A
Reno in early August with a line of .194/.297/.359, for a .655 OPS and .292
wOBA (an explanation of wOBA can be found here).

 

For
comparison’s sake, the league average OPS in the major leagues in 2009 was
.751, and wOBA is weighted on a scale centered at around .340, with a sub-.300
wOBA being an indication of a “poor” hitter. Further, Young was striking out in
more than 30 percent of his at-bats, compared to rates of around 25 percent in
his previous two seasons.

 

But,
if you look closely enough, there were signs that Young’s 2009 season was not
full of only negative trends — in fact, Young showed remarkable improvements in
plate discipline.

 

Swing
Percentage

 

One of
the most obvious indications of this was his increase in walk rate. In his
first two full seasons in the Major Leagues (min. 500 PAs), Young had walk
rates of 6.9 percent and 8.9 percent. In 2009, lost amidst his struggles was a
significant jump in walk rate to 11.8 percent. This overall improvement can be
broken down in terms of improvements in his O-Swing percentage, the percentage
of pitches outside of the strike zone that Young swung at, and his overall
Swing percentage.

 

In
those first two seasons, Young swung at 20-23 percent of pitches outside the
strike zone and at 40-43 percent of all pitches he was seeing. But, in 2009,
Young swung at just 18 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, with an
overall swing percentage of 39.5 percent. And these trends have largely
continued into 2010. Young’s O-Swing percentage has risen back up to 20.8
percent, but his overall Swing percentage is at 37.7 percent.

 

So
what do all of those numbers mean? Basically, Young was an all-around more
disciplined hitter, and was seeing the ball much better. Further, it
demonstrates Young’s willingness to take pitches that he does not feel he can
make solid contact with, either in or out of the strike zone.

 

These
positive steps have been keys to his hot start in 2010. But this didn’t
translate to success for Young in 2009 because, despite his improved approach,
he was simply missing the pitches that he swung at. His contact rates were
down, and, as we’ll look into next, his swing had some mechanical kinks in it
that masked his improved discipline even when he did make contact.

 

Batting
Average on Balls in Play

 

Young’s
BABIP (explained here)
in 2009 was .251, a low number that, at a quick glance, could simply be chalked
up to bad luck. However, looking deeper at Young’s batted-ball distribution,
there are a couple of trends to note. While Young’s line drive rates have not
deviated too dramatically throughout his career, in 2009 Young saw a huge drop
in his groundball percentage, and a spike in his flyball percentage. In 2008,
Young had a 38.0 percent groundball rate, and a 42.8 percent flyball rate. In
2009, Young had a 26.3 percent groundball rate, and a 55.6 percent flyball
rate. Now, in terms of overall offensive production, this is a good thing. Ground-balls
can often also result in double-plays, and an increase in fly-balls can often
result in a corresponding increase in home runs (although, oddly enough, BABIP
on ground balls is also generally higher than BABIP of fly balls). But, of
course, Young did not reap those benefits in 2009.

 

Infield
Fly Rate

 

This
leads now to the most significant difference in 2009 and 2010 for Young, and
why Young has had such a good start to 2010. There was one major factor killing
Young’s BABIP, and working against Young’s HR total — his Infield-Fly Rate. In
’07 and ’08, Young had Infield-Fly Rates of 12.7 percent and 16.8 percent. In
2009, Young’s Infield-Fly Rate spiked up to 22.4 percent. So even though Young
was hitting fewer groundballs, the flyballs he was replacing them with were infield-flies, which are almost guaranteed-outs, and which tanked his BABIP and
certainly were not going to help contribute to his HR numbers. So Young’s .32
drop in BABIP from ’08 to ’09 was not a factor of bad luck, but a mechanical
flaw that was causing him to get too far under pitches and popping them up in
the infield at a career-high rate.

 

Since
his demotion to Reno, Young’s swing has noticeably flattened-out, and he has
seen a career-low Infield-Fly Rate to start 2010, just 11.7 percent. This has
allowed for Young to reap all of the benefits of his improved plate discipline
from 2009. His walk rate has remained high at 10.2 percent and his strikeout
rate is lower than it has been in any of his full seasons in the Major Leagues,
at 23.6 percent. These rates have helped Young post a .364 OBP, his highest
number in the major leagues by 49 points (.315 – 2008). Also, if the season
were to end today, it would mark the first time that Young posted an
above-league-average OBP in his career.

 

For a
lineup chock full of big power bats in need of base-runners to drive in,
Young’s ability to get on base is all the more important.

 

As an
end result of this improved approach, Young is on pace for his best season with
a .373 wOBA, and in terms of WAR — Wins Above Replacement (in short, the number
of wins a player contributes to a team over the value of the average player
willing to sign for league-minimum salary, explained in full detail for
pitchers and hitters in the links here)
– having already been worth 1.2 WAR in 43 games. To compare, Young’s best full
season so far was his ’08 campaign, in which he was worth 2.2 WAR in 160 games.

 

And
with Young’s increasingly flyball oriented hit distribution, it doesn’t appear
as if Young will see a significant drop-off in home run production from his
rookie season, even while abandoning his free-swinging approach.

 

*All
stats accurate through May 22.

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