Few players in recent memory have disappointed more than Delmon Young. The first overall pick in the 2003 draft hammered minor league pitching to the tune of .318/.363/.518, displaying top-shelf power while taking on pitchers several years his senior. His plate approach was raw (6.3 BB%). But Young was ranked as a top three prospect by Baseball America each season from 2004 to 2007, and he elicited Albert Belle comparisons for his ability to drive the ball.
Young got a cup of coffee with Tampa Bay back in 2006, with a .316/.336/.476 line in 131 plate appearances. He swung at positively everything (50.3 O-Swing%, 0.8 BB%), and his BABIP was .370. But even so, it’s impressive for a 20-year-old to manage an above-average big league performance with the lumber (.343 wOBA, 110 wRC+). Unfortunately, the righty batter showed little improvement over the next three seasons:
2007: .288/.316/.408, .315 wOBA, 91 wRC+
2008: .290/.336/.405, .324 wOBA, 99 wRC+
2009: .284/.308/.425, .312 wOBA, 90 wRC+
That weak hitting, coupled with clunky defense, made Young worth a combined -1.7 Wins Above Replacement. In 2010, the 24-year-old Twin is batting .274/.314/.474, with a wOBA (.338) and wRC+ (109) better than the league average for the first time since he debuted with the Rays. Is he finally making some progress? To an extent, yes.
Young remains an ultra-aggressive batter, swinging at far more pitches thrown outside of the strike zone than the big league average. After hacking at 39.8% of off-the-plate pitches from 2007-2009 (25% average during those seasons), Delmon is going after 38.8% of out-of-zone offerings in 2010 (28% MLB average). His walk rate is up, though we’re speaking in relative terms — Young is drawing ball four 6.7% of the time, compared to 4.2% from ’07 to ’09.
So, his plate approach still leaves much to be desired. But Young has made strides in terms of making contact and hitting for power. His contact rate on in-zone pitches was 85.1% from 2007-2009 (88% MLB average) and his overall contact rate was 75.1% (81% MLB average). He’s connecting 89.6% of the time when pitchers give him something over the plate this year, and 83.1% overall. Young’s whiff rate is down to 12.6% in 2010, after peaking at 23.3% last season.
Once dubbed an “intimidating presence” at the plate by Baseball America, Young rarely went deep or split the gaps in years past. After posting a .159 ISO in his big league stint in ’06, he had a .119 ISO in 2007, and a .115 ISO in 2008. Young improved somewhat in 2009 (.142 ISO), and he has a solid .200 ISO this season. The big difference? He has stopped chopping the ball into the dirt so often:
2007: 46.3 GB%, 32.6 FB%, 7.6 HR/FB%
2008: 55.2 GB%, 27.8 FB%, 7.6 HR/FB%
2009: 49.7 GB%, 34.1 FB%, 11.4 HR/FB%
2010: 45.3 GB%, 38.4 FB%, 11.5 HR/FB%
Fewer grounders and more fly balls — that’s clearly a good trade-off when it comes to hitting for power. It’s pretty hard to get an extra-base hit on a Baltimore Chop. The AL slugging percentage on grounders has ranged from .238 to .262 over the past three seasons. The AL slugging percentage on fly balls has been between .566 and .603. Young’s career slugging percentage on grounders is .274, and his career SLG% on fly balls is .610.
Fly balls do fall for hits on balls put in play less often than ground balls, which partially contributes to Young’s .270 BABIP on the season. But even with a higher fly ball rate, his expected BABIP (xBABIP) is .315. Chances are, Young finishes the season hitting closer to .290 than .270.
Overall, there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic about Delmon Young. He’s still getting himself out too often. However, he is starting to tap into the power that he displayed as a prized prospect. Young has a long way to go to ever be an offensive star, but he’s at least keeping his head above water after a few seasons of sub-replacement-level play.
A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at email@example.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.