Sunday, June 07, 2009

What the Hell Happened to Delmon Young? (Part 1 - The Promise)

Do you want to believe in Delmon Young? It's not hard if you look backwards a little.

Young appeared on most Twins fans' radars in November of 2007, when he was acquired as part of a six-player trade with the Tampa Bay Rays. But he had a history filled with promise with which we might not be acquainted, or now find easy to overlook. There are all kinds of sites that track players with daily updates for their careers. On of my favorites is rotowire.com, which gave yearly overviews of his progress. So let's review his record and use rotowire as another objective source.

2003 – Young was the first overall draft choice by the Devil Rays and signed a major league contract (which becomes very important) in September. The Rays debuted him in the fairly advanced Arizona Fall League, and Rotowire summarized the excitement about this kid:

“It's tough to make your pro debut in the Arizona Fall League, but that's what Young did, and he pulled off the near-impossible -- making [Rays GM] Chuck LaMar look like a genius. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft hit .417/.451/.625 in his first 15 games against pro pitching and had scouts drooling, comparing him to a young Albert Belle minus the attitude.”

Yeah, I'm gonna bold some stuff. And how much do you love the Albert Belle comparison given some of Young's later anger-management issues?

2004 – As an 18-year-old, Young played a whole season in High A-ball and dominated the league, batting .320, hitting 25 home runs, stealing 21 bases, and knocking in 115 runs. He struck out quite a bit (120 K) but he also walked 53 times and sported an impressive .386 OBP. Rotowire and the rest of the league were suitably impressed:

“Young will be the best prospect in all of the minors when the 2005 season opens—unless Tampa Bay decides to start him as their right fielder. That sounds ludicrous, but in this organization it could happen.”

2005 – Rotowire was right about that “best in all of the minors” thing. As a 19-year-old Young made Double-A look easier than High-A. He was promoted to Triple-A while he was still just nineteen years old, because in 330 at-bats he had hit .336 with 20 home runs and 25 stolen bases. He still had some problems with the strikeouts (66 K) but also drew some walks (25) and got on base regardless (again, a .386 OBP).

In Triple-A, things didn’t go as well. The power disappeared with just 6 home runs in 228 at-bats. The average (.285) and stolen bases (7) declined too. Maybe most alarming was that he was no longer walking enough (just 4) to counteract all the strikeouts (33). On the other hand, you’re talking about a nineteen-year-old promoted midseason to Triple-A. It would’ve been surprising if he didn’t struggle. Rotowire summarized the season:

“The Minor League Player of the Year put up great numbers at Double-A, but wasn't dominant in his brief stint at Triple-A -- not that he stunk, either, but the stat line shows Young very likely could use some additional seasoning at Triple-A. That's where Young will start the 2006 season; how quickly he comes up will depend both on his bat and on who's doing what at the big league level. The new Rays management team won't mind not calling up Young until after Opening Day of 2007 in order to put off his arbitration payday as long as possible; it'll be up to Young to show them that patience isn't a virtue in his case.”

Note that most of the summary talks about when he'll be called up. That would be overshadowed by an incident in his last minor league season.

2006 - Young started the year in Triple-A and drew national attention when he was suspended for 50 games for flipping a bat at an umpire after a called third strike. That may have delayed his arrival in the majors, but he was still called up and handed a full time role on the Rays in late August. He would not find himself in the minors again.

And, in fact, he couldn’t. Because Rotowire was wrong about the Rays management team not wanting to call up Young until after Opening Day of 2007. Since Young had signed a major league contract, his three ‘option years’ had already been used. (That's unlike most ballplayers, who don’t start using them until they are added to the 40-man roster.) They had been used in 2004, 2005 and now 2006. Young was going to be on a major league roster one way or the other in 2007.

Which, in retrospect, was a pretty big problem, because Young was pretty clearly not ready for that promotion. The hubbub over the suspension and the emphasis on Young’s arrival to the majors overlooked that his performance in AAA hadn’t really improved. Here are Young’s final Triple-A stats from the two years:

570 AB, .303 BA, 14 HR, 29 SB, 98 K, 19 BB.

Just viewing those stats, without all the history and publicity, the analysis would be that Young is a speedy, light-hitting, high-average guy who might struggle in the majors because he has trouble telling a ball from a strike. Instead, mostly the concern about him was the suspension:

“Young lost two months of last season when he was suspended for flipping his bat at an umpire in a Triple-A game. With that, he still put up great numbers at Durham and decent stats in his September stint with the Rays. More importantly, he showed tiny signs that he knew he'd crossed the line and had to reel in his temper. The Devil Rays expect to start the season with Young as their everyday right fielder and No. 3 hitter. With his power, speed and defense, he's a legitimate ROY candidate.”

2007 – Young didn’t win the Rookie of the Year, but he finished in second. He put up stats that are almost duplicates of those he put up with the Twins a year later, meaning he hit for a decent average (.288), not much power (13 HR), stole some bases (10 SB), but had no idea what a strike zone was (127K vs 26BB). For a 21-year-old, those aren’t bad numbers, provided he builds on them, as rotowire noted:

“Young came close to a .300/100-RBI season, a rare achievement for a rookie, especially for one who did not turn 22 until September. He'll certainly start the spring as the Twins' everyday right fielder. However, Young does need to work on plate discipline. … He did not win Rookie of the Year honors in 2007, but Young has the upside to make the resulting vote look like an utter embarrassment in a few years.”

Which brings us back to what looked like an astute trade. The Twins were searching for a young high-upside right-handed bat to plug between Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. They were able to acquire a 22-year-old who:
1. Was the first overall draft pick in 2003 as a 17-year-old
2. The best prospect in the minors in 2004 as an 18-year-old
3. The Minor League Player of the Year in 2005 as a 19-year-old
4. Made his major league debut in 2006 as a 20-year-old and
5. Finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2007 as a 21-year-old.

Let’s make some blunt comparisons. Mauer was the first overall pick, but he didn’t hit like Young did in the minors. Morneau never had the minor league acclaim that Young did, nor did he put up anything close to ROY numbers in his first two years. There is nobody else on the Twins roster with Young’s pedigree. He was a thoroughbred like no other, and had just been traded to a contending team to fill the lineup void between a batting champion and an MVP.

It was easy to believe.

Next we'll look at the fall of Young and what contributed to it before we look at what the future holds for Young and the Twins.

19 comments:

ubelmann said...

Let’s make some blunt comparisons. Mauer was the first overall pick, but he didn’t hit like Young did in the minors.

Mauer was still arguably the better hitter based on their track records. Mauer always reached base a lot, hit for a high average, and walked as much or more than he struck out. Young hit for good power and average, but never really walked much and struck out a ton. There were reasons to believe that Mauer was a better hitter than Young at the time when each was promoted.

Most of what made Delmon seem like such a great player were:

1) Scouting reports which seem borderline mystifying these days

and

2) An extra 10-15 HR each in '04 and '05--power which he's never been able to replicate.

Without the power in his age 18 and 19 seasons, he would have looked like a good prospect, but not a great one--corner outfielders who don't walk much and hit for mediocre power aren't remotely special.

John said...

I don't know how you can say that Mauer was a superior hitter prior to Young hitting Triple-A.

At age 19 Mauer was hitting .302 in Low-A ball with 4 home runs. His strikeout to walk ratio was 1.5:1.

At age 19, Young was crushing Double-A ball (higher average, 20+ HR, 20+ SB) on his way to winning Baseball America's Minor League Player of the year award. His strikeout to walk ratio was 2.5:1.

Young didn't SEEM like a great player based on scouting reports. Young WAS a great player based on actual results.

In fact, one of the things I want to talk about in the next part is that part of the reason he's so criticized is because we weren't witnessing all this in our organization. The vibe would be completely different if Twins fans (and bloggers) were watching those '04 and '05 seasons, licking their lips. How many breaks did we cut Cuddyer who dissappointed for something like four years - but it was never his fault. It was Gardy for not playing him enough, or for not playing him in the right position, or whatever. And how many more years do we cut Kubel slack on his hitting vs. lefties based on his minor league record? He's proved for years he can't hit them, and still Gardy is criticized for not playing him more.

I'm not saying that Young is a great player. As I'll write next, he's been terrible - a downgrade on Jason Tyner, even. But he WAS a great player right up until the point where he got to AAA. He was also rushed through AAA because of his stupid contract (and that suspension that cost him quite a bit of time there) and he has completely stagnated since then.

The question is whether this really is his ceiling. I don't know why it would be given his history. If he had put up those numbers in the Twins organization, we'd all be convinced it wasn't.

John said...

The fact remains that, by the time the Twins traded for him, Young had turned in two straight mediocre seasons. Yes, he was very young. But it's odd to me that Young's horrible defense didn't give the Twins pause, or the fact that he's utterly uncoachable (assuming they knew as much).

Sure, fans might not care too much about those things generally, but throw in the bat incident and there was evidence something wasn't quite right.

DrJubal said...

Wow - this might be the most painful thing I've ever read from you.

Well done.

Jack Ungerleider said...

Great stuff as always John. One thing I hope you'll look at is his mother's illness and if that was a distraction for him. (I don't know how you find that out.)

This may be one of those times that not having a couple of older players on the roster is having an impact on a player's development. Who on this team could be a "mentor" for "...young Mr. Young"? (as Tony O said in the commercial last year.)

John said...

The fact remains that, by the time the Twins traded for him, Young had turned in two straight mediocre seasons. Yes, he was very young. But it's odd to me that Young's horrible defense didn't give the Twins pause, or the fact that he's utterly uncoachable (assuming they knew as much).

As you sort of note, he had those two 'average' seasons as a 20-year-old in AAA and a 212-year-old in the majors. And even 'average' earned him a second place ROY vote. There's nothing average about those seasons.

But the bigger note that I'll cover next is that his defense wasn't horrible. In right field he was considered average with a strong arm, very similar to Michael Cuddyer.

John said...

Age is not everything. Our notions about aging and development are based on averages rather than an unwavering truth, applied to anyone at any time.

One thing not really addressed is, if Young was such a sure-fire superstar, why did Tampa Bay trade him? I think that's something to be discussed before moving on to what's wrong now. Most commentators said the Twins came out ahead in the deal, which only adds to the question of whether the Rays knew that, despite his track record and age, Young wasn't going to be a star.

moopdog said...

The thing that strikes me when I watch Young play is that he doesn't look like someone who scouts would have drooled over. He moves slowly, and doesn't have the body type that scouts seem to adore. Maybe he's bulked up and slowed down as he's aged?

ubelmann said...

My point here is that while Young had better superficial results, Mauer was exhibiting better underlying skills--his contact rate was much better and he was showing better plate discipline. Those skills are what made him a great hitter and those skills are what helped him translate his success to the majors immediately. Delmon didn't have skills like that, so it was more difficult for him to transition to facing major league pitchers.

Young was a good hitter those first couple of seasons, for sure, but it was two seasons and the underlying skills he was showing made him a much worse bet than scouts were giving him credit for. On the one hand, you can claim that it was fluky for Young to fall so fast, on the other hand, I can claim that it was reasonably predictable for someone going from the minors to the majors to start walking less (which Delmon wasn't doing much of to begin with) and striking out more (which Delmon was already doing a lot.)

You might want to take a look at B.J. Upton. He was actually better than Delmon at similarly young ages in AAA, and has managed a 104 OPS+ so far compared to Delmon's 94 OPS+. However, Upton is a plus-plus CF whereas Delmon is a below-average corner outfielder. Upton's problems are not that dissimilar from Delmon's either. He still strikes out a ton, just like he did in the minors, but the power didn't really come with him from the minors to the majors.

ubelmann said...

Maybe he's bulked up and slowed down as he's aged?

I think that's a reasonable guess. He looks slow to me and if he has great bat speed, I can't see it.

sean said...

When a player's first contract is a major league one, they can have four option years (e.g. Humber). Not that this helps the Twins much, since his fourth year would've been 2007.

John said...

When a player's first contract is a major league one, they can have four option years (e.g. Humber). Not that this helps the Twins much, since his fourth year would've been 2007.

Or would it have been 2003, since that's when he signed his deal and played in the AFL. It wouldn't have been 2007, because he didn't use an option in 2007. He was in the majors the whole time.

John said...

Ubelman, I still think you're viewing this moreso with the benefit of hindsight. Young had fairly poor plate discipline (though I think you overstate how poor) but that's just a skill that needs to develop. Just like power was for Mauer. The problem is that Young didn't and hasn't developed it. But it wasn't foolish to think he would.

I also don't agree on the defensive thing - he's really only shown to be bad very bad in LF, not right. His metrics for RF are fair.

And finally, we get to the body and bat speed thing. He looks nothing like the kind of guy today that could show that power/speed ability four years ago. But why? Has he bulked up? That might be manageable. Was he using performance-enhancing drugs? He doesn't fit the profile except for the drop in power.

It's almost like when I start pointing these previous views of Young that Twins fans don't believe them. But they Rays didn't switch out this guy with a body double. It's the same guy. And NOBODY saw this big of a decline. It would've been inconceivable a few years ago.

So what's going on? And how do the Twins and Young fix it?

haasertime said...

we should send down him to Rochester.

Rochester, Minnesota.

The Mayo Clinic. Get him checked out.

Alex said...

The thing that makes me mad, other than his performance, is that he won't listen to coaches. It's been said that he "doesn't like to talk about" mechanics.

He must be too good for that stuff...

sean said...

A player uses an option every year they're on the 40 man roster. 2003 doesn't count because he wouldn't have been on the 40 man roster long enough -- must be a minimum of 90 days in order to count as a "year" -- and the AFL season is too short. So yes, 2007 was his fourth year.

TT said...

"A player uses an option every year they're on the 40 man roster. "

No, they don't. They only use an option when they are "optioned" to the minor leagues while on the 40 player major league roster.

TT said...

http://www.nickstwinsblog.com/2007/01/will-span-pan-out.html

"ubelmann said...
Sorry for the link to myself, but over here I noted that Span bears an uncanny resemblance to a younger Jason Tyner. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one noticing.

I hope that Span does something far out of line from his previous performance this year, or that the Twins find a way to stop their fascination with him."

"I think it's also telling that Span's dropped off Baseball America's Twins Top 10 prospects list and John Sickels' Top 30 prospects list. Even the scouts don't seem to think there's much (if any) projection left on Span."

Of course, the "scouts" weren't the problem, but the media is about as patient as most fans.

This same conversation happened with Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer ... it happens with almost any young player who isn't an instant success.

TT said...

Here is a link to an explanation of options:

http://www.baseball-analysis.com/article.php?articleid=4700

It appears that Young still has one option left since he used his first three prior to five years of professional service (includes the minor leagues). The stint in the AFL does not count as an option. He can refuse assignment if they attempt to use it after he has five years of major league service.