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The Even More Curious Case of Delmon Young

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Delmon Young
Delmon Young

The Even More Curious Case of Delmon Young

Last week we looked at former top prospect Reid Brignac and his failure to develop properly as a hitter. Today we turn to another ex-Tampa Bay Ray, Delmon Young, who has been one of the biggest prospect disappointments over the last decade. What was he like as a prospect, what went wrong, and what might we expect from the future? Let's take a look.

Delmon Young was the first-overall pick in the 2003 draft, out of high school in Camarillo, California. The younger brother of major league veteran Dmitri Young, Delmon was considered to be a better athlete than his sibling, featuring excellent power with a strong feel for hitting, a very good throwing arm, and slightly above average speed.

He signed too late to make his pro debut that summer, but he went to the Arizona Fall League and hit a stunning .417/.451/.625 in 15 games against much older competition. I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2004 book, noting that he had a few plate discipline issues to work through, but being impressed with his "immense ability." I ranked him as the Number 16 hitting prospect in baseball entering 2004.

Young had no problems in 2004, hitting .320/.386/.536 with 25 homers, 115 RBI, 54 walks, 120 strikeouts in 513 at-bats for Low-A Charleston, with 21 steals in 27 attempts. He drew rave reviews for his power, with his bat speed compensating for a mild issue with selectivity. He showed a good arm, but scouts felt he would lose his running speed as he got older. I loved the bat and gave him a Grade A- entering 2005, writing that he wasn't "a perfect prospect" but that his offensive upside was among the best in the game. I had him as the Number Four hitting prospect.

Skipped up a level to Double-A to open '05, Young hit .336/.386/.582 with 20 homers, 25 steals, 25 walks, and 66 strikeouts in 330 at-bats for Montgomery. Promoted to Triple-A in July, he hit .285/.303/.447 with six homers, four walks, and 33 strikeouts in 228 at-bats. Scouts continued to praise his bat speed, power, and ability to use his running speed on the bases. Triple-A pitchers got him to chase stuff outside the zone, though overall he held his own at age 19, a great sign for his future. He also toned up his body, losing 20 pounds of baby fat and adding strength.

There were some negative signs though. Aside from the spotty plate discipline in Triple-A, he got into trouble for chest-bumping an umpire in April, leading to a brief suspension. He was also vocally displeased when the Rays didn't promote him to the majors in September. His work ethic on the field wasn't questioned and the general idea was that he just needed to grow up a little bit.

I gave him a Grade A and rated him as the top hitting prospect in baseball entering 2006, banking a lot on age-relative-to-league to compensate for his remaining flaws.

Returned to Triple-A to open 2006, he got off to a bad start when he threw his bat in late April, hitting an umpire and drawing a 50-game suspension. He was excellent when on the field, hitting .316/.341/.474 with 22 steals, 15 walks, and 65 strikeouts in 342 games in Triple-A. He received a major league trial and performed well, hitting .317/.336/.476.

Plate discipline remained the big issue: he drew just one walk against 24 strikeouts in 126 major league at-bats. However, when you're hitting .317/.336/.476 in the bigs at age 20, people cut you some slack. His natural talent was so good, it appeared to compensate for the flaws in his approach, and it was felt (hoped? assumed?) that he would make the necessary adjustments to truly make the sky the limit. I gave him another Grade A for 2007, writing that "informed observers believe that Delmon is young and arrogant, but he's not stupid, he basically just needs to grow up a little bit."

Young played every day (literally, 162 games) for the Rays in 2007, hitting .288/.316/.408 with 38 doubles and 13 homers. His strike zone judgment was quite weak, resulting in a 26/127 BB/K, and his overall production was disappointing with a 91 OPS+, 88 wRC+. He was also somewhat disappointing defensively, and was noticeably slower than two years in the past. He was only 21, but the Rays soured quickly and traded him off to the Minnesota Twins in the Matt Garza deal.

Young tread water in '08 and '09 (OPS+ marks of 100 and 92), with sagging defense, his hitting held back by poor plate discipline. In 2010 he was much more effective, hitting .298/.333/.493 with 21 homers and 46 doubles, with a 124 OPS+ at age 24.

However, as you know, he couldn't maintain it. Young hit just .268/.302/.393 (OPS+90) in 2011 and was dumped on the Detroit Tigers for very little. '12 was no better: .267/.296/.411, with even more off-field turmoil.

Overall, in 880 major league games, Young has hit .284/.317/.425, OPS+98, wRC+ 96. His career WAR is a mere 0.8, thanks in great measure to very poor defense.

So what happened here?

I don't think it is a secret: Young just hasn't made consistent adjustments and never gained adequate command of the strike zone. He got away with this in the minors due to his immense natural talent, but major league pitchers find holes that minor league pitchers can't. Delmon has also lost speed and athleticism compared to where he was four years ago, which has been deadly for his defense. Makeup has obviously been an issue as well; getting into a drunken fight while yelling anti-Semitic slurs isn't calculated to make you popular.

Young's blemishes were apparent in the minors, but he was a devastating hitter in the minors even with his flaws, and just about everyone (including me) assumed that he was young enough to overcome his issues. However, while the age-relative-to-league principle is a very important factor for prospect analysis, it is just one among many. ARTL assumes that a player can and will make changes to address flaws that get exposed against better competition. Young couldn't do that, for whatever reason.

Is there any hope? Young is still only 27. Signed with the Phillies as a free agent, he's reportedly in better condition this spring, although he's likely going to open the season the DL with ankle problems.

His Bill James Sim Score list through age 27 is weird:

Jeff Francoeur
Claudell Washington
Carlos May
Al Oliver
Harold Baines (has a case for HoF)
Carl Yastrzemski (HofF)
Nick Markakis
Roberto Clemente (HofF)
Ken Keltner
Dave Winfield (HofF)

Don't get excited here; Sim Score doesn't adjust well between extreme hitting or pitching eras, and the Hall guys were all considerably better than Young when context is accounted for. On the other hand, it is interesting that we have sabermetric whipping boy Jeff Francoeur at the very top of the list. Washington is a fair comp: he was quite toolsy as Young is/was and was considered rather disappointing for much of his career, but he also played in the majors for 17 seasons and turned into a useful role player.

Given his age, it is possible that Young could still have a solid career along Washington/good role player lines. I wouldn't expect more than that, and he'll need good health and a more mature approach for that to happen.

LESSON LEARNED: Age-relative-to-league is just one factor among many. Plate discipline matters. Makeup matters.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHT: Is it a coincidence that both Young and Brignac came up through the Rays system and both foundered due to strike zone problems?