19 November 2013

Chris Young: Starting Left Fielder?

Chris Young robbing a home run (Photo Credit: Dinur Blum)
Last month, during the “Making the Orioles a Champion in 2014” series here at the Depot, Matt did an excellent job of looking at potential options to fill the open space commonly referred to as left field on the 2014 Orioles roster.  One name that I thought warranted consideration, but was missing from the discussion, was (former) Oakland Athletics outfielder Chris Young.  The Athletics declined an $11 million team option on Young earlier in the offseason, making him a free agent.

Reading the title of this post the way Ron Burgundy reads a teleprompter should give a better idea of the starting point of this article, because in all honesty, I’m not sure if the Orioles should attempt to make Young their starting left fielder in the 2014 season.  After accumulating more than 10 Wins Above Replacement (according to Fangraphs) from 2010 to 2012, Young easily had the worst season of his career in 2013 playing mostly as a 4th outfielder in Oakland, collecting only 375 plate appearances. 

Despite the terrible 2013 season, Young will be playing the 2014 season at 30 years old.  So while he may be past his peak, his 2013 numbers aren’t necessarily indicative of his performance going forward.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that knowing this, Young will want to re-establish his value in the upcoming season, preferring to play for a team that will give him playing time as a starter (such as the Mets, Astros, etc.).  With that in mind, let’s see if the Orioles should pursue Young to fill their starting left field vacancy for the 2014 season.

Let’s start with the tools.  Out of the 5 tools available to a baseball player, Young possesses about 3.5 of them.  He has plus speed, defense, and power.  On the other hand, his arm is ok, and (as you can see by his batting averages above), he can have trouble making good contact.  Young’s inability to hit enough for him to get to his power is really the main hole in his game.

My initial assumption prior to looking at any data was that the main reason Young hits so poorly is due to his high strikeout rate.  However, after looking closer at the numbers, Young’s career strikeout rate, while higher than the league average, is only at 22.9%.  Since 2007 (when Young became a major league regular), the league average strikeout rate has been 18.5%.  So while it’s higher than average, it’s not so astronomical that it should be viewed as an issue.  Additionally, the Orioles had the 8th lowest strikeout rate as a team in 2013, so strikeouts were not generally an overall problem for Baltimore’s offense in 2013.

While his strikeout rate doesn’t help, it seems that the main reason Young perennially hits for low averages deals with his extremely high fly ball rate.  A high fly ball rate isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a hitter with Young’s power, especially if he’s playing most of his games in a ballpark like Camden Yards.  But the issue isn’t just his fly balls.  The issue is the number of infield fly balls he hits, which (obviously) have zero chance of ever being home runs.  While this is not ideal, Young has succeeded with a high IFFB% in previous years (over 20% in 2011), but that’s not a characteristic you generally want in a player.

The fact that Young hits far more fly balls than the average major leaguer means that his batting average is less dependent on BABIP, and as one would expect his career BABIP sits at .274 (league average BABIP in 2013 was .297).  And although his offensive production in 2013 was especially bad, some of it may have been driven by a career low BABIP of .237, despite a line drive rate that was 3% higher than his career average (his FB% and IFFB% in 2013 was only slightly higher than career levels).

On the plus side, Chris Young provides a good approach at the plate with plus power.  He boasts a career walk rate of 10%, which is better than every Orioles hitter in 2013 (minimum 300 PA’s), except for Chris Davis.  His career ISO of .196 would have been 3rd on the 2013 Orioles, (way) behind Davis and just behind Adam Jones.  Young produces a lot of value on the bases and on defense as well.  While he doesn’t steal a ton of bases (career SB% of 76%), he’s graded out as an above average baserunner every year of his career (according to Fangraphs).  On defense, he has a career UZR/150 of 3.0 (mostly in CF) along with 32 Defensive Runs Saved above average.  Ignoring the fact that Young should probably play centerfield instead of Jones based on his defense, he’ll be a more than adequate fill-in should Adam Jones get hurt.

But that’s all in the past, and we’re interested in what Young will produce in 2014.  He should be a relatively cheap signing this offseason.  Jim Bowden of ESPN expects Young to receive a 1 year, $5 million contract, while the Fangraphs audience expects Young to get 2 years and $13.6 million total.  I agree more with Bowden in this case, as I expect Young to prefer a one year contract, so he can re-establish his value and cash in next offseason.

An easy way to get an idea of what Young may contribute in 2014 season is to take a look at his Steamer projections located at Fangraphs.

As you can see in the table, I’ve included the 2014 Steamer projections for Nate McLouth as well, since it has been rumored that the Orioles would like to re-sign McLouth to play left-field for them again next season.  From an offense and baserunning perspective, Steamer projects Young and McLouth to be equally productive.  However, Young gains extra value from his superior defensive skills (both UZR/150 and DRS have McLouth as a below average fielder over his career, and he projects more of the same in 2014).  What is interesting is that Young projects to produce 0.5 wins more than McLouth in 66 fewer plate appearances.  Just for fun, I’ve included the average league production from left field in the 2013 season, and both candidates basically project to be that “average” player.

So what are we left with?  Despite the similarities, we’re left with a few differences that could sway our decision.  The first is Young’s superior defense, which we’ve already touched on.  Next would be each player’s contract expectations.  It’s been reported that McLouth is seeking a 2 year agreement (it’s also been reported that this isn't what the Orioles want to give him), while it’s viewed that Young will be likely looking for a one year contract.  Finally, there is each player’s age, as Young will play the 2014 season at age 30, while McLouth will do so at 32.

In my mind, all of the differences outlined above show Young as the better option in left field for the 2014 season.  Additionally, with a little positive regression (i.e., good luck), it’s not improbable that Young could provide an offensively similar season to the one he produced in 2010.  On the other hand, the best-case scenario for McLouth may very well be a repeat of his production in 2013.

In a perfect world, the Orioles would sign both players, which would give them a very productive LF platoon (Young has a career wOBA of .364 against LHP, while McLouth has a career .342 wOBA against RHP).  Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world, as playing time expectations of the players and payroll limitations of the team make that idea virtually impossible.

Ultimately, the Orioles should roll the dice with Chris Young, assuming he is willing to play left field.  The team will also have to provide Young with the assurance that he’ll be a starter.  And if the Orioles do in fact attempt to sign him, that may be the real challenge.  In a year where he will be looking to re-establish his market value, playing time, specifically in center field, may be the most important factor in Chris Young’s decision.


Liam said...

I'd be reluctant to take on Young for a couple reasons. First, his defense, like his offense, has declined for three years in a row. When we're talking about a 30 year old player who's value is heavily reliant on fielding that's an issue. And with Jones firmly entrenched in center field (like it or not, he's not moving any time soon), Young's defense wouldn't be as valuable.

Second, his offense is mainly fueled by power, not OBP. Considering most of the Orioles' lineup also fits this profile, whoever they sign for left field would ideally be stronger in the OBP department. Young certainly suffered from a low BABIP last year, but his bb% and k% have also been trending the wrong way over the past 3 years.

Unknown said...

i agree that Jones is not moving off CF. though i disagree with you on Young's defense. his defensive numbers were down this year (possibly a result from a thigh strain that put him on the DL early in the year), however, a 14.6 and 18.7 UZR/150 in 2011 and 2012 resepctively is pretty good. I don't see why a plus defender in CF would be an even better defender in left.

as for the offense, his BB% has been down, but still just under 10% and would still be among the best on the current O's team, and his K% was very stable from 2010-2012.

his low average CAN make that BB% meaningless in terms of OBP, and admittedly he isn't the perfect solution for the outfield vacancy. however, based on the teams (assumed self-imposed) financial limitations, i think he's a good buy low candidate who could potentially provide a lot of production. he does carry risk though, and i understand why some may want to avoid him.

Anonymous said...

I would prefer him to McLouth.

This is a good idea. Thanks Nate.

Unknown said...

NOPE! Mets got him for 1 year, $7.25 million

Anonymous said...

Bill James says 28 - 32 is a player's peak. A 30 year-old player would be at his peak, generally speaking, not past it.

Jon Shepherd said...

You are confusing populations of players vs individual players. You can be 25 and past your peak.