Like many Americans, Delmon Young is presently unemployed. Like few presently unemployed Americans, Young should shortly become employed, and somewhat lucratively. Young, presumably, will land a major-league contract, and even the major-league minimum guarantees several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Relative to the rest of the unemployed, Young’s in a good situation. He’s in a far worse situation, though, than people figured he would be around this point in his career.
Delmon Young is 27 years old. This guy, he’s 27. Granted, this guy is even younger, but we’re not really here to judge people on their looks. Young is 27, and he’s more newly 27 than nearly 28. He’s younger than Mitch Moreland. He’s younger than David Price, and he’s only months older than Mark Trumbo. This is supposed to be Young’s career peak, and Young was supposed to have an incredible career peak. Young, last year, was bad. By our metrics, in three of his six full-ish big-league seasons he’s been below replacement-level. In another, he was exactly replacement-level. For his career, he’s at 0.8 WAR. In his initial 30-game campaign in 2006, he was worth 0.9 WAR. You’re getting the Delmon Young idea.
You look at Delmon Young now, and you might have trouble figuring out what made him a top prospect before. I thought it would be worth reflecting on Young as a younger player. Young wasn’t even just a top prospect; he was at the top of the group of top prospects, a guy who people saw coming for years, in a good way. He was the first overall pick in 2003. Here’s how Baseball America ranked him on its annual list of the game’s top 100 prospects:
Four years in a row, and no significant change. The Devil Rays drafted Young on talent, and then, in the minors, he mostly turned that talent into performance, which the BA rankings reflect. Now, in the rest of this piece you’re going to see some excerpts from prospect people. I’m not trying to be critical of them, and I’m not trying to undermine their expertise. I just wanted to track down some words that people had to say about Young when he was among the biggest of deals.
John Sickels wrote about Young in September 2004. By this point, Young had hit well in single-A as an 18-year-old. Some words:
Scouts love Young’s physical tools and his baseball skills are well developed. The ball jumps off his bat and he shows plus power to all fields[...]He projects to hit for both average and power at higher levels, and has no particular pitch weaknesses, at least not that A-ball pitchers can exploit. Young’s strike-zone judgment can be inconsistent, but again it has been much better over the last few weeks as he’s adjusted to pro pitching. He may not be a walk machine, but he controls the zone well enough. Young’s running speed is average, but he has good baserunning instincts and can’t be ignored by pitchers. He has a right-field arm and good range in the outfield.
The main concern for him is maintaining his plate discipline at higher levels, but given his age and performance this year I don’t think this will be a long-term problem.
David Regan, in February 2006:
Other than a rough patch in Triple-A, there’s nothing NOT to like about Young. If he had had the year he did in 2005 at age 23, he’d still have been a top 20 prospect, but his age made him a no-brainer at age 20. Why? At such a tender age, it’s nearly a lock that his best is yet to come. Young’s body is still developing, and with additional muscle and game experience, he should get even better.
Kevin Goldstein, in February 2007:
The Good: Pure hitting skills that are unparalleled in the minor leagues. Ultra-fast bat, plenty of raw strength and enormous plate coverage allow for projections of a .300+ average with 25-35 home runs annually. Not just a one-dimensional talent, Young is a tick-above-average runner and an excellent base stealer, as well as a good outfielder with an outstanding arm.
From Perfect Game, we get some unintentional foreshadowing:
“Young came off an impressive stint at the Area Codes and was able to display his bat speed and power. The ball jumps off his bat lightning-fast and he looks like a veteran out there already.”
And from Goldstein, some more intentional foreshadowing:
I found the scout who’s not crazy about Tampa rookie Delmon Young. “We know he has strike zone issues–he’s exploitable up and in and then he chases sliders away,” said the scout. “I know he’s good, but when I see him, I just don’t see ‘special.’”
Young destroyed single-A as a teenager. He destroyed double-A as a teenager, and then he was above-average in triple-A. In 2006, the International League overall had a .258 batting average and a .389 slugging. Young came in at .316 and .474, and he was 20. Young had bat speed, and he looked like the rare sort that could hit for both average and power, with more power yet to come as his body matured. Young, put more simply, had the “hit tool”, and that was supposed to carry him to sustainable major-league success. Beyond just hitting the ball hard, Young was supposed to be able to do enough other things that he could approximate a well-rounded talent.
Young’s body matured. Here he is with Durham, and here he is with Detroit. In the minors, he stole at least 20 bases all three years. In the majors, he stole 14 once, but he’s swiped eight bases since 2009, while getting caught 11 times. Among all outfielders with at least 2,000 defensive innings since 2006, Young ranks 140th out of 154 in UZR/150. He didn’t even play much outfield at all in 2012. Also since 2006, Young has walked less frequently than Corey Patterson. Also since 2006, Young has been less valuable than Greg Dobbs. Also since 2006, Young has posted a lower wRC+ than Skip Schumaker and Maicer Izturis.
Some of the hints, I think, were always there. Young drew unintentional walks in 5.5% of his minor-league plate appearances. He was at 3.9% between double-A and triple-A. He hit well enough in the minors that he was never forced into an adjustment or improvements, and in the majors, Young has made zero progress. His swing rates were the same in 2012 as they were in 2008. Young never had to learn not to chase when he was younger, and now that he’s older, it’s harder to learn the necessary lessons.
And then everything else. Young’s body has held him back in the field and on the bases. He’s had enough incidents regarding his maturity that you wonder about his makeup, and you wonder whether that might be a clue into why he’s failed to develop as expected. That’s hindsight, of course, and a correlation/causation thing, and people can generally be forgiven for immaturity when they’re somewhere around 20 years old. Young’s most recent incident can be less readily explained, but it isn’t fair to make assumptions regarding what this has meant about Young as a ballplayer.
If you’re still more interested in the development of Delmon Young’s body with age, here are embedded stills from 2008 and 2012:
Young’s filled out, and one would hope that the corresponding decline in his athletic skills would be offset by an improvement in his hitting skills. No such improvement has been seen, and Young’s never even hit for real power outside of a now-anomalous 2010. The team that signs Delmon Young as a free agent will entertain some hopes that Young will finally put everything together. Players with talent have before put it all together seemingly out of nowhere, and you can’t ignore Young’s prospect pedigree. But many of the things that made him a top prospect — they aren’t there anymore. Not like they were, and age is no longer on Young’s side. We can’t say that his plate discipline will get better with experience, because he’s had a lot of experience — and a lot of it negative — and last year he walked 20 times. Delmon Young, last year, more often grounded into double plays than drew unintentional walks.
But. And of course there has to be a “but”. Delmon Young: Superprospect isn’t completely dead. As a minor leaguer, Young was said to make the ball jump off his bat. You know the type: the guys who hit the ball harder than it seems like they ought to given their swings. Delmon Young, September, 2012:
I haven’t yet figured out how Delmon Young hit that pitch for a home run. If you watch Young’s highlight videos, you’ll see similar batted balls that come off the bat faster than it seems like they should. That raw talent of Young’s hasn’t deteriorated with time, so it lingers on, a living sign of what Young was, and of what Young was supposed to be. Watch that home run, and only that home run, and you might think “this guy is amazing, he can hit anything out.”
Young, it seems, always believed that to be true, and while it’s never too late to try to make changes, it can get too late to actually make them. Talent alone got Delmon Young to the majors. Young either hasn’t worked hard, or he hasn’t worked smart. Young at 26 was the same as he was at 21. The same, but bigger, and a whole hell of a lot less promising.