Many baseball analysts and fans picked the Arizona Diamondbacks to succeed in the wishy-washy NL West before the 2012 season started. And while the D-Backs certainly aren't out of contention yet, the team stands six games behind the San Francisco Giants in third place in the NL West. There are plenty of reasons players who have underperformed for the Snakes this season: Justin Upton and Daniel Hudson to name a couple, but at a first look, so has centerfielder Chris Young.
Young's contributions out in Arizona sometimes get overlooked due to younger, newer players (like the maybe-superstar Upton and young slugger Paul Goldschmidt) as well as the fact that AZ often plays late into the night for East Coast baseball fans. Chris Young's stat line often shows highs and lows, peaks and valleys. It may just be my perception, but I always hear that Young is either in the midst of a serious slump, or he's on fire. Just how good is Chris Young? Is he a valuable cog for a rising Arizona squad, or is he an under-achieving strikeout machine ready to enter a decline phase? Can he be both?
After two years of very solid performance (a combined 9.8 bWAR and 9.2 fWAR for 2010-11), including a 2010 All-Star Game selection, one could see his 2012 to date as kind of a disappointment. In terms of wins above replacement, Young has only managed 1.1 bWAR and 1.7 fWAR with less than half a season to go. Part of this WAR decline has to do with an early-season shoulder injury that cost him weeks of playing time, which has robbed him of the time necessary to log plate appearances and counting stats. But Young's overall hitting line has declined as well from the past two seasons.
This season, Young's hitting slightly more fly balls than ground balls, and he's making contact with a more balls over the plate, but that hasn't translated into improved performance. Actually, Young's suffering from a low BABIP; his .232 BABIP is quite a bit below his career average as well as being below league-average. This is probably indicative of bad luck more than anything else, as his peripherals aren't out of line with his performance in previous seasons.
So if in 2012, Young has been unlucky and is slightly underperforming his true talent level with the bat, the next question is: how good is that true talent level? The "big" and traditional stats paint the picture of a power hitter with speed who has trouble making contact. Young has a history of putting up 20+ HR, 20+ steals ... and pairing that with a poor batting average (lifetime .238). The advanced stats tell us that Young is better talent-wise than the batting average might have us believe, but worse that the HR numbers indicate.
First, Young's batting average hides the fact that Chris Young has turned into a hitter with good plate discipline. Young's walk rate is among the best in the majors, sitting pretty at 12.2% for 2012, and his numbers have shown consistency since 2009. This means that despite the awful average, Young manages to post average-to-above-average OBP numbers. One could expect, despite the vagaries of BABIP and Young's high strikeout rate, he should be able to reach base at a reasonable clip even as his career stretches out into his thirties.
Second, while Young creates value with his HR totals, those numbers (and all his batting stats) are inflated by his home park. The truth is that playing in the cozy confines of Chase Field, makes Mr. Young's bat look a bit more impressive than it would if he were the center fielder for, say, the San Diego Padres. In fact, according to FanGraph's Park Factors, Chase Field saw about a 4% boost above league average for HR for right-handed hitters like Chris Young in 2011. Chase had a total park factor of 105, which correlates to about a 5% increase over league average in terms of overall hitting, and that number has remained consistent over Chris Young's career in Arizona.
Young's ability to rack up the counting stats that matter in fantasy baseball (home runs and stolen bases, specifically) and his home park, has actually masked the fact that he's not a great hitter. Young's career wRC+, a metric that is park- and league-adjusted, sits at 96. A score of 100 measures out to league-average, meaning that Young's bat over his career is just slightly worse (4% worse) than league-average. Over the past two seasons, that number has been higher (113 wRC+ for 2010, 102 wRC+ for 2011), but this year he's sitting right at 100. It's probably fair to say that Young grades out as average with the bat.
If we give Young credit for about a league-average bat, what credit can we give him for his defensive contributions in center field? Obviously, that league-average bat is a lot more valuable when paired with plus defense at an important defensive position. And make no mistake, Chris Young is a fine defensive outfielder. Nearly every metric, advanced or traditional, points to Young as a solid defensive player with range, good hands, and a propensity for racking up outfield assists. Do you like fielding percentage? Well, Chris Young hasn't made an error all season. Enjoy UZR? Young has saved 23.8 runs according to that metric since 2010. Trust in the Fielding Bible? Young came in 3rd in Fielding Bible Awards voting in 2010, and 2nd in 2011, among center fielders.
This is particularly notable, I think, because Young has seen some serious improvement since the 2009 season. Though he used to have poor UZR scores (and a Fans' Scouting Report labeling him as about average), Young's recent performance has been excellent. Though Young still does not have a Gold Glove to his credit, he is an elite defensive player at one of the most important defensive positions on the diamond.
Metrics such as bWAR and fWAR paint a very interesting picture of the most important Chris Young in baseball. In 2010 and 2011, Young played at an All-Star level due to his ability to combine a league-average bat with plus defense at a critical position, not to mention an ability to rack up those critical counting stats. Young's improving ability to take a walk, combined with power and an advantageous home park, will serve him well as he enters his thirties. But if age saps his durability, his range in center field diminishes or Young moves to a less-accommodating home, his overall effectiveness as a player could drop rapidly.
Chris B. Young is an interesting player. He's probably a little bit overrated with the bat (though he's had bad luck this season), and probably a little underrated with the glove. He's headed towards his first time through free agency, and makes what I believe is a fair salary ($15.5 million over this and next season) given his contributions. While the ceiling of a superstar is probably out of reach, Young's still an above-average overall player, and one who shouldn't be overlooked.