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Baseball's Next Superstar: Chris Young

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Last season, Chris Young personified the difference between fantasy and real baseball. Young managed 32 homers and 27 steals, while at the same time posting a .237/.295/.467 line. These totals were great for fantasy owners, but the Diamondbacks could not have been happy with a sub-.300 OBP from their center fielder. Despite this, Young’s future remains as bright as any player’s in baseball (save, perhaps, teammate Justin Upton).

 

Young’s minor league numbers are impressive. Young did not even start playing baseball until his senior year in high school and yet, in 2004 as a 20-year-old in low-A ball in Kannapolis, Young hit .262/.365/.505 with 24 homers, 31 doubles, and 31 steals. On the surface, this is impressive – however, Kannapolis is an extremely difficult park to hit homers in. In fact, Kannapolis depresses homers by 26% - roughly the same as PetCo Park in San Diego. Thus, Young’s 24 homers are even more impressive than they seem.


In 2005 Young was bumped up to Double-A Birmingham at age 21, where he hit .277/.377/.545 with 26 homers, 41 doubles, and 32 steals. He also increased his walk rate, decreased his strikeouts, and continued to steal bases efficiently (he was caught only six times in both 2004 and 2005). What’s most impressive is that Young spent 2005 in an even more difficult park in which to hit home runs. Birmingham depresses homers by a whopping 48%, making it easily the most difficult park organized baseball in which to hit a home run. And yet Young, at age 21, managed to smack 26 in 126 games.

After the 2005 season White Sox GM Kenny Williams dealt Young (as well as Luiz Vizcaino and Orlando Hernandez) to Arizona in exchange for Javier Vazuqez. Vazquez has been an excellent pitcher for the White Sox; however, Vazquez invoked his right to request a trade and demanded to be dealt to a team closer to the east coast. Thus, Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes deserves a lot of credit for obtaining such a high-quality prospect in exchange for a pitcher he was forced to trade (and he could only trade that pitcher to a select group of teams).

 

In his first season in the Diamondbacks’ organization, Young (then 22 years old), played 100 games at Triple-A Tucson. While Tucson’s park effects are not as extreme as Birmingham’s, Tucson still depresses homers by 19%. Yet, once again, Young had a stellar line, finishing at.276/.363/.535 with 21 homers, 33 doubles, and 17 steals. What’s more impressive is that Young improved the one weakness in his offensive approach – he lowered his strikeout rate from 28% to 18% while maintaining his above-average walk rate.

Young’s first full season was a success in many ways – 32 homers and 27 steals from a 23-year-old rookie is extremely impressive. However, even in the minors, Young reportedly chased too many pitches out of the zone, leading some people to believe that he could not maintain a decent batting average in the majors. Despite his high counting stats, Young’s batting average, OBP, and strikeout totals were well below average last year.

 

What can we expect from Young this season? Chase Field in Phoenix is the first home park for Young that won’t depress his home run totals – in fact, last year Chase Field increased homers by 11%. This leads me to believe that Young’s 32 homers last season were far from a fluke – the guy has shown incredible power in adverse environments throughout his minor league career despite being young for the level every season. If we adjust for park effects and extend the minor league season to a full major league season, Young’s home runs totals from 2004 through 2006 would have been 32, 41, and 37. He also showed that he can continue to run at the major league level without getting thrown out often (he was caught stealing only six times last year).

Okay, Young can hit homers and steal bases without getting caught. These are great traits, but what of Young’s poor batting average and OBP last season? His career minor league batting average is only .267 – this does not exactly inspire hope after seeing him hit .238 throughout his first 639 major league at bats. Last season, Young’s problem was threefold: first of all, he struck out in 24.8% of his at bats; secondly, his line-drive percentage was only 15.1%; finally, he swung at pitches out of the strike zone 23% of the time. To be fair to him, Young was only 23 years old, but these factors showed that his .237 batting average was far from a fluke.

 

The most surprising aspect of Young’s 2007 season was his low walk rate. Throughout his minor league career, Young consistently demonstrated the ability to take a walk: from 2004-2006, he walked in 12.4%, 13.1%, and 11.5% of his plate appearances. Last season, however, Young walked in only 7% of his plate appearances. To improve, Young would need to lay off pitches out of the zone, allowing him to walk more and also theoretically allowing him to raise his line drive percentage.

And that is exactly what he has done. This season, Young has swung at only 15.68% of non-strikes, while still swinging at the same amount of strikes. His overall contact rate has been the same, but Young is being more picky in choosing what to swing at. As a result, Young has made better contact when he’s swung this year, and his line drive percentage has risen to 20.1%. More importantly, his walk rate has more than doubled, as he now is drawing walks in 12.6% of his plate appearances – right in line with his minor league numbers.

 

Young’s strikeout rate is still troubling, as he’s striking out in 28.4% of his at bats. However, Young’s increased selectivity at the plate, coupled with a minor league track record that shows a consistent improvement in striking out less frequently out suggests to me that he will be able to correct this in time, leading to a rise in his batting average. For Young to be a star, he doesn’t need to hit .300 – as his minor league numbers show, he can bat in the .260-.270 range and still post an OPS of over 900.

Defensively, Young is supposed to be an above-average center fielder. Although Baseball Prospectus did not like his defense last year, scouts have praised his defense and Baseball America has rated high defense highly. Additionally, Baseball Prospectus rated him as an above-average defender in 2005 and 2006.

Finally, Chris Young is only 24 years old. Age is an underrated factor when assessing potential – for a 24 year old already to have 40 homers, 41 doubles, 32 steals (being caught only seven times) and a 760 OPS is impressive. Young’s minor league track record suggests that he can improve in some areas that he’s been weak in thus far (such as walking more and striking out less). And so far this season, Young is showing signs of improvement.

As good as he was last season, we have only seen the beginning of Chris Young’s talent. The closest comparison I can think of is Carlos Beltran with perhaps even more power (although less defensive skill). Young is going to be a star for a long time, and he could very well soon one of the very best players in baseball.