At the beginning of the season, nobody was particularly excited about baseball players with the surname, "Young."
Arizona center fielder Chris Young was coming off an ugly replacement-level season with roughly $25.5M in salary coming to him through 2013. Minnesota left fielder Delmon Young had accumulated minus-1.7 WAR in 422 games over the past three seasons, as one of the worst players in baseball to get that kind of playing time. I suppose Delwyn, Eric Jr. and Corey didn't have anybody particularly excited coming into the season, either.
But what people fail to realize is that this was Team Young's plan all along. It would have to be a basic, five-step plan, I presume. Step one, burst onto the scene and get the people super excited. Step two, quickly fall flat on your face and get the people disappointed. Step three, keep playing poorly so the people get really close to writing you off. Step four, have everything click, emerge as star-quality players, and prove the people wrong. Step five, try to get traded to the same team with Delwyn or Eric, so some lucky organization can have the Team Young outfield.
Because honestly, this is the only solution. How else could two players with the same last name have such similar career paths without having similar skill sets?
Let's just see how nicely both Youngs followed their little plan, starting with Chris.
Step One. Chris Young was a White Sox farmhand before being the centerpiece of the package that landed Javier Vazquez in Chicago in 2006. He was rated as a top-25 prospect in all of baseball by BA before both the 2006 and 2007 seasons, and spent essentially all of 2007 as Arizona's regular center fielder. In 148 games with the big league club, he struggled to make contact, had a sub-.300 OBP, and his defense didn't grade out well, but with 32 home runs and 27 stolen bases on the year, a solid level of excitement had been established. There just aren't many 23-year-old center fielders that can put up a 30 HR/30 SB season, but Young appeared to be one of them. He showed some major issues with making contact, as he struck out in 23% of his PA's and didn't have a strong walk rate to back it up.
Steps Two and Three. Disappointment would come in the form of Young's next two seasons, during which he showed increased patience but little else in terms of improvement. Given that Young played half his games in Chase Field, a pronounced hitters park, Young still hadn't put up a league-average offensive performance yet coming into 2010. Most projections pegged Young for roughly league-average numbers in 2010 given his newly found patience from 2009 and plus power, which would've been a pleasant surprise given his disappointing performance in his first three MLB seasons. But these projections also included regression in his BABIP, which was pretty low at .276 from 2007-2009.
Step Four. And it's safe to say that Young has followed through on step four, as he's currently hitting .268/.337/.471 with 22 homers and 20 steals in 110 games, good for 3.3 WAR. The walk rate declined some, but so did the strikeout rate, and now he's combined his power with a solid .300 BABIP (lots of fly balls, infield flies have made him a low-BABIP hitter), making him a solidly above-average hitter so far this season. ZiPS projects his BABIP to regress to near his .281 career mark, but even so he still projects as above-average offensively going forward. Combined with his defensive value in center field, where he's emerged as average-to-slightly-above-average, and base-stealing skills, he's 22-for-26 this season, you have one of the best all-around center fielders in baseball. It's definitely been a long ride for Young.
I would have to say that Delmon's ride to prominence probably hasn't been as fun as the other Young's, though. Not only did Delmon begin closer to the top than the other Young, but he fell far closer to the bottom than Chris, too.
Step One. Totally unlike Chris, who was a 16th-round pick in 2001, Delmon was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft. He would spend the next four years as a top-3 prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America's Top-100 lists, including a ranking as the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball before the 2006 season. With prodigious bat speed and seemingly endless offensive potential, the only questions surrounding Young seemed not to be around if he would develop the approach to fully harness his talent, but when that would happen. And Delmon didn't do a good job of tempering expectations in his late-season debut in 2006, when he hit .317/.336/.476 and accumulated roughly 1 WAR in only 30 games.
Step Two. 2007 was supposed to be Young's big breakout season, but instead it was Chris who got everybody's attention with his play that year. Delmon played in all 162 games with Tampa Bay, but hit just .288/.316/.408, putting up an essentially replacement-level season given his lack of power, patience and defensive value. It's worth noting that his character and work ethic weren't exactly considered to be that of an elite player, either. Clearly, Young had left Tampa disappointed, because the team opted to trade him to Minnesota the following winter for a package headlined by shortstop Jason Barlett and pitching prospect Matt Garza.
Step Three. Rather than prove the Rays, who removed the "Devil" from their name the year after they traded Young, wrong, Young actually saw his performance worsen with a move to Minnesota. His offense essentially held steady at 5-10% below the league average, but his defense in left field went from below-average to truly horrid, making him one of the most ineffective players in the league to receive regular playing time. He began to flash more power in 2009, but when you looked at his 12-to-92 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 416 PA, it's easy to see why Young wasn't really taking advantage of his hitting ability and raw power. With poor contact skills and an impatient approach, Young simply was never going to take the next step without addressing those issues.
Step Four. Just like with Chris, 2010 happened. Something's truly clicked for Delmon. His contact rate, which sat in the 74-77% range in his first three seasons, is up to 84% in 2010. His whiff rate, which sat in the 13-16% range in his first three seasons, is down to just 9.3% in 2010. He's still using the same aggressive approach that didn't work in the past, but now he's connecting on pitches that he simply wasn't hitting before. His walk rate will never be high, as he's only walked in 4.1% of his PA's this year, but Young should be able to make it work given his ability to hit for a high average and power, as he's done throughout this season. He's never be a good defender in left field, which limits his value in comparison to Chris. But as a guy who was damn-close to being considered a total bust, it's awfully nice to see that he's finally emerging as a quality player after all these years.
Step Five? You never know. Chris is under contract through 2013 with a club option for 2014, while Delmon is under team control through 2013 before being eligible for free agency. Plus, Delwyn Young hits free agency after 2014. Maybe Delwyn takes a cue from the other Youngs and finally breaks out next season, and then joins the other two in a badass Team Young outfield in 2015. See, these are the kinds of things that I think about by myself.
With all of that said, I was just pleasantly surprised to see two young players who were so maligned in the past two years playing so well. Coming into the season, discussions would've been based around ways that Arizona could get out of Chris' contract, or the possibility that Minnesota could non-tender Delmon after the season. Now? Both look like key cogs for the future. It was all part of the plan, my friends.