Last season, Chris Young‘s big league career reached its nadir. A former White Sox prospect swapped to Arizona as part of the December 2005 Javier Vazquez deal, Young was an acclaimed prospect who displayed an intriguing blend of patience, pop, and speed. The man once rated by Baseball America as the 12th-best talent in the minors didn’t distinguish himself at the plate in 2007 (94 wRC+) or 2008 (95 wRC+), but Young’s offensive game devolved to the extent that the D-Backs banished him to Triple-A Reno in August of 2009. Even after a big September, Young finished the season with an 85 wRC+. His bat was worth nearly ten runs below average.
An optimist might have pointed out that Young established a career-high walk rate (11.8 BB%) and continued to drive the ball frequently, with a .187 Isolated Power. And look — his BABIP was just .268! Young was just unlucky, right?
Well, not exactly. Over the years, Young had developed a disturbing tendency to hit the ball up the elevator shaft. His infield fly ball percentage (IFFB%) was 12.7 percent in 2007, and it climbed to 16.8 percent in 2008. Last season, Young popped the ball up a staggering 22.4 percent of the time that he hit a fly ball. For comparison, the major league average sits between seven and eight percent. Infield flies are the closest thing to a gimme out on a ball put in play, and Young hit more of them than just about anybody — over the period of 2007 to 2009, only Mark Ellis popped up more frequently among qualified batters.
As such, Young basically earned that low BABIP. His expected BABIP (xBABIP) in 2009 was just eight points higher than his actual mark, at .276. When Young was booted to Reno last August, Dave Allen offered a possible explanation for the center fielder’s pop up woes. “Part of the problem,” Allen said, “is that Young cannot lay off the high-heat.” At the time of his demotion, Young was swinging at far more high fastballs than the average MLB hitter. Here’s more from Allen:
These fastballs up in zone and above the zone are most likely to be whiffs and pop ups, and Young swings at them about 7.5% more often than average…Young is swinging at too many pitches up in the zone and, probably, there is something wrong with the path of his swing leading to the increase in pop ups and drop in HRs.
So far in 2010, Young is doing a better job of laying off the high heat. Allen was kind enough to provide a couple of updated graphs showing Young’s decreased tendency to jump at letter-high fastballs. First, here’s Young’s swing rate by pitch height from 2010, compared to 2007-2009:
And here is Young’s infield fly ball percentage by pitch height:
So, Young’s not swinging at as many high fastballs, and when he does offer at those pitches, he’s not popping up as much as in years past. That helps explain why his IFFB% is down to a much more reasonable 9.7 this season. The decrease in high fastballs swung at may also contribute to his increase in contact rate (81.6% in 2009, 86.2% in 2010) and lowered strikeout rate (30.7 K% in ’09, 24.1% this season).
Young’s BABIP is .305 this season, and his xBABIP is actually slightly higher at .311. With a wRC+ of 118, his lumber has been worth +7.6 runs to this point. It remains to be seen whether Young can keep these gains made during the first half, but Arizona’s All-Star representative is finally starting to live up to the prospect billing.