Is Delmon Young Actually Swinging at Strikes?

It’s not a new thing for someone who writes about baseball to point out both that (a) Delmon Young was, for a number of years, one of the very top prospects in the entire minor leagues, and also that (b) he is not now, some number of years later, one of the very top players in the entire major leagues — is, in fact, only slightly better than replacement level over the course of 3,200-plus major-league plate appearances (or, roughly five full seasons’ worth of baseball).

It’s because of Young’s pedigree, however, that someone who writes about baseball (like the present author, for example) is always wondering if the second thing might be about to change. I am, certainly, more willing to regard a stretch of particularly good play from Young as more legitimately promising — as more a harbinger of likely future success — than, say, similar stretch of play from Willie Bloomquist.

All of which is why when Delmon Young homers in four consecutive games (as he has done in his last four, consecutively) one wonders if, perhaps, Delmon Young, Disappointment is on the verge of becoming Delmon Young, All-Time Baseball Great — or, at the very least, Delmon Young, League-Average Player.

Turns out, it’s also the sort of thing that the Detroit Free Press’s Shawn Windsor wonders, as well. Windsor, of course, has the advantage of being able to ask Delmon Young’s manager about such developments. In this case, Windsor did do that. And the difference, according to Leyland, between this version of Delmon Young and the other version is that this one is more selective.

Regard, blockquoted text:

“When Delmon is in a good groove he is swinging at strikes, and when he’s in a bad groove he is swinging at balls,” said Tigers manager Jim Leyland.

Indeed, there’s no question that one of the major impediments between Young and stardom (or even competence) has been his inability to discern a ball from a strike.

Per our PITCHf/x data, Young has swung at slightly more than 40% of pitches outside of the strike zone since 2007, while the league-average O-Swing% has typically sat around 27-29%. Young has usually been among the bottom 5% of qualified batters in this regard.

It follows then that, if Young is hitting better, that perhaps one of the reasons is because he’s identifying pitches more ably.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the case.

Here, for example, are the pitches at which Young has offered during his four-game homer streak (courtesy Texas Leaguers):

And here, now, are the pitches taken by Young over that same stretch:

Given the relatively few pitches Young has seen over just the four-game sample, it’s actually possible just to count those at which he has swung — versus those he’s taken — outside of the zone.

Doing so, one finds that — depending on the how literal we’re being about the strike zone — that Young has swung at about eight or nine pitches out of the zone, and that he’s taken about 10 or 12 pitches. That is, at best, then, a four-game O-Swing% of 40% exactly — and, at worst, of 47.4%.

This, of course, is not to suggest that Young’s success is entirely random; that’s not a thing we can know. There are certain, unnamed players who possess what would be considered entirely miserable approaches, if said unnamed players weren’t also leading the majors in home runs. Whatever the reason for Young’s recent homer streak, however, the ability to tell a ball from a strike does not appear to be the cause.

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Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.