At some point we will all experience what I have found to be the worst feeling for a baseball fan, a favorite prospect busting. It’s what prospects do best. Many of us, and I’m willing to wager most of us, have already experienced this. It’s like sustaining a concussion. The initial blow, seeing a player whom you spent so much time hyping fail at the major league level, hurts enough. The lingering effects can be even worse. You’ll continue to follow your team’s prospects, but after that first bust you view everyone with extra caution. No one wants to get bopped on the head a second time.
This added caution sometimes causes us to dismiss players before they’ve run their course. A prime example of this is Chris Young, the No. 23 prospect in baseball for the 2006 season. He has played three full seasons now, batting just .235 with a .307 OBP. In terms of results his 2009 was the worst among them, as he posted a .314 wOBA and 0.1 WAR. A ground injury sustained in June impeded him, perhaps making his season look a bit worse. Even so, after underwhelming performances prior to 2009 it’s tough to remain excited about Young’s potential.
Despite the likely disappointment we’ll feel by getting excited over Young, here are three reasons he just might turn things around in 2010.
1. His walk rate is rising
Through his 1,068 minor league plate appearances, Young walked about 12 percent of the time. During his first two years in the bigs that rate was much lower, at 6.9 percent in 2007 and 8.9 percent in 2008. He improved that again in 2009, walking 11.8 percent, or just a fraction under his minor league rate. He also saw more pitches per plate appearance than in his previous two seasons, 4.11. THis probably results from him swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone, just 18 percent, 13th lowest among MLB hitters last season. Perhaps his increased patience is the first step to better production.
2. He’s swinging at more pitched inside the zone
Eno covered this back in December. In comparing Young to Mike Cameron, he noted that the latter swings at more pitches inside the zone. Young is working towards that, though. Not only did he swing at fewer pitches outside the zone, he also swung at more pitches inside the zone in 2009, up to 61.3 percent. The percent changes on both his swings out of the zone and swings in the zone are about the same. They’re not huge, around 2.5 percent each, but it’s something on which he can build. One aspect he’ll need to work on in this regard is making contact with those pitches in the zone. He did that just 82.1 percent of the time in 2009, below his numbers from the previous two years and 5.6 percent below major league average.
3. He’s not the only one
I love historical comparables, especially with struggling players like Young. Using B-R’s Play Index, I searched for players, starting in 1980, who posted an OBP below .310 and struck out more than 250 times in their age 22 through 25 seasons. As expected, there are some disappointing names on that list, including Corey Patterson, Alex Gonzalez (the one drafted by the Blue Jays, not the one who currently plays for them), Juan Samuel, and Jim Presley. Jeff Francoeur also showed up.
There is one name on this list gives Young hope: Dean Palmer. From age 22 through 25 Palmer hit .231/.307/.452, which almost mirror Young’s numbers. Over his next five seasons, from age 26 through 30, Palmer hit .273/.339/.507, posting one more strong year before declining and eventually retiring.
By reducing the strikeout requirement I found another interesting name: Sammy Sosa. From ages 22 through 25 he hit .260/.305/.456, a bit better than Young in terms of average but almost identical power numbers. The difference is that by age 25 Sosa was already starting to murder the ball, as he hit .300/.339/.545 that season, and went on to hit .278/.343/.567 over the next five seasons. Some good news for Young: Sosa led the league in strikeouts in three of those seasons.
Keep your helmet on
If you don’t want to suffer a case of prospect concussion I suggest you keep your helmet strapped on at all times, or else forget about Chris Young as a legitimate MLB player. If you want to hang on, and comprehend the consequences of doing so, there are a few glimmers of hope that he might put together a quality 2010 season. The odds are long. Disappointment looms. But isn’t that the case for all prospects?
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