While Delmon Young has yet to live up to his prospect hype, he is still just 27-years-old. Theoretically, he should be headed into the prime of his career, and baseball has seen a number of other players struggle early in their careers, only to develop into productive players at a later age. Raul Ibanez didn’t have his first productive season until age 29. Ben Zobrist turned into an effective player at age 27, seemingly out of nowhere. Garrett Jones came on the scene at 28, the same age that Nelson Cruz finally started hitting big league pitching. In each case, previously unproductive players turned into far more than they looked like earlier in their careers, and they should stand as a reason for optimism regarding Young’s future.
However, in each of those cases, those players hadn’t really failed at the Major League level in any kind of extended trial. They were minor league lifers, tagged with the 4A label, and they spent their early twenties just trying to earn a shot at the Majors. Rather than comparing Young to guys who simply didn’t get a chance to show what they could do earlier in their careers, I wanted to see if I could find some examples of late bloomers who had already accumulated significant Major League careers, and after struggling at the highest level, eventually turned into good players as they got into their peak seasons.
So, I started off by looking for players with similar track records to Delmon Young. Through his 2012 season, when he was 26-years-old, Young had racked up 3,575 plate appearances and totaled just 0.8 WAR. So, I set the playing time limit to 3,500 plate appearances capped career WAR through age 26 at less than 6. These filters would give us players who had racked up approximately six years worth of playing time, and had averaged fewer than 1 WAR per season during that time.
The problem? It’s a really small list. In the last 100 years, there have been four players have managed to get that much playing time early in their career without being particularly effective. Those four, in order of least production:
Delmon Young: 3,575 PA, 0.8 WAR
Charlie Grimm: 3,847 PA, 4.9 WAR
Cristian Guzman: 3,538 PA, 5.3 WAR
Ed Kranepool: 3,684 PA, 5.4 WAR
Grimm, Guzman, and Kranepool weren’t very effective players in their early twenties, but they were all better than Young by a pretty decent margin. No player in the last 100 years has played as much at as ineffective of a level as Delmon Young through this same point in his career. However, the three other guys on the list do offer some hope for Young’s future.
Through age 26, Grimm was a first baseman without much power, as he hit .285/.331/.392, good for just a 90 wRC+. He’d shown flashes of potential, including an excellent season at age 24, but hadn’t sustained that early promise. His age 27 season didn’t include any kind of miraculous breakout (100 wRC+, 0.7 WAR), but it began a steady ascent towards being a relatively decent player. From age 27 to 37, Grimm hit .294/.349/.401, good for a 98 wRC+, and he racked up 14.6 WAR in 4,898 pate appearances. On a per season basis, that puts him around 1.8 WAR per full year, which is roughly the performance of a league average player.
Kranepool had a similar improvement, going from a 90 wRC+ and 0.9 WAR per 600 plate appearances through age 26 to a 102 wRC+ and 1.6 WAR per 600 plate appearances from age 27 to 34. He didn’t have the same staying power as Grimm, but he put together a nice three year run from 1974 to 1976 as a well above average hitter, despite showing little of that offensive potential early in his career.
Guzman is the least simmilar player to Young, as he got to the Majors early based on his speed-and-defense profile at a young age, but even he performed better from 27 to 32 than he had earlier in his career. Through age 26, Guzman had a 74 wRC+ and 0.9 WAR per 600 plate appearances, but from 27 on, he put up an 83 wRC+ and averaged 1.3 WAR per 600 trips to the plate. It’s not a huge gain, but Guzman did have one big season at age 30, putting his skills together to give the Nationals a real boost in 2008.
In each case, previously unproductive players turned into useful role players later in their careers, even after struggling for years in the big leagues with a promotion they probably weren’t ready for. However, we can’t ignore the fact that each player was significantly better than Young during their formative years, and so they were starting from a higher baseline than he is. And, of course, none of the three even turned into above average players, and it’s probably safe to write off the idea of Young becoming any kind of star.
But, for all the ridicule the Phillies got for bringing Young on board, there is some precedent of bad young players becoming useful middle aged players. It might not be quite as rosy of an outlook as comparing him to guys like Ibanez, Cruz, or Jones, but Young isn’t worthy completely giving up on yet. There’s still a chance he has a few decent seasons in him yet.