Signing Chris Young is a Solid Step

Chris+Young+Oakland+AthleticsThe Mets have reportedly come to terms with OF Chris Young on a one-year, $6 million contract for 2014. ESPN places the value of the contract at $7.25 million.

Young, who turned 30 in September, had a bad 2013 with Oakland, hitting .200/.280/.379 with 18 doubles, 12 homers, 36 walks and 93 strikeouts in 107 games. He was worth 0.2 bWAR and 0.5fWAR. And yet, this is a solid signing.

Young was a very productive player from 2010-11 with the Diamondbacks, putting up fWAR of 4.1 and 4.5 in 2010 and 2011 respectively, and bWAR of 5.5 and 5.0 for those same seasons. (The point is not that one WAR system is right or wrong, but that they both saw his contributions in 2010-11 as in the range of “very good.”) He hit a little above average, running a wRC+ of 109 and 102 in 2010 and 2011 respectively, combined with excellent defense in center. Young was, at that time, the player Mets’ fans hope Juan Lagares can be.

Young’s 2012, his age 28 season, was not as strong as his previous two years. He started late with a right shoulder separation and then his September was interrupted by a quad strain. ┬áStill, his offensive contribution in 2012 (98 wRC+) was close to 2011′s level (102). The difference was largely the result of a slight erosion in his walk rate from 12.1% in 2011 to 9.9% in 2012 and a decline in his BABIP from .296 in 2010, to .275 in 2011 to .263 in 2012. His defense in CF 2012, by UZR/150, graded out even better than in his two-season 2010-11 peak.

In 2013 everything got worse. His walk rate slipped a tick down to 9.6%, his lowest rate since 2008, while his strikeout rate climbed to 24.8%, his highest rate since 2009. His BABIP of .237 was his lowest of his Major League career. His BABIP drop can be significantly explained by the decline in Young’s ground ball percentage, which went from 33.7% in 2010 to 28.6% by 2013. That 5% drop was more or less replaced by infield fly balls in his batted ball profile. Why the change in batted ball profile? Was he cheating to get under pitches to drive them and instead popping them up? Was he dipping his back shoulder? Dropping his hands? I don’t know, but I would wager that there is a mechanical swing explanation. In 2013, for the first time in his career, his production on fastballs, per 100 pitches was negative. Defensively, he was a plus corner outfielder by UZR, but below average in center in only 381 innings – the equivalent of a quarter of a season.

The decline in Young’s 2013 walk rate can be explained by his in/out zone swing percentages. In 2013, his O-swing%, that is the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone at which he swung, was a career-high 28.3%. In his 2010, 11, and 12 that number was 22%, 26.5% and then 24.7%. In 2013, his Z-Swing %, that his the percentage of strikes at which he swung was 61.8%, also a career-high, narrowly edging out 2011.

Over the span of his career, he has a significant platoon split, bopping lefties at a .262/.363/.474 rate in 1138 PA while hitting .225/.295/.415 against righties in 2825 PA.

To return to his 2010-2012 peak, he will need to cut down on chasing pitches out of the zone. That sounds like Mets’ hitting coach Dave Hudgens’ strong teaching suit. Increased selectivity for Young could bring his infield popup rate back down.

Is Chris Young worth $7.25 million on a one-year deal? Most assuredly so. David Murphy just signed a two-year $12 million deal with the Cleveland Indians. Murphy was every bit as bad as Young in 2013 (.220/.282/.374, 73 wRC+, 0.4 fWAR, 0.2 bWAR) if not worse. Murphy’s two years older and his best season (2012) was not as good as Young’s best (2010 and 2011). Young is better than Murphy, younger and comes with a lower total dollar amount.

The price of real MLB outfielders, coming off down years, in their age 30-32 seasons, who can play good defense, have platoon splits and nearly four-win seasons on their resume is now apparently $6 million-ish per year.

Chris Young could certainly perform better for the Mets in 2014 than he did in Oakland in 2013. Any return towards his 2010-2012 form will help the blue and orange. His signing makes the 2014 Mets a little bit better. It does not make them a favorite in the NL East or for a wild card slot. It just makes them incrementally better. As a first step to a more productive outfield, Young fits the bill. Even if Young does not hit better in 2014 than he did in 2013, or he gets hurt, or both, there is absolutely zero long term risk. The Mets have not attached themselves to Young’s decline phase past his age-30 year and the 2014 season.

If the Mets put Young in an outfield corner, say right, they can expect above average defense, and a very dangerous bat against left-handed pitching. Ideally, the Mets would pair him with a lefty hitting outfielder who can play against many of the right-handed pitchers the team will face to produce better value out of the same corner outfield spot. An outfield that begins with Juan Lagares in center and Chris Young in right, should be well above average defensively.

Also, as the picture at right makes clear, Young has outstanding choice in hosiery, which is almost as important as whether a baseball player can hit, field, and run the bases.

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