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Delmon Young and Relative Upgrades

The Phillies’ signing of Delmon Young this offseason drew mixed reviews. Some believed his right-handed power was exactly what this lineup lacked and the modest one-year commitment carried little risk. Others felt that his poor baserunning, terrible fielding and lack of patience at the plate would hurt the Phillies far more than his potential power helped.

Player valuations are tricky because in addition to analyzing the player himself, the context in which he plays merits strong consideration. Young’s value to the Phillies is partially determined by his own productivity, but also based on the alternative outfield solutions and their performance.

The Phillies’ outfield has largely struggled this season. Even if Young’s numbers were mediocre or worse, that mediocrity could represent an improvement.  Phillies outfielders have hit a putrid .226/.290/.360 this season, with a below average fielding rating and -0.2 WAR. Only the Marlins’ outfield has produced less overall, and with Giancarlo Stanton heating up, they might not be far away from besting the Phils as well. [Of course Stanton had to get hurt and ruin my fantasy team this point].

Young is a better hitter than that slash line but it’s also unlikely that Phillies outfielders continue to struggle at that rate.

What we’re really interested in when looking at what Young can provide is whether or not he represents an improvement over what we expect Phillies right fielders to produce from this point forward. Under that guise it becomes more difficult to justify giving him the lion’s share of playing time.

For starters, Young is a flat-out brutal fielder. No matter the advanced fielding metric, Young has posted poor numbers, and is better utilized as a designated hitter. Young claims his defensive issues are a result of his discomfort in left field, which is the main reason the Phillies are plugging him into right field. It’s hard to imagine someone being terrible in one corner outfield post but league average or better in another. The positions just aren’t that different.

He rates as one of the worst on the basepaths as well, and while fielding and baserunning are often written off by fans — or at least not treated with as much reverence as the more tangible offensive production — they have a material impact on the value a player provides to his team.

Putting everything together, look at the following two players from 2010-12:

Player A: .278/.311/.435, … 4.1% BB/PA … .156 ISO … 31.7 AB/HR … -16.7 UZR … 0.8 WAR
Player B: .257/.317/.446 … 7.7% BB/PA … .189 ISO … 23.2 AB/HR … 0.8 UZR … 2.7 WAR

On WAR alone, Player B has the superior numbers, and it’s easy to see why. He has fielded his position much better, displayed more patience at the plate and connected for more power when the ball is put in play.

Player A = Delmon Young. Player B = John Mayberry.

It’s understandable why some fans have gotten excited about Young. He was a former #1 overall draft pick and has hit 20+ HR before. But his overall game isn’t impressive at all and the Phillies are already playing someone better at the same position.

While the Phillies outfield has struggled, Mayberry really hasn’t, posting a .324 OBP and .476 SLG this season. He is swinging and missing more often, but good things have happened when he connects, and he has a very solid 11% walk rate.

Over the rest of the season, the ZIPS projection system sees Mayberry hitting .247/.305/.412, but if Charlie Manuel continues to platoon him and Nix, the numbers in right field will improve. Since Nix is already guaranteed a major-league contract this season — and that was a reason to get rid of Nate Schierholtz — the benefit of Young producing at the same rate as NixBerry in just one roster spot is moot.

The various systems at Fangraphs see Young hitting around .274/.313/.436 with poor defense and baserunning. All told, it’s about a wash. Young could defy his projections and put up better than expected numbers as anything can happen over one season. But he doesn’t figure to produce any more than Mayberry or Nix, and it’s very possible he falls short of them if his defense really falters.

Young’s projection falls well short of Domonic Brown‘s over the rest of the way as well, for those thinking the Phils could reduce his playing time in lieu of Mayberry’s.

ZIPS sees Brown hitting .263/.331/.450 from this point forward but even his current slash line of .241/.312/.386 produces the same wOBA as Young’s 2012 season. There is no clear spot in the outfield where Young represents a legitimate improvement over what the Phillies are currently using. The outfield has struggled on the whole but much of that falls on Ben Revere.

Young is a new player, and in his best-case scenario would help the Phillies from a relative standpoint. New players are often exciting, especially when juxtaposed against those who haven’t necessarily lived up to their expectations. Fans also often develop opinions of new players based on the best-case scenario of production, assuming their team can fix his flaws. But new != good.

While the deal carried little risk from a years and dollars standpoint, it carries performance risk in the sense that both Ruben Amaro and Charlie Manuel likely view Young as an everyday player.

The Phillies’ outfield has struggled this season, but not in the areas Young figures to play, and not enough for his contributions to represent even a relative upgrade. Here’s to hoping that he tears the cover off the ball if pressed into an everyday role, but that the team understands overall value enough that he is given a fairly short leash as a regular.

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