Why Do The Baltimore Orioles Start Delmon Young?


This picture tells you everything you need to know about Young’s fielding. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

As the Baltimore Orioles near the playoffs, I’ve spent the past few weeks looking at some trends of theirs. Two weeks ago, I examined Chris Tillman’s recent hot stretch, which I concluded was legitimate; last week, I examined Nelson Cruz’s recent cold stretch, which I concluded was legitimate as well. Today, though, I don’t want to scrutinize a player, per se, so much as Baltimore’s implementation of him.

When the Orioles signed Delmon Young to a minor league deal in January, it could have been a decent move. He has strengths, and while his weaknesses certainly outnumber them, he can assist a team. Sadly, though, the Birds have botched their usage of this man, and it may come back to bite them in the future.

First, let’s talk about defense. Some players, such as David Lough and (to a lesser extent) the newly-acquired Alejandro De Aza, excel in the field; they consistently make good plays, and their statistics reflect that. Other players — Steve Pearce and (also to a lesser extent) Cruz, to name a few — can’t attain that level of performance; nonetheless, they know their limits, play the ball well, and post respectable, if subpar, numbers. And then there are the players who, for lack of a better way of phrasing it, suck. Their defense nauseates fans and teammates alike, and they have long passed the age at which they could hope to improve. If a team owned the rights to a player from the latter group, they surely wouldn’t allot him regular playing time…right? One would certainly think so.

Yesterday, the Orioles faced the Minnesota Twins, in the final game of a four-game series. Pearce didn’t play (an abdomen injury still hampers him), so the team needed someone to man left field. Cruz — who has played there sparingly this season, with decent results — received a justifiable defensive break, so they couldn’t pick him. But they still had two good options in Lough and De Aza. Instead of selecting either of them, though, the club opted for Young. They soon regretted it.

In the sixth inning, Kevin Gausman had runners on second and third, with one out. Dominant hitter-turned-middling schlub Joe Mauer hit a line drive to deep left. Young misjudged it, and let it go over his head; then, he misjudged it again, and allowed it to bounce away. By the time he recovered and threw the ball to the infield, Mauer had slid safely into third base. He knocked in two runs on his 22nd career triple, in a game with a two-run margin of victory.

Would Lough or De Aza have made the play? Maybe, maybe not. But that doesn’t really matter, since anecdotal evidence can mislead. Let’s look at something more empirical: defensive statistics. While they differ from site to site, they tend to agree on most players, and Young is no exception. For his career, he has cost his various teams:

However you slice it, Young has always been a liability in the field. How much of a liability, you ask? FanGraphs’s positional adjustments dock corner outfielders 7.5 runs per 600 plate appearances, and designated hitters 17.5 runs per 600 plate appearances (about a season’s worth). This means that if a corner outfielder is 10 or more runs below average per season, he would hurt his team less by DHing. For his career, Young is 12.6 runs below average per season by UZR, and 12 by DRS (FRAA doesn’t do a per-season number). So, yeah.

Young provides no value with the glove, and with his 29th birthday looming, he’ll only decline in that regard going forward. So why would Baltimore put his immobile body in left? It probably has something to do with his offense. Despite an 0-for-4 in yesterday’s outing, he has still had a seemingly resurgent season at the plate, with a .294/.335/.445 line that translates to a .345 wOBA and 119 wRC+. This hitter certainly appears to be superior to Lough or De Aza (who have wRC+s of 75 and 83, respectively, in 2014), but appearances can mislead.

First of all, Young has most likely hit better because of luck. His strikeout and walk rates (4.5% and 19.6%, respectively) are just as bad as they’ve ever been (4.2% and 18.0%, respectively, for his career), and OPACY’s dimensions account for, and neutralize, his moderate uptick in power (.152 ISO, compared to .142 for all years). BABIP has driven his breakout, as he’s put up a .344 mark — significantly higher than his career level of .323. However, the absence of a real increase in line drive rate, the presence of more infield fly balls, and the small sample size (224) of it all, give the impression of an anomaly.

More important than that, though, is Young’s platoon split. In 2014, he has a 133 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers, and a 92 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers. This flips the script from his overall career, in which he owns a 114 wRC+ off lefties to go along with a 91 wRC+ against righties. As Mitchel Lichtman will tell you, platoon split reversals don’t just happen — it’s almost certainly just a fluke, and you should trust the hitter’s past numbers. In Young’s case, this means you only play him against left-handers. With his aforementioned defense, he only helps your team when he’s at the plate, and only then when he hits southpaws.

And yet, despite all of this, Young found himself in the lineup — and hitting second!!! — on Sunday, against Phil Hughes. In case you didn’t know, Hughes throws with his right hand. For the record, De Aza’s career wRC+ against lefties sits at a comparatively-impressive 101; Lough’s, at an also comparatively-impressive 90. Why didn’t Buck Showalter start one of them? God only knows.

But hey, these could be flukes, right? Perhaps the Orioles normally only let Young hit for the pitcher, and will limit his exposure to righties when they do so. Would that this were the case. Of his 224 trips to the dish thus far, 65 have come as an outfielder; even in his minuscule 131.1 innings of work there, he has been worth -1.4 UZR — that’s -20 for a full season! Worse, 148 of his PAs have come against lefties; although he has produced well in those, I discussed above why that output probably won’t continue. The Orioles could have had an asset, but they haven’t followed the formula for one.

With Lough on the roster, Baltimore simply has no use for Young. They even dealt for De Aza, presumably as a backup option, should one of their other players get hurt. Pearce has done just that, but they still trot Young out there, to botch fly balls and flounder against opposite-handed pitching. Come October, this could cost them a game, which could cost them the season. This certainly doesn’t bode well for the future.

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.