For much of the 2009 season, the Twins' lineup was scoring a fair number of runs despite having only 5 or 6 credible hitters in the lineup at any given time. C (Joe Mauer), CF (Denard Span), 1B (Justin Morneau), DH (Jason Kubel) and RF (Michael Cuddyer) had such tremendous offensive seasons that they were able to balance out the dearth of production the Twins were receiving from 2B (Alexi Casilla, Matt Tolbert, Nick Punto), SS (Punto, Tolbert and Brendan Harris), LF (Delmon Young) and, often, 3B (Joe Crede, Harris, etc.) Bringing in Orlando Cabrera to play SS helped a bit, but didn't really pay off until the last 3 weeks of the season, when he and everyone else in the lineup got hot at the same time.
Trading for JJ Hardy should be a clear upgrade at SS, especially if he can show that his dreadful 2009 was a fluke. Adding Jim Thome represents a huge upgrade over Brian Buscher on the bench. And when they signed Orlando Hudson to upgrade 2B, the Twins appeared to assure themselves a lineup with at least 7 regulars who should be able to exceed the average offensive output for their positions.
But how much better could they be if they were above average in 8 spots? What if this is the year that Young finally puts it together?
We are well justified to view that possibility with a lot of skepticism. Though his .300/.322/.502 line after the All-Star break seems to indicate that Young was a different hitter from the one who went .266/.292/.344 in the first half, he also improved in the 2nd half of '08, only to fall flat last spring. His K% and BB% were both headed in the right direction from 2007-2008, but then went drastically backward last year. Is he really making progress, or did he just get lucky last summer?
To answer that, I first want to compare Young's splits in his first 2 seasons with the Twins. In 2008, the improvement from 1st half to 2nd half was fairly incremental: .286/.330/.386 to .297/.345/.432. The improvement in OBP came largely from a better BA and more than his share of HBP. The increase in IsoP from .100 to .135 came from a surge in HR (7 in 236 2nd half AB vs. just 3 in 339 1st half AB). That's basically the source of the perceived improvement over the course of 2008. He continued to hit 2B at about the same rate, but didn't have any 3B after the Break. And his K% and BB% remained essentially unchanged at about 18% and 6% respectively in each half. So there was no change in his approach - he just had a few more fly balls carry over the fence.
The 2 halves of 2009 are much more distinct. Young's lousy .636 1st half OPS included just 9 XBH and 6 BB in about 200 PA. His career-worst 23.3% K rate was even more prevalent in the early-going: He struck out 59 times before the All-Star Break, about 30% of his PA. In the 2nd half, though he was no more likely to take a walk, he cut his K rate nearly in half, while more than doubling his XBH.
To what should we attribute this change in results? The 1st half was well beneath anything Young had ever done before. He got off to a slow start in April, hitting .241/.276/.315 over his first 16 games. But a strong first week of May quickly brought his season line up to .303/.349/.355 - still just 2 XBH and a 20/4 K/BB ratio, but far from disastrous from someone in the bottom 3rd of the order. But around that time, Young's mother took gravely ill, eventually passing away. He left the team for more than a week to be with his family. In the 2 games before and 10 games after his bereavement leave, he went 5 for 44 with 0 BB or XBH (.114/.114/.114) and 23 K. In 44 AB.
I can only imagine what it must feel like for a 23-year-old to lose his mother. I'm 34, and my mother is still going strong. What a profound loss it will be when she passes some day. For Young, it was clearly psychologically shattering. Being away from the game for more than a week surely wreaked havoc with his timing, but he obviously wasn't all there mentally during that stretch of games.
He bottomed out at .231/.272/.265 on June 3rd. From that point on, he hit .284/.307/.471. Throw out the 44 AB around the bereavement, and his season line would have been .305/.331/.464, with an 18.5% K rate, good for a 102 OPS+. That's basically a league-average hitter. His 1st half split would have been .311/.342/.412, not terribly far from where he was in the 2nd half of 2008.
The bereavement leave can help explain why his 1st half was so bad last year. But why was his 2nd half so good? He did what young players trying to establish themselves as major leaguers have to do - he made some adjustments. This tremendous analysis from Parker at Over the Baggy shows that Young's improved success in the 2nd half was the result of adjustments he made to his swing mechanics. He shortened his stride, improved his balance at the plate, cut wasteful hitches out of his swing and synched his hips with his hands. The result was harder contact and more fly balls, and his IsoP more than doubled from .078 to .202.
So what should we expect from Young in 2010? As Parker said, there's no guarantee that the improvements he's made to his swing will stick, so I'll be watching him closely as he hits this spring. If he's still got the same mechanics he had at the end of last season, we should probably look for another .200 IsoP. He's reportedly lost about 30 lbs, which could signify that he's going to return to being a net positive base stealer, as he was for his career before 2009, and put last season's 2/7 effort far behind him. A lighter frame and improved speed while avoiding the teflon skies of the Metrodome might lead to some improvement in his defense, too.
PECOTA projects Young to hit .296/.335/.439 in 549 PA with 4 net SB and average defense in LF, totaling about 1.2 WARP. By itself, that's a pretty generous improvement upon his first 3 full MLB seasons. But PECOTA doesn't know that Young's mother died last May, nor does it know that he made important adjustments to his swing over the course of the season. And consider this: Young's BABIP has been a remarkably consistent .338 in each the last 3 seasons, but it was only .317 after the All-Star Break last year.
Over 549 PA, given his post-All-Star IsoP, a .338 BABIP, and his typical SF and HBP numbers (6 and 5, respectively), even if he reverts to his rookie-year K% (19.7%) and makes no progress in his BB rate from 2009 (2.9%), we can expect Young to hit something like .314/.337/.516 with 23 HR. That OPS wouldn't be too far short of what Michael Cuddyer did in 2006, a season worth 3.1 WARP. Give Young his 2nd half K rate of 15.5% and his 2008 BB rate of 5.6% and we're looking at .339/.379/.541. That's basically what Jason Bay did last year, a season worth 4.7 WARP. Anything within that range from Young would give the Twins 8 above average hitters in their lineup - a lineup that can match up with just about any other team.
As far as I'm concerned, Young has everything he needs to make 2010 a breakout season. But it's going to take a concerted effort on his part to put it all together. He should be working very hard in Fort Myers with Joe Vavra on sustaining his swing, with Paul Molitor on improving his baserunning, with Jerry White on his OF defense, and with Joe Mauer, Denard Span and Jim Thome about being more selective at the plate. As a 24-year-old, former #1 overall pick beginning his 4th full MLB season, he needs to take a big step toward meeting the lofty expectations that have followed him. The tools have always been there. It's time for him to build something with them.