Still in Texas, Rangers' Young has turned back the clock
The practitioners of sabermetrics have debunked many of baseball's hoary cliches and put to the test much of the game's received wisdom. From the age at which hitters peak to the value of "protection" to the relative importance of experience, the use of data to evaluate ideas has made everyone smarter about the game.
Some bromides survive, however, including this one: Sometimes, the best trades are the ones you never make.
The Rangers went into last offseason intending to find a new home for longtime infielder Michael Young, who was owed $48 million through the end of the 2013 season and had shown decline -- most notably on defense -- over the past few seasons. Texas wanted to upgrade its infield defense to further encourage its young pitchers to pitch to contact, and a big part of that plan was getting Young off the field. Young's bat wouldn't push Mitch Moreland off first base or provide enough value to make him a good designated hitter. When the Rangers signed third baseman Adrian Beltre in December, it seemed to seal Young's fate -- he would be elsewhere in 2011. The Rangers tried; there were persistent rumors of a deal with the Rockies, and occasional ones tying Young to the Yankees, Phillies and Angels. The Rangers, however, weren't content to just move Young to dump his contract; they were demanding some kind of player value in return. Coupled with Young's limited no-trade rights, the two factors meant that they weren't able to make a deal, and Young opened the season in Texas, six weeks away from reaching 10 years in MLB, which would trigger his 10-and-five -- blanket no-trade -- rights.
A funny thing happened on the way out of town. Young opened the season as the Rangers' primary DH, also picking up time at first and second. When Mitch Moreland's left hamstring acted up in May, Young took over at first base for a week. When Adrian Beltre strained his own left hammy in July, Young returned to third, which he had played before being displaced by Beltre. No trade ever came through, and the Rangers couldn't be happier about it. Not only has Young provided valuable infield depth as players have gotten hurt, he's done so while, at 34, having his best offensive season since 2005, batting .340 with 35 doubles.
Young's resurgence is a mix of approach and good fortune. In recent seasons, he had seen his contact and line-drive rates decline, which is problematic for a player who relied on a high batting average to generate much of his value. Young has never walked 60 times in a season or in anywhere close to 10 percent of his plate appearances, and when he hit .284 in both 2008 and 2010, his middling OBPs (.339 and .330) crippled his offensive value. His line-drive rate dropped from a peak of 27.2 percent of balls in play in 2007 to 18.5 percent last season, with a concomitant rise in his flyball rate. Young, a gap-to-gap doubles hitter, was instead getting too many balls in the air. His batting average on balls in play fell from .366 in 2007 to .311 last year. Young's decline was also evident on the bases -- he attempted just six steals all last year -- and in the field, where advanced metrics ranked him among the worst third basemen in the game.
While Young's defense hasn't been an asset in limited time at either second or third, and he's matched those six steal attempts this year, his bat had bounced back in a big way. Young is once again the hitter he was at his peak, striking out in a career-low 11.9 percent of his plate appearances, swinging and missing at a career low 6.7 percent of pitches. He's making better contact, with a line-drive rate of 25.1 percent, his highest since 2007 and in line with figures he posted at his career peak. He's reversed the trend of recent seasons, swapping fly balls for line drives, and while that's cost him a few homers (he has 10, after hitting 43 the previous two years), his overall value has spiked. Young has simply gone back to being the hitter he was when he was at his best, an aggressive line-drive machine.
If his .340 batting average is a bit inflated -- his .373 BABIP is a career-high, but only 10-15 points above what he would hit at his peak -- the overall performance isn't. Young has reversed the trends that were eating his offensive value, an impressive feat for a player in his 11th season. He even racked up his 2,000th career hit in July.
That last feat invited the question of whether Young can get to the next magic number. His 2011 performance and the money owed to him the next two years should assure him playing time through his age-36 season, and two more big years would push him close to 2,500 hits at that point. With his speed and power slipping, though, and no place to hide him defensively, it may be hard for Young to find continued regular playing time in his late thirties.
In fact, his big year doesn't assure him playing time even on this Rangers' team. The Rangers will again have a crowded infield in 2012, and the emergence of centerfielder Leonys Martin will create an overflow in the outfield next spring, possibly spilling over to the DH slot. Young's big year may make him more attractive to trade partners, but he also has complete control over whether he gets dealt, and he could scuttle any deal over demands for a contract extension, a regular job in the field or simply a preference as to where he plays.
For now, though, Young is the Rangers' third baseman, having a big comeback season and contributing to a team that is pulling away in the AL West. Pretty good for a guy who was supposed to be batting second for the Rockies.