A lot of Red Sox fans are really excited right now, and for good reason. With the new additions and expected growth from returning players, this is a very talented team on paper. Of course, we have been through this time and time again in recent years, and seemingly more often than not it has not turned out well. By this point, we know how many unexpected things can go wrong. At this moment, the outfield appears to be a possible source of disappointment. There’s every reason in the world to believe that Mookie Betts will be fine, but Jackie Bradley and Rusney Castillo are different stories.
It’s for this reason that the front office sought low-end outfield help from the start of the offseason, and ended up with Chris Young. While there’s not much depth behind him, he fills an important role as a fourth outfielder. Given his contract, he shouldn’t be a huge part of the team’s success (or lack thereof). It’s been about a month since the signing, and by this point we generally know what we need to know about Young. He’s a lefty masher. He has legitimate power. He’s not a Gold Glover, but he can fill in at any outfield position. He’s a solid if unspectacular base runner. Not much jumps off the page, but it’s a solid profile for a guy that should only get 250-350 plate appearances if everything goes according to plan.
Even so, I wanted to write about him. I hadn’t written anything about the newest position player on the roster, and there’s not a whole lot going on at this point in the year. So, I went over the his player pages at the various sites that lay out his various statistics, and a few things really jumped out at me. Again, these aren’t overly important things in the grand scheme of the 2016 Red Sox, but I found them interesting and puzzling and I wanted to talk them through. Specifically, I want to look at how and where Young hits the ball. Indulge me, if you will.
There was one thing that sparked this whole endeavor for me when looking at his numbers. I always knew that Young was a low batting average player from my time playing in fantasy leagues, but I had always intuitively assumed it was the result of an abnormally high strikeout rate. Instead, he struck out somewhere near a league-average rate, and has sustained incredibly low batting averages on balls in play. In 2015, he finished the year with a .283 BABIP. It was the third highest mark of his career and he's never had one above .300. This is a decade's worth of data we're dealing with, so obviously this isn’t all bad luck. This is what led me down the Chris Young batted ball profile rabbit hole.
So, the first thing I noticed is that he pops out. A lot. Per Fangraphs, the typical major-league hitter hits an infield fly ball around ten percent of the time he puts a ball in play. In his career, Chris Young’s rate is 16.6 percent. Among the players with at least 2500 plate appearances over the last ten years (Young has 4685), that rate is higher than all but three of the 255 players. He has two seasons with a rate above twenty percent, and has finished in the top-15 in three of the last four years. So, there’s a big reason why he gets so many hits on balls in play.
A bigger factor may be that he’s just so easy to play defense ago. Simply put, Young pulls the ball a whole lot. More than he hits pop ups, even! In each of the past five years, he’s hit the ball to his pull side on over half of his balls in play, again according to Fangraphs. In three of those five years that number has been closer to sixty percent than fifty percent. For a little context, the league average over this span has been roughly 39 percent. Young’s place in the rankings tell this story a little better. In this five-year span, he's finished with the highest pull rate twice and the second highest rate once. He remained in the top-15 in the other two seasons. Nobody with more than 500 plate appearances over those five years had a higher rate.
While I personally didn’t realize it was so extreme, the crux of that isn’t entirely new information. His pull-happy tendencies have been a big reason why he’s been praised as a great fit for Fenway. It makes sense, too, what with that big ole wall out there in left field. A right-hander with power can use that to his advantage, as we’ve seen time and time again over the years. With that being said, it may not be as beneficial as it intuitively seems. Although his overall batted ball profile paints him as a fly ball hitter, his data strictly on pulled balls tells a different story. Looking at both his career splits and individual years’, Young’s split between fly balls and ground balls on hits to his pull side has been more or less even.
This brings us back to my original observation, his low batting average and the fact that he’s easy to play defense again. While shifts are primarily used for left-handed hitters, Young fits this profile to a tee. As one can likely infer from his pulling tendencies, he rarely hits the ball from the opposite field. Only three players with 500 plate appearances in the last five years have done so at a lower rate. On top of that, only 23 of the 312 players with at least 200 balls hit to the opposite field since 2011 have hit fewer ground balls. Perhaps more alarmingly, Young has a 40 percent infield fly ball rate on balls hit to the opposite field. This is far and away the highest rate since 2011, with second place coming in with a 34 percent rate.
All of this combined makes it very easy to shift against Young. It’s tough to find good data regarding how often he’s been shifted against in the past, but it makes sense that it would be growing. Defenses are getting more and more sophisticated, and he is an easy player to take advantage of. He almost always pulls the ball, and when he doesn’t he either doesn’t hit a grounder to take advantage of the holes, or he pops it up which makes for an easy play regardless of alignment. He may not get treated like Ortiz, but I’m expecting plenty of shifts in 2016.
As I said at the start of this post, none of this is likely to have a large effect on the season’s outcome. At the same time, he’s going to get a not insignificant number of plate appearances in 2015. The power will still be there, and he’s been able to succeed with this less-than-optimal batted ball profile in the past. He probably will again this season. However, with defenses continuing to change across the league, the negative effects could grow this year. More than anything else, it will be something to watch for when real baseball finally comes back to us.