It’s awfully tough to stand out as a position player on the 2016 Red Sox. This is a team that has nearly lapped the competition in offensive fWAR (97.4 to the Cubs’ 49.2) with a standout trio of young stars in Bradley, Bogaerts, and Betts joined by two of the biggest names in franchise history having career-best seasons. That leaves precious little spotlight for a guy like Chris Young who comes in on a two-year, $13 million contract to be little more than a platoon bat and fourth outfielder, particularly when some new shiny prospect shows up and takes over left field looking like a fully-fledged star.
But Chris Young has pushed through it all. He survived a constant stream of right-handed pitchers early in the season which led to John Farrell getting him some work against righties. It’s easy to forget now, but Young’s first month of work saw him hit .185/.241/.333, with no small portion of the fanbase ready to toss him out. When the Sox finally started to get some lefties, Young predictably started hitting.
What’s really been remarkable about Young’s season, though, is when he’s been at his best, and it hasn’t been when he’s fed a steady stream of southpaws. With left field proving the great cursed position of 2016, seeing multiple starters wind up on the disabled list for periods long and short, Young has actually seen much of his playing time as the de facto starting left fielder, no matter who’s on the mound. When the Red Sox needed him most, he’s risen above his role and met the challenge.
And yet, somehow, when it’s come to photo opportunities in the outfield’s post-victory celebration, it took Young until Tuesday to get his first:
Then, on Wednesday (a relatively weak day for the outfield overall), he picked up his second:
But it’s not that Young has been playing that much better than usual. He has been better since his return than he was before—Young holds a .931 OPS since returning from the disabled list against an .846 figure before landing on it—but really the problem was less about Young’s performance and more about when it’s come. Young has had an uncanny ability to play his best baseball when the Red Sox have played their worst, with precious few wins to be found during Young’s tear through June. Throw in the major competition from right and center, and it’s only now that the stars have aligned for Young to produce...
Well, okay, his pose game isn’t super strong. No big deal.
(Correction: I have been informed I am not “with it” when it comes to the kids and their dance moves these days. This is not only possible, but actually entirely likely.)
This hasn’t really been a revolutionary season for Young. He’s not what he once was defensively. He, too, fell victim to the left field curse. And he’s not really all that difference from his old self in terms of his platoon splits, it’s just that everything has bumped up some so he’s solid vs. righties, insane vs. lefties and, on the whole, a top-15 outfield bat (no, seriously, 14th by OPS, 12th by wRC+), albeit in a limited number of plate appearances.
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Can the Red Sox depend on this from Young in 2017? Possibly not, but I think there’s reason to be optimistic. Young has an inflated BABIP, yes, but also seems to be swinging the bat differently. He’s put more loft in his swing, producing a career-low ground ball rate and his highest home run rate (relative to fly balls) since 2007. Seeing this sort of boost from a right-handed lefty-masher in Fenway Park isn’t all that surprising—we’ve seen it before with the likes of Cody Ross and Jonny Gomes—but what’s odd about Young is that this is all happening on the road. He’s actually been pretty rough at home.
So it’s certainly possible that Young reverts some, particularly given his age. But it also feels like if Young has actually shifted into this power-hitting profile (and given his career numbers, it really suits him more than a higher-contact ground ball profile), there might even be some untapped potential for more here. If the BABIP on grounders perhaps goes down, or a few line drives turn into a few fly balls, Young could well abuse the Monster next year and even in the month to come more than he has thus far, mitigating much of that damage.
Not that there’s really all that much pressure on him to do so. All Young has to be is a lefty-masher who can get Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and—when he’s back—Andrew Benintendi an occasional day off. But it’s nice to think that, in the unfortunate scenario where they lose one of those young outfielders, Chris Young could step up and perform like he has in 2016 and effectively save the day.