Last year, as the Red Sox made their way into the postseason, Chris Young was one of the most underappreciated players on the roster. This really wasn’t all that surprising given what role he filled. Platoon players aren’t around on an everyday basis, so it only makes sense that they would go underappreciated. Just look back at 2013 when neither Daniel Nava nor Jonny Gomes got the credit they deserved for their combined production in left field. With Young expected to fill a similar role in 2017, I expected him to be underappreciated yet again. Instead, the outfielder has been wildly disappointing in 2017 and it’s time to reconsider the role he plays on this roster.
In hindsight, it should have been apparent that Young was going to disappoint us this season. He was coming off his best offensive season of his career, and he succeeded against pitchers of both handedness. Considering he was entering his age-33 season, we should have known he wasn’t going to continue trending upwards. This season, he really hasn’t been able to hit against pitches of either handedness.
Of course, his main job is and has always been to mash against lefties, and that’s where he’s been particularly disappointing in 2017. Young has only gotten 63 plate appearances against left-handed pitching this year, but they haven’t gone well. He’s hitting .236/.333/.273 in that small sample, which works out to a 66 wRC+. In other words, he’s been 34 percent worse than the league-average hitter against the pitchers he is supposed to dominate. The Red Sox need to figure out what’s going on here, and whether or not they can continue to start him in every game started by a left-handed pitcher.
The first thing you’ll notice is that plate discipline is not the problem for Young this year. While he’s always had average-at-best plate discipline, he’s actually made big strides in this area. It’s been particularly impressive against southpaws, as he’s walking more than he’s striking out. That’s been the one positive for Young against lefties, though. When he’s not drawing walks, he’s putting the ball in play and he’s not doing so with any authority.
In those 63 plate appearances against southpaws, the outfielder has only 13 hits. Of those 13 hits, 11 have been singles and the other two have been doubles. Smashing extra-base hits is generally the most important part of Young’s offensive game, but it simply hasn’t been there this season. The biggest issue has simply been that he’s not launching the ball in the air nearly as much this year. By hitting flyballs 54 percent of the time in 2016 (per Fangraphs), Young was able to put up above-average power numbers despite a below-average home-run-to-flyball ratio.
This season, his flyball rate against left-handed pitching has dropped by almost 20 percentage points, and the results have been about what you’d expect. It’s not the only problem for Young this year — he’s not hitting the ball hard very often and he’s popping it up a ton — but it’s the most eye-opening. The Red Sox need Young to hit the ball over the fence and regularly pepper the Green Monster for doubles. It’s impossible to do that without flyballs. What makes things even stranger is that lefties are throwing him more fastballs than ever this season regardless of count. One would think Young would be able to take advantage of that, but it clearly hasn’t happened. It gets even more frustrating when you notice that he just hasn’t been able to take advantage of fastballs middle-in.
With these struggles in mind, it’s time for the Red Sox to ditch a full-time platoon and give Andrew Benintendi more opportunities against left-handed pitching. To be fair, the rookie has also had some issues with left-handed pitching, but he’s a better overall hitter and has to have higher upside than Young at this point. Plus, even if he doesn’t hit he’ll provide better defense and baserunning. Even something like a 50/50 split against left-handed pitching seems reasonable to me.
This isn’t to say it’s time to move on from Young completely. We’re still dealing with a small sample with respect to his struggles, and it’s entirely possible — maybe even likely — he can turn it around. On top of that, he is a key figure in the clubhouse and a major part of this tight-knit outfield. Those two factors make him a valuable piece off the bench. It’s simply time for them to stop giving him every start against left-handed pitching and make him earn his playing time. If the issues continue into August and September, maybe they can think about bringing up Bryce Brentz to fill that role. We just haven’t reached that point yet. Instead, it’s just time for the Red Sox to place more trust in the Killer B’s outfield and limit Young’s role until he can earn it back.