Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Evolution of Delmon Young

On July 31, Delmon Young was hitting a heart-stoppingly bad .264/.291/.346 in 220 plate appearances.  Up to that point, the left fielder had managed to hit just three home runs and adding on seven more extra base hits while striking out in 28.1 percent of the time. In 24 team games in July, Ron Gardenhire wrote his name on the lineup card just eight times, essentially donning a scarlet “4” announcing himself as the team’s extra outfielder.
It was only logically that Young would be shelved.  At that point in time, everything about the 24-year-old seemed broken.  Not including his terrible defense, Young’s offensive contributions were just horrible in every sense of the word.  He was the baseball equivalent of a Creed album – all-around garbage.  Aside from his 62-to-7 strikeouts-to-walk ratio which provided evidence he was still unfamiliar with the strike zone, his hits came in the form of seeing-eye singles that scooted between infielders.  He was pulling 50 percent of balls in play onto the left-side of the field but with little authority, knocking an obscenely 80 percent of those into the ground.

Was the 6-foot-3 corner outfielder really hitting like a diminutive utility infielder?  Did the Twins really inherit a slap-hitting, scorched-earth producing former number one overall draft pick incapable of providing power?  It was like buying a sports car only to find out it handled like a minivan.

However, as the calendar flipped to August, something started to click.  Slowly, Young had his playing time increased and was given a full-time opportunity again when Justin Morneau went out for the season with his back injury.

From the first of that month to the conclusion of the season, Young was a different hitter in the batter’s box.  No, the plate discipline did not improve - he still couldn’t buy a walk in Chinatown – but suddenly the ball left his bat with a bit more zest.  It no longer trickled off of the lumber towards third base all yippy-skippy.  It charged off the grain on a mission.  He slugged over .700 when pulling the ball after hitting a ho-hum .444 on pitches he yanked prior to that.  In his final 192 plate appearances, Young launched nine home runs (swatting 20 more extra base hits) while hitting .305/.327/.513.
After less than half of his balls in play were airborne (fly ball and line drive combined), he elevated 66 percent of balls in play post-August.  This was a good thing for a power hitter.  After all, balls that hit the turf have the damnedest time resulting in a home run.  

Unfortunately, the season came to a halt as it is wont to do in the winter, keeping us from finding out how sustainable Young’s performance was. With almost zero abilities to get on base besides anything other than a hit, Young’s future performance will always be questioned.  Furthermore, a level of skepticism will remain regarding his second-half output based up his nearly identical second-half output from 2008.  Late last season Young hit .285/.337/.425 with six home runs in 206 plate appearances re-energizing his supporters that the best is yet to come…only to follow that up with a let-down in the first-half of ’09.

This past October, LaVelle E Neal and Phil Mackey discussed on KFAN the impending off-season for the Twins.  Mackey shook off Young’s output as a “mirage”, stating that the aforementioned lack of plate discipline will eventually be the equalizer for him. LaValle, on the other hand, mentioned that the Twins were impressed by the way Delmon had gotten rid of his "giant leg kick".
A bit of video research shows that, indeed, Young had muted his leg kick as the season progressed:

(source: twinsbaseball.com)  

From left to right are clips from 2008, May 2009 and then October 2009.  Young has long been known as someone who has troubles accepting guidance.  The Twins have tried to get him to make adjustments but he has been credited as resistant to implementing them.  Here, in a 12-month span, you can see how radical Young’s changes have been.
In the first clip from a year ago, he’s a chaotic mess.  His timing, hands, leg kick, everything, is out of whack. The first thing that jumps out is his pre-swing movement.  His stride shifts all of his lower weight towards third base well in advance of his upper body.  Because his lower-half is committed first, his top-half was forced to play catch-up.  On top of that, his hands drop almost to letter-high which retards the swings’ progress even more.  This means he was hitting with mostly arms – damning evidence why he was pounding more balls into the grass and winding up hitting to the opposite field as much as he did. 
The second clip, from May of this year, shows a much different Delmon Young.  His stance is straight-forward and his hands are dropped to shoulder height.  From the point he lifts his front foot, there is less shifting.  The stance gives him a balance while the bat keeps him from dropping his hands down when loading for the swing.  Young is also keeping his hands closer to his body in this swing – keeping inside the baseball.  While he’s advancing he’s not put together the entire package: he’s got a hitch in his stride that throws everything out of whack.
The final clip is the one from his hot streak.  Everything is fluid. Besides that, notice where his hands are with the bat – up almost above his head.  His front elbow is now more perpendicular to the ground whereas in the previous two clips, he was pointing the elbow downward. 
This biggest difference, as LaVelle noted, is the leg kick. Here is an isolation of the three: 
(source: twinsbaseball.com) 

Carefully examine Young's front leg and the ensuing strides.  Notice how more balance and smooth his motion is on the right as opposed to the Elaine Benes-type dance move on the left.


In the frame on the far left (2008), Young's open-stance is reminiscent of that of Frank Thomas.  His front foot is almost behind his body with a deep bend. Last season, Young struggled mightily to elevate the ball - hitting just 44.9 percent of his total balls in play in the air. Part of the reason is because of his elongated stride towards the ball. After lifting his leg, his first movement is towards the right side of the field and then it loops back towards the pitcher before he plants on the left side of the field. This circular motion is wasted energy that actually zaps power from the lower extremities as he pulled open long before contact.


In the middle clip (May 2009), Young has altered his stance to a more balanced alignment with a whisper of an open stance. Although this is progress, getting his hips to stay closed for a fraction of a second longer, he's added a bit of a hitch as he turns his knee inwards (back at the catcher) before twisting it back at the field. It may seem like a minor flaw, it does slow the entire process down enough to where the kinetic chain does not generate the same power.


The clip on the far right (October 2009) Young has adopted a slightly closed stance but is essentially balanced similar to his approach in May. Unlike the two predecessors, Young simply picks up the front foot, shifting towards the mound and then rotates the hips through the hitting zone almost simultaneously with his hands.



There is no question that Young was driving the ball better in the season's final three months and it is attributed to him making much needed, albeit delayed, adjustments.  The concern now is if he can maintain this approach throughout a long off-season without slipping into swings from the past that feel more comfortable.  Considering that making solid contact is his only source of value, this makes him a fairly one dimensional offensive threat.  In addition to carrying over his new-found mechanics into 2010, Young needs to tone down his overzealous plate approach and remember to take a few pitches.  Last season, his 59.3 percent swing rate was the third-highest among those with a minimum of 380 plate appearances. His 2.9 percent walk rate was the fourth-lowest among the same total.  Decreasing the former and increasing the latter will ensure sustained production from the left fielder.