I've known for days that I wanted to address this. I've known for days which essential points I wanted to drill home, and how I wanted to go about doing it. I've known for much longer than a few days that directing so much as a single critical utterance towards the revered patron saint of Rangers baseball is an open invitation for censure and derision. I also know that I don't really care about that, simply because it comes with the territory. What I didn't know -- or, perhaps more accurately, couldn't decide upon -- was how I was going to start this.
And then inspiration, as it so frequently does, struck in its most granular form (as a fleeting moment during a single play), and that final hurdle was cleared. Because moments after Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus executed one of the prettiest 4-6-3 double plays you'll ever see during the bottom of the sixth inning of Wednesday afternoon's series-ending tilt in Oakland, their veteran third base counterpart supplied the ultimate in exasperating contrasts, snagging a Adam Rosales-hit grounder to his left, firing to first base with plenty of time to spare ... and one-hopping his throw into the dirt short of Justin Smoak's outstretched glove. Final outcome: a three-base throwing error charged to Michael Young, and the long-overdue arrival of the tipping point.
Young, at this exact moment in time, is the fourth-worst-hitting third baseman in baseball at .263/.295/.351 (.289 wOBA) through 126 plate appearances. That, in and of itself, is a huge problem, albeit a problem magnified by the failings of the lineup at large to consistently score runs. It's the second-worst start to a season he has ever endured (trumped only by his .215/.236/.346 misstep in April 2007), as well as his overall fourth-worst offensive month since the conclusion of the 2002 season. But it's not enough to throw down historical context; we also need to identify the root cause behind what's going so terribly wrong here, and determine whether it's reversible.
While Young's sub-.300 on-base percentage is to some extent ascribable to his reduced walk rate, this is merely symptomatic of a deeper-rooted problem. Digging a little further reveals three alarming oddities: (a) a line-drive rate of just 18.2 percent, more than a few ticks off his career 24.7 percent mark, and (b) a composite minus-2.9-run showing against fastballs, both of which would appear to be functions of (c) a 33.5 percent swing rate at pitches outside of the strike zone. This is the real problem. This is what we're looking for. Swinging at every third pitch thrown outside of the parameters of the strike zone is not conducive to making good, consistent contact.
"But Joey," you mutter, "aren't some out-of-zone pitches better to swing at than others?" And the answer would be yes, of course (for example, pitches directed just above the strike zone and down the middle of the plate are clobbered 400-plus feet with regularity), but the problem is that Young's increased out-of-zone swing rate is not exclusive to pitches right near the strike zone. Quite the opposite, in fact. According to ESPN.com's Inside Edge scouting service, Young is chasing what it calls "non-competitive" pitches (or pitches not near the strike zone) at a 22 percent rate against a major league average of 18 percent, which is disastrous when your overall out-of-zone chase percentage with two strikes is 46 percent, again well beyond the major league average of 36 percent.
Young's still putting good wood on the ball when he actually does make contact, which is fine and good, but he's either trying -- and thus far, failing -- to pull out of a pitch recognition funk, or he has lost a hint of bat speed, and it's evident that the longer this goes on, the more significant damage he'll inflict against the lineup out of the two-hole. But even if you're of the mindset that he'll pull out of his offensive tailspin, there's still the matter of his defense at third base, which, after exactly 162 games played at the position, is probably about as good as it's ever going to get. That Young has likely peaked defensively and is still the weakest link in the Rangers' entire defense is troubling, to say the least.
The symmetry of his now-established poor fielding is something to behold -- eight plays below average on balls hit to his left and right and 10 plays below average on balls hit straight on since Opening Day 2009, according to the plus/minus defensive rating system. Ultimate Zone Rating and Revised Zone Rating concur with the sentiment that Young's range is a serious issue; further exacerbating this problem are Young's recently shoddy throws from the hot corner, many of which have been skipped into the dirt short of first base even if there was ample time to make a clean, accurate throw. I'm not going to acquit Justin Smoak of all responsibility, but a bad throw is a bad throw.
I'm going to give Young the benefit of the doubt as far as him being able to tighten up his error-prone fielding of late, but he's still a defensive cipher overall and a gaping hole in the hull of an otherwise steady Rangers defense that is only going to expand with time. His true offensive talent isn't this wretched, but over the long haul we may be looking at a .300/.350/.440-hitting third baseman with no defensive value at a power-producing position -- one who will pull down at least $40 million over the next three seasons and has already pulled down many millions more, including approximately $18 million made payable in the form of a bonus during the 2007-2008 seasons.
If you believe that Young's other intangible qualities, such as his clubhouse presence and leadership and high standing in the community and so on and so forth, are worth the difference between Young's handsome yearly compensation and his probable two- to three-win production, that's a belief you're entitled to, one I'm not going to be able to change. On a pure bang-for-the-buck basis, however, this contract is burdensome in that the Rangers will be paying premium prices for league-average production, and unless some crafty trade is engineered (which isn't going to happen), it appears that the price for employing Dallas/Fort Worth's resident baseball demigod will either be a compromised infield defense or mediocre production -- and lessened flexibility -- out of the DH spot.