[Editor's note: This originally went up late yesterday afternoon, but given the late publication date and last night's 0-for-4 showing, I felt compelled to bump this back to the top for one more day. All data still reflects Young's statistics before Tuesday night.]
Yeah, that's right. It's time for this post.
The keen and perceptive optimists among you will note that Michael Young isn't really mired in the most devastating of slumps, because he has cracked base hits in 12 of his last 15 games and proudly boasts a decent four-game hitting streak and is, at the end of the day, still throwing up a could-be-much-worse batting line of .288/.314/.397. They'll also note that the Michael Young we're seeing right now isn't nearly as bad or as conspicuous as the early-season Michael Young of two years ago, who batted .263/.295/.351 through May 5th and drove many of us -- including myself -- over the edge with his perpetually lacking defensive play.
They'll also note that Michael Young went 2-for-3 the night after I savaged Young in print form, and immediately embarked upon a scorching .414/.478/.657 run over the span of nearly an entire month that, for all intents and purposes, saved Young's pre-ASB numbers from what portended to be a terrible fate.
And maybe my desire to replicate that same blogosphere-fueled magic is part of what is driving this post. It's either that, or my stated penchant for being critical from time to time even when everything in our baseball world seems right. But I'm beginning to wonder about where this year's version of Michael Young is headed, and whether the deleterious effects of the offensive aging curve that he so bravely fought off last year are finally catching up to him.
Before diving any further into this, let's just go ahead and issue this acknowledgement: no, Michael Young isn't an above-average defensive player at, well, any position at this point. We already knew this to be the case several years ago, and barring an unexpected series of events whereby Young is retrofitted with range-bolstering implants, that aspect of Young's game isn't going to get any better from this point. And, no, starting him in the field in place of Ian Kinsler or Adrian Beltre doesn't behoove the Rangers' defense from the standpoint of a single game. But I'm at peace with what he is as a defender at this point, and I've accepted it, and if it all serves to alleviate a little of the wear and tear on the Rangers' starting infield alignment, I'm alright with it.
What's troubling me at this point, though, is where Young's underlying offensive tendencies seem to be headed, and where they were, in fact, headed even before he slammed into one of the nastiest slumps of his major league career. Since the conclusion of that stop-start Tigers series back on April 22nd, Young has amassed 88 plate appearances over 20 games, and produced an ice-cold .202/.227/.298 (.232 wOBA) batting line -- his worst 20-game stretch from a wOBA standpoint since April 13th through May 4th, 2007. There isn't necessarily any predictive value in such a degree of awfulness over 20 games, of course, and it should be noted in the interest of fairness that Young started the 2012 season with a brilliant, counterbalancing .403/.431/.532 run over the Rangers' first 15 games.
"So," you're thinking, "what's the point? Where are you going with this? What's really wrong with Michael Young? Or is there anything even wrong with Michael Young? Why do you hate Michael Young so much?" Since you asked, here are the statistical indicators that give me reason for such apprehension at the moment:
The 3.9 percent walk rate. Young's offensive value has never derived so much from his ability to draw free passes as it has from his ability to spray line drives to all fields, but we're now staring at a substantial drop-off from last season's walk rate of 6.8 percent, and that of the season before that (7.0 percent), and even his career-average walk rate (6.7 percent). You don't have to draw walks at a high rate to be a great player, but you're going to be hard-pressed to earn your keep as an everyday player -- and especially when the bulk of your playing time is found at the DH spot -- with a walk rate in the 3-4 percent range over the longer haul. This isn't the "longer haul" yet, but ...
The 39 percent chase rate. According to ESPN.com's Inside Edge scouting service, Young's rate of swings at pitches outside of the strike zone is good for eighth-worst mark in baseball out of 184 qualifying hitters, and is materially higher than his highest single-season chase rate (30 percent) during the 2009-11 window. That might serve to explain why Young's walk rate has decayed to the extent that it has ... but, then, swinging at out-of-zone pitches isn't necessarily a bad thing, seeing as how pitches down the heart of the plate and a couple of inches above the strike zone are still eminently crushable.
So, what's the real problem? To some extent, it appears to be Young's 17.3 percent swing rate at non-competitive pitches, or those pitches far beyond the parameters of the regulation major league strike zone that nobody aside from Vladimir Guerrero stands much chance of hitting with any kind of authority. To put that into the necessary context, the league-average swing rate on such pitches is 8.6 percent. Last year, Young swung at non-competitive pitches only 6.4 percent of the time. I don't know if this is a blip on the radar or if this is indicative of Young battling a pitch-recognition funk or if this is a function of frustration/desperation, but it's something that merits watching.
The 13 percent well-hit ball rate. This is something a little different from your standard-fare batted-ball classifications, in that "well-hit balls" appear to be the proprietary invention of ESPN, and is calculated by ESPN's own in-house video scouts. You'll probably notice that Young's line drive rate is actually higher than his assigned well-hit ball rate this season, so if that's the sort of discrepancy that engenders distrust on your part, you can disregard everything in this section. But batted-ball rates are still an area of considerable sabermetric debate, with each data provider identifying ground/fly balls and line drives in a different way -- and, if you think about it, a line drive isn't automatically commensurate to a "well-hit ball," as a dinky shot over the heads of the middle infielders technically qualifies as a line drive.
Anyway, I don't want to get bogged down in the definitions and technical language. What I do want to point out is a startling indicator of just how little good wood Young is putting on the ball right now, as I've listed Young's seasonal well-hit average to the right of each calendar year, and then listed where that ranks among all qualifying major league hitters in a given year:
2009: .266 well-hit average, 90th percentile
2010: .248 well-hit average, 83rd percentile
2011: .265 well-hit average, 80th percentile
2012: .130 well-hit average, 11th percentile
The consistently strong contact of years past has gone somewhere. I'm not sure where it has gone, and it is completely within the realm of possibility that it will come back at some point (we have, after all, only played out one-fifth of the 2012 regular season), but it's gone right now, and Young will continue to suffer for it until it returns. I could break down all down into an even more granular form (starting with, say, Young's horrific 9.1 percent well-hit rate on fastballs inside the strike zone this season, against a average 2009-11 rate of 37.3 percent), but I think I've made the point that needs to be made here.
So, Young is chasing more pitches than usual (especially bad pitches), he's drawing fewer walks than usual, and he's making less good contact than usual. Is it all derivative from nothing more ominous than an extended slump? Perhaps. It could all be a product of pressing too hard at the plate, which has a tendency to snowball into an even more substantial problem; after all, a mentally befuddled hitter is a dead hitter walking. But we're talking about one of the greatest, most consistent, most even-keeled hitters in the history of this franchise, so I'm not sure how much I buy into the notion that Young's offensive problems are all a product of his psyche's own making.
The explanation that could conceivably make some sense is that Young, at the age of 35, is finally losing a little bat speed, and has failed to adequately compensate for that loss of function yet; that's the explanation that would probably be the most troubling in nature, since it's a lot harder to compensate for lost bat speed than it is to clear a mental roadblock. With only one-fifth of the season in the books, though, I'm not prepared to totally commit to any explanation for the erosion in Young's offensive numbers. And, hell, he may go out there tonight and begin making me look like a damn fool, such as he did after I beat him down two years ago. I'm hoping he does, because I derive no direct pleasure from Michael Young not playing well, and a good Michael Young makes the Rangers better.
But I'm not so confident that he will. And that is what has me worried.