Chris Young

Roster Recap: Chris Young Embraces a New Role

Welcome to BP Boston’s Roster Recap series! Over the next four months, we’ll be breaking down every player on Boston’s 40-man roster and many of their top prospects in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the Red Sox roster’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what we can expect moving forward. There’s no better time than the offseason to review the best (there was some best!) and worst (there was a lot of worst!) of the past year in red and navy. You can see previous editions of Roster Recap here.

As fourth outfielders and most-featured bench players go, you could do a whole lot worse than Chris Young, signed by the Red Sox to a two year deal for $13 million on December 2nd. Comfortable at all three outfield spots and straight off his best campaign at the plate since a shoulder injury in early 2012, Young offers some pop with a hitting style that is more than a little unusual — and a batting average likely to be very pedestrian.

For the 32-year-old Young, gone are the days when he was a 25/25 threat in Arizona. But if Young can hold on to his ever-so-slightly-below-average defense over the next two seasons, he can be in Boston what he was in New York last year: a complementary player that actually complements the Red Sox roster. In a best case but realistic scenario, he could be even better.

What Went Right in 2015

Defensively, Young was still more than useful, shuttling around the Yankees outfield and grading only slightly below average in most advanced fielding metrics. Young’s story, though, has been about recovering some of that offense that was missing in 2012 and 2013, and which only started to come around toward the end of 2014. What made him seem “back” was a .453 slugging percentage, solidly above average and right in line with his best years in his mid-20s. And while that boost was real, part of that slugging percentage was singles; he improved his batting average by 30 points in 2015 to .252. In almost the exact same number of at bats, he had exactly 20 doubles for the second year running, though he did increase his home run total from 11 to 14, thanks in part to three bombs he hit off Alexi Ogando.

Young may always be something of a three true outcomes player, but his 20.5% strikeout rate in 2015 was an improvement over his 22.4% career rate. Young also boasted a passable on-base percentage of .320, thanks to a strong 8.4% walk rate. You’ve already heard the main story with Young in 2015, though: he was dramatically better against lefties than against righties, crushing southpaws to the tune of a .327/.397/.575 slash line.

Young has generally done better against lefties, especially in the power department, but last year was the most pronounced platoon split of his career. That’s a good thing, if that were to continue. No, it’s not wonderful to slash an abysmal .182/.246/.339 line against righthanders, what with most pitchers throwing with that hand — but the normal rules don’t really apply to bench players. For fourth outfielders who tend to play about half time, it’s an asset to bring things to the table that are particularly useful at particular times. Jackie Bradley, Jr.’s strong splits in the opposite direction in 2015 offer an opportunity, and had Young been merely halfway decent against all pitchers in 2015, he may not have looked like the highly marketable player the Red Sox snatched up well before most complementary players found jobs.

What Went Wrong in 2015

While Young’s .339 TAv against lefties in 2015 was something to behold, the .207 TAv it came with against RHP could be an albatross around Young’s neck. It’s hard to get a righty-favorable matchups on a half-time basis, and Bradley is the only handcuff on the team that really fits Young as a platoon partner. It would be nice to be able to spell Rusney Castillo when Castillo is not necessarily in a position to succeed (also against RHP), but you can’t have everything. Young is an above replacement level player, but he may not be for long.

There was a time when Young was thought of as a raw but toolsy defender, the kind of outfielder who stuns with his speed from time to time but who ran awkward routes a little too often to capitalize on his talents. Young seems to have lost a step, though, putting up a -2.0 Base Running Runs total in 2015. Defensive metrics back up that story. Where they once had Young bouncing from solidly below average to solidly above, he may no longer be the fielder he was — a -5.9 Framing Runs Above Average total put him lagging behind most outfielders. What’s worse, Young has had more and more difficulty playing in center field in recent seasons. As his time at that position has dropped precipitously, the range component of UZR makes that drop look prudent. In just 90.2 innings in 2015, UZR has Young frittering away more than two runs as compared to the average center fielder. It’s ridiculous to cut up partial seasons of defensive metrics into even smaller slices, and even more ridiculous to draw conclusions from them — but time catches up with us all. The good news: between Betts, Castillo and Bradley, Young is unlikely to man center very often in Boston.

Outlook for 2016

Young will be mixed and matched in the outfield, but next to Brock Holt, he’s probably going to look less like a Swiss Army Knife and more like a steak knife being used one too many ways. There’s every reason to think that Young can keep the power he’s always shown with his shoulder in one piece, and every reason to think he can keep up a strong walk rate. Still, you may find yourself wishing from time to time that Bryce Brentz batted from the left side.

It’s a brand-new world for Young, who is now no stranger to the AL East — or to Fenway. Young has apparently made peace with embracing who he is as a hitter; someone who pulls the ball and puts it in the air more than any other hitter the Red Sox have rostered for at least a half season over the last five years. The closest thing might be Cody Ross — and given the career renaissance Ross enjoyed battering left field at Fenway, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For his career, Young has played in 21 games at Fenway, slashing a silly .344/.431/.623 in 73 plate appearances. No wonder he’s looking forward to looking out at the Monster on a more regular basis.

There’s almost no way that can continue, and yet we can’t rule out that Fenway might fit Young much, much better than most hitters who join the team, because his fly-ball rate really is particularly high, and because while his 58.8% pull rate in 2015 was a career high, the trend line doesn’t make it seem like an aberration. The Green Monster may fit Young in more ways than one, too; even when Young was a plus defender overall, his arm was a liability in his game. We’re fresh off the most stark reminder we may ever get that paying left in Boston isn’t necessarily easy, but should Young find himself out there regularly, shorter throw distances might have his overall defensive profile playing up.

As a “three-plus” or fourth outfielder, Young does give the Red Sox some real options, and it’s entirely possible we’ll see him win a game or two all by himself. He may have been a little more expensive than Jonny Gomes and he may not be the same kind of good luck charm, but Young does bring a lot to the table.

Photo by Gregory Fisher/USA Today Sports Images

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