One of the most interesting parts of this 2016 Red Sox team has been the impressive depth of their lineup. I’ve talked about this on many corners of the Internet (you can’t escape me), so I’m sorry if you’re getting sick of hearing this, but not really. It’s a pretty wild thing how many good and/or hot hitters are in this Boston lineup in any given game.
We constantly hear announcers talk about lineups that “just don’t let up.” “Obviously,” we snarkily reply to no one in particular, “it’s a lineup full of major-league hitters!” Our snarky selves are underselling a team like the Red Sox, who have All-Star-caliber hitters in all nine spots when everyone is at their best. Clearly, that doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens enough to notice. One of the few weaknesses for a good stretch of the season was left field, but that is no longer the case. You can thank Chris Young for that.
Think back to the beginning of December. Craig Kimbrel was brought aboard, which was exciting, but the starting rotation hadn’t been addressed yet. Then, Boston signed Chris Young, but not the starting pitcher. It was the outfielder, and for some reason people were upset about it. You guys made Carsley write this.
Even if you discount the season he’s had — which is better than most reasonable minds could’ve expected — his signing was wholly underappreciated. As the appreciation for his presence has grown, as has his role. Originally, he was supposed to be a platoon partner for Jackie Bradley, but that quickly changed when Rusney Castillo solidified the idea that he’s not a major-league player. This changed Young’s platoon to left field, and things grew from there.
Injuries have limited his playing time to just 190 plate appearances through Tuesday’s action. While the playing time has been short, the production has not. Young has smashed his way to a .290/.368/.550 line, which is good for a .312 TAv. He’s been worth 1.4 WARP in 2016, which would be equivalent to a 4.4-win season over 600 plate appearances. No, baseball doesn’t work that smoothly, but it does give you an idea of how impressive Young has been despite being overshadowed of late by the hot streaks of Dustin Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez.
In particular, Young has been more impressive than anyone could’ve expected against right-handed pitchers. As I mentioned, he was brought in as a platoon bat, which is what he’s shown himself to be over his career. He can destroy left-handed pitching, but he looks like a replacement-level player at best when a righty is on the mound.
To say that hasn’t been the case this year would be an understatement. Again, we’re dealing with a miniscule 125-plate-appearance sample, but Young is hitting .250/.328/.473 against right-handed pitching. That is an above-average rate, which might as well be Bondsian when you consider the expectations for him coming into the year. This is particularly jarring when you consider his multi-year TAv against righties is .236. For context, that is the equivalent of Erick Aybar in 2016.
A few different things are playing into Young’s improvement against right-handed pitching, beyond just the small-sample-size noise. On a macro level, it’s simply that he’s hitting for more power. Young has always been something of a power hitter, but he’s merely hit for good power rather than great power against righties in the past. That has changed this year, shown by his .223 ISO without the platoon advantage.
On a micro level, three things stand out to make that difference. The table below outlines those changes, using Young’s splits from his Fangraphs Player Page.
So, these are all very intuitive ways to improve your power, and all just come down to putting a better swing on the ball. Obviously, it’s easier to hit dingers when you don’t hit the ball on the ground, which Young is avoiding at a career-best rate. The same goes for pulling the ball. The merits to numbers based on exit velocity are still unknown, but they still correlate well with production, and it’s hard to deny hitting the ball harder would hurt.
Regardless of the reasoning behind his improvement, it’s a huge development for John Farrell and the Red Sox. Obviously, the ideal role for Young is still a platoon. While he’s legitimately produced better against righties, it’s hard to imagine this performance is sustainable over an extended period of time. The best-case scenario is to not push your luck. Fortunately, Andrew Benintendi is back and should be able to take over his portion of the platoon again quickly.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee the rookie outfielder will be able to keep up the play he showed off before hitting the disabled list. The numbers suggest Benintendi can, as he was incredibly impressive prior to his injury. However, the injury could still nag him to the point of diminished production. If not, hitting major-league hitting is super hard regardless, particularly when one doesn’t have a ton of experience. Just ask Yoan Moncada. It’s not hard to envision Benintendi running into a slump.
If that happens, the Red Sox would typically turn to Brock Holt. This would be bad for a couple reasons. First: He’s shown himself not to be the caliber of hitter suited for the corner outfielder. While he’s capable of going on runs, we’ve seen enough to know his true-talent level is more of a league-average bat at best. Second: His defense is subpar in the outfield. While he can play there in a pinch — and that is part of his value — he shouldn’t be there on a consistent basis. Young is clearly the better defensive player in this scenario, and he’s shown lately he can be better with the stick, too.
If everything goes right for the Red Sox down the stretch, Young will play almost exclusively against lefties, and Benintendi will regain his role as the strong side of the left-field platoon. The thing about baseball, though, is that things don’t always go according to plan. Luckily for the Red Sox, they have themselves a backup plan in left field thanks to Young’s underappreciated season.
Photo by Kim Klement/USA Today Sports Images