Chris Young is a good baseball player. He was worth about 14 Wins Above Replacement in his six seasons in Arizona, he was an All-Star in 2010, and he's surpassed 20 homers four times in his career while playing a mean center field. When the A's were able to acquire him in an essentially straight-up swap for Cliff Pennington, it was a no-brainer deal for Oakland. Monetary jokes abounded. "The A's added an All-Star center fielder for the low cost of just one Penny! Moneyball!"
So far in 2013, though, the joke has been Oakland. Pennington is doing his normal thing in Arizona, hitting like he's missing an arm but more than making up for it with excellent defense in the middle infield. Meanwhile, Young is struggling terribly in Oakland, hitting like he's missing both arms and fielding like he still hasn't found them. He is literally failing to hit his weight (.176 average, 190 pounds), his walk rate is at a five-year low (9.6% of plate appearances, lowest since 2008), and he has been unable to adapt to his new defensive role as a roving outfielder who can cover all three positions. Not only that, but a large percentage of his already-scant offensive production has come against the Houston Astros, including 11 of his 26 hits and two of his five homers; he's hitting .130/.211/.278 against the rest of the league.
So, what gives? Did Young forget how to play baseball last winter? Seems unlikely. Is he hiding an injury? You never know, and there's no point in speculating on the matter; let's assume that he is relatively healthy unless we hear otherwise. Here are some possible explanations, some of which are likely to be statistical anomalies and some of which are legitimate causes for concern.
1. BABIP. Gotta start with the BABIP.
It's easy to abuse the BABIP stat when trying to explain uncharacteristic performances, but in this case it is a legitimate thing to point to because Young has an established track record. In nearly 4000 Major League plate appearances, Young has a career BABIP of .274. It has gone as low as the .260-range in his unluckier years and as high as .300 in 2008, so nothing between about .250-.300 should raise any red flags.
Young's BABIP so far in 2013 is .193. This is unlikely to continue. His batted ball profile suggests that he's making the same contact that he's always made, which is heavy on fly balls with a solid amount of line drives. This particular profile is a recipe for a low BABIP, which is why Young's career mark sits in that .270-range, but there is nothing to suggest that he is making poor contact relative to his career norms. He hits a ton of infield pop-ups, but he's always done that and he isn't even setting a career-high in that department. He's hitting the ball the same as he always has, and it's just a matter of time before the hits start falling in. Unless...
2. The defensive shifts might be getting to him.
Young is a pull hitter. Here is a chart of all of his batted balls in O.co this season; counting all parks, he's hit the ball past the infield dirt to right field exactly nine times all season, and none of them have gone for hits. As defensive shifts become more and more in vogue, you have to wonder if predictable hitters like Young might suffer a bit from the higher-percentage fielding arrangements. He's definitely had some hard-hit balls go right at defenders, but are these shifts enough to make Young's super-low BABIP a sustainable problem? If so, he may have to adapt by learning to hit the ball the other way more often.
3. He is swinging more and hitting less.
Young has always been a patient hitter, walking in 10% of his plate appearances throughout his career. He can be prone to strikeouts as well, but plate discipline has never been a major weakness for him. Something has changed this year, though. He is chasing pitches out of the strike zone at a far higher level than he ever has before (31.5% of the time, compared with a career mark of 22.9%), and is making a below-average amount of contact on such offerings. As a result, he is swinging and missing more than ever. This aggressiveness hasn't resulted in an increase in strikeouts, but it could be resulting in fewer pitches to hit (and thus, more weak contact) as opponents get ahead in the count more often and learn that they don't need to give in to Young in order to get him to swing. Indeed, opponents are recording more first-pitch strikes on him than they have since 2007. Is he trying a new approach? Struggling to learn the pitchers in his new league? Sad because today's game isn't in Minute Maid Park? Who knows, but this could be a potential red flag right here.
4. He isn't hitting lefties. Like, at all.
Another consistent feature of Young's game has been his platoon splits. For his career, he has an .834 OPS against left-handers and a .716 against righties. He has power from both sides of the plate, but his plate discipline is significantly better versus southpaws.
Here are Young's (tiny-sample) platoon splits this year:
Young vs RHP, 2013: .207/.263/.424, 0.29 BB/K
Young vs LHP, 2013: .123/.250/.211, 0.67 BB/K
Well now that's just ridiculous. That batting average against lefties comes with a .143 BABIP, as well. It also comes in a grand total of 68 plate appearances, which is sabermetric-speak for "Put down the gun and back away slowly until we can collect a larger sample of data."
In fact, hold on a minute. Young's entire season has consisted of a grand total of 169 plate appearances, packaged in his first-ever experience as a part-time player and sandwiched around a DL stint while learning two new positions. Is it possible that, despite how awful Young has looked in all facets of the game, we are all jumping the gun a little bit and giving up on a talented player far too soon?
I honestly don't know. Like I said, there are causes for concern. Young is chasing pitches more aggressively than he ever has before, and defensive shifts might be making things tougher on him and accounting for some part of his lowered BABIP. However, there are 3700 or so plate appearances suggesting that Young is a much better hitter than this, and it seems foolish to completely discount that fact.
Chris Young is a good baseball player. Or at least, he has been for the last six years. It's possible that he isn't good anymore. However, if that's the case, then it's going to take more than two months of inconsistent playing time for it to be a reasonable conclusion. It's far more likely that he's still a good baseball player who is simply going through a long slump in the midst of a laundry list of extenuating circumstances. If we just give him some patience, it is more likely than not that he will bust out of it.
And if he doesn't, then replacing him in 2014 should be an easy Choice.