Last weekend, as it became clear that Michael Young had been traded to the Phillies, I noticed that you folks were not happy. Twitter laughed, saber-savvy Phillies fans despaired, one presumes that Craig Calcaterra thought he won the lottery. In response to that widespread derision. I tweeted that I wanted to see some saber-friendly blogger write that the Young trade makes the Phillies favorites to reach the World Series.
Physician heal thyself: having taken my own challenge, I cannot make the case. What I can do is argue that the Young deal is a target for the wrong reasons and that there is every likelihood that it will pay off for the Phillies, potentially in big ways.
Michael Young is a really, really easy guy to make fun of. He threw a fit and tried to get out of Arlington twice, without ever managing to shake the “team leader” label with which we’re all too familiar. He was paid like a superstar, but his skills were largely limited to putting up high batting averages in an environment in which it was pretty easy to hit; he’s got limited power and speed, and while he’s versatile in the sense of being willing (after that initial pouty period) to play all over the diamond, the metrics almost uniformly suggest that he’s not particularly good anywhere. You add up that overpaid package of kind-of-okay, you give it All-Star appearances in seven of the preceding eight seasons and a first-place MVP vote in 2011, and you can understand not only the schadenfreude over his miserable 2012, but how that feeling may have transferred to his new team.
The thing is, though, that description fits the old Michael Young, five-years-and-$80-million Michael Young. With one year left on his contract and the Rangers picking up the tab for $10 million of that year, the Phillies’ $6 million Michael Young might as well be a totally different guy. Six million dollars, this season, will buy you a year and a half of Sean Burnett, a 30-year-old who has never topped 63 innings, or Joakim Soria, who put up a 4.03 ERA in 2011 and didn’t pitch in 2012. In baseball terms it’s not a lot of money, and it’s hard for any everyday player to be seriously overpaid at that rate.
Over at Fangraphs, Dave Cameron wrote that he thought the deal was a good one for the Phillies, noting that given his sudden dip in BABIP and the recent history (which he wrote about here) of players to have a huge drop in production in their mid-thirties and experience a bounce-back in the following year, Young was a good bet to return to form and more than earn the money the Phillies will be paying him in 2013.
Cameron’s point is a good one, but it can be made even more simply than that. For the eight seasons from 2004-2011, Young averaged a 113 OPS+ (and was better toward the end of that period than in the beginning), in 5619 plate appearances; in 2012, he put up a 78 OPS+ in 651 of them. Now, Young was 35, and it’s certainly not unheard of for good hitters to fall apart at 35 (Sal Bando, for instance, had a great year at 34, a horrid one at 35, and never got it back), but Young has been good enough for long enough that it’s unlikely that he really got that bad almost overnight. 2009 and 2011 were uncharacteristic for Young, but let’s say he splits the difference between that and 2010 and puts up something like a 114 OPS+/wRC+. That would have been about average for a National League third baseman in 2012, an exceptionally good year for National League third basemen.
Now, let’s go a step beyond offensive considerations and propose that Young is not actually the butcher at third base that he’s generally assumed to be. Young had two full seasons as a third baseman, in 2009 and 2010. He resisted the move from shortstop, and while various defensive metrics come up with different totals, they’re generally agreed that he was below average in both years, but improved from the first to the second.
Over the past two years, Young has played all over the field. Say that now, focusing on third base exclusively, he improves, or the metrics were wrong, or both, and he’s actually an average defender there. That’s a big deal. If his bat alone comes back, more or less, he’ll be worth the money; if the bat comes back and he’s not a disaster at third base, then suddenly he’s something like a four-win player, one of the key pieces of a very good team.
Even at a level below that, Young could help; the Phillies were a .500 club despite their third basemen hitting only .272/.315/.357, so the threshold for improvement is quite low. Only the Diamondbacks and the Cubs received less production from the hot corner among senior circuit clubs. Given just how deep the NL is at the position (think David Wright, Aramis Ramirez, Chase Headley, David Freese, Pablo Sandoval, and so on), it will be difficult for the Phillies to jump to the top of the third base pile unless Young gives them a season out of his back-catalog that resembles 2005, 2009, or 2011, and that seems unlikely. Still, even a mild rebound would help cut the gap considerably.
So, no, we cannot argue conclusively that the patch the Phillies have applied to third base makes them favorites to make the World Series. If they do get that far, no doubt Young will get much, much more credit for hit than he deserves. Yet, he’s a smart little addition at a good price, and he could easily prove to be considerably more than that.