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The Defensive Perception

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With all the talk around the site recently regarding Delmon Young's defensive abilities in left field, I thought now would be a good time to gauge exactly where he's at so far this year.

It hasn't been an easy first year with the Twins for Delmon Young.  His offense was ripped early and often, and now that parts of that game are coming around and fans are getting accustomed to being patient with young hitters, it's his defense that is coming under fire.

Without watching him in the field, we already know he's a big guy (MLB.com lists him at 6' 3", 200 lbs), built of solid muscle.  We know he's talented, athletic, and that scouts have tagged him with all-around "plus tools" for years.  All of those things are nice, and they certainly don't play against him.  But the questions aren't rooted in what we don't see; the questions have to do with concerns about his ability to play left field, something we've seen nearly everyday for the last 10 weeks.

What We've Seen

Over the season's first couple of months, Young has made a fair number of high-profile mistakes in the field.  In addition he's been caught taking bad routes and getting bad jumps, and in general he looks uncomfortable when he's tracking a ball in the air.  His movements aren't smooth, they don't look practised, and as a result he can end up looking slower than he actually is (which is unfortunate, because as far as raw speed goes he's pretty quick).  It's this combination that's pulling a shadow over his time in left field, so I thought it'd be interesting to compare him to other American League left fielders.  Since we're questioning his mobility and tracking skills more than his arm, we'll focus on some of those metrics.

This list has been organized by Revised Zone Rating (RZR).  I've used an arbitrary cut-off of 30 balls-in-zone, so guys like David DeJesus and Marcus Thames won't be on the list.  Neither will Jacque Jones...since he's not around anymore.

Team Name BIZ Plays RZR OOZ
DET Clete Thomas 34 32 .941 7
NYY Johnny Damon 69 63 .913 24
TOR Shannon Stewart 48 43 .896 12
TEX Brandon Boggs 38 34 .895 16
TB Carl Crawford 113 101 .894 29
TEX David Murphy 35 31 .886 7
MIN Delmon Young 104 90 .865 27
BAL Luke Scott 78 67 .859 13
SEA Raul Ibanez 104 89 .856 18
CLE David Dellucci 52 44 .846 17
OAK Jack Cust 63 53 .841 10
LAA Garrett Anderson 56 47 .839 20
BOS Manny Ramirez 82 68 .829 9
CWS Carlos Quentin 89 73 .820 17
KC Mark Teahen 49 40 .816 8

The first thing you notice about this list are the guys at the top, players like Stewart and Damon, who have been traditionally known as weak outfielders because of their weak arms.  Fortunately for them list list deals more with range, and the ability to convert the balls in their zone into outs.  It's just important to note that these metrics aren't measuring the full gamut of skills for excellent defensive players.

At any rate, Delmon Young comes in 7th out of 15 left fielders at converting BIZ (balls-in-zone) into outs, which isn't horrible.  It's right around the league average.  What should stand out to us about Young's numbers, though, are the 27 outs recorded outside of the left fielder's zone (OOZ).  Delmon has recorded more outs outside his zone than any other left fielder in the American League outside of the lightning quick Carl Crawford, and that's impressive.

Changing Positions and Fields

One factor that hasn't been discussed is that Young was primarily a right fielder while playing with the Rays.  Anytime you're playing a new position, even one as "interchangeable" as we think right and left field to be, there's a period of adjustment involved.  Additionally, Young is playing on new turf on a daily basis.  When you're in town for three or four games, you can fake it.  When you play 81 games there, you need to get used to it.  Not only are you getting used to the size of foul territory and where you are in relation to it, and the distance to the fence and when the warning track starts, but how your new center fielder plays and how things change when that player is on your left instead of your right, and how to get used to balls coming at you out of a sky that acts as camouflage.

And it's not like Young was an average right fielder in 2007.  From right field last season he recorded an .868 RZR while making 35 outs OOZ.  But that's not the outstanding part.  In addition, when you take into account that powerful arm we've seen, he was a defensive force.  Out of all right fielders in baseball in '07, Delmon Young saved his team the fourth most runs by holding and killing base runners.  He trailed only Shane Victorino, Jeff Francoeur and...Michael Cuddyer.

Wrap It Up Dude, I Have Stuff To Do

It's important to remember that for as many hiccups we've seen in the field so far this year, he's made some pretty decent plays that most left fielders couldn't have done.  It's just one of those things where it's far easier to remember the negative plays (like the one that led to the inside the park home run) than it is to pick out the plays where nothing went wrong.

As far as changing positions goes, I'm not trying to make excuses for Young's lapses in judgement, but just like we need to use patience with him at the plate (where we hope he learns patience), we need to have a bit of patience with him in the field as well.  The tools are there, and there are some encouraging signs when we look at the numbers.

He's demonstrated a very strong arm, and he's shown that he can get to some balls that most players can't.  The range is there, especially for a left fielder, so if we give him time to grow into this shoes I have little doubt he'll mature into one of the best defensive left fielders in baseball.  Ultimately, in spite of what it looks like--that he's bumbling around a bit out in left field--we're doing pretty well as far as Young's defense is concerned.  We certainly could be doing much worse.