Michael Young, Ruben Amaro, and Diminishing Returns

New Phillies Third Baseman Michael Young has regressed and shouldn't have been traded for by GM Ruben Amaro Jr.When Ruben Amaro, Jr. has finished his tenure as Phillies general manager, he will not be most remembered for the 2009 National League pennant. His legacy won’t be Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay. It certainly won’t be for “continued excellence.” When Amaro is finished his job here, he will be remembered as the least savvy shopper in recent memory. Outside of those two seminal starters, whose talents has he acquired that he didn’t inherit from Pat Gillick that were worth anything on the return investment? I struggle to think of anyone except Pedro Martinez.

There is no reason for me to believe that this track record is going to change with Michael Young.

Once upon a time, Young was one of the best players in baseball. He was a high on-base/batting guy with pop in his swing. He could play all positions on the infield okay enough. According to most people, he was never really that good let alone great a defensive player, but every year without question he produced enough at the plate that he could overcome those deficiencies. He even led the American League in hits in 2011 while posting his second highest on-base percentage in his career. Then last year happened, and it seemed like Young went from elite offensive option to washed-up has-been in a matter of a season.

He wasn’t just bad comparatively speaking to his career. He was historically bad, like the least valuable player in the league. There’s a statistic called Wins Above Replacement, or WAR (or Wins Above Replacement Player/WARP) that several advanced baseball statistical websites use. Each one has their own way of calculating it, but they usually agree with each other in the loosest sense. Fangraphs’ WAR stat has him valued at -1.4 WAR, or that many wins BELOW what a “replacement” or average player would offer. Baseball Prospectus’ WARP stat has him valued at -1.5, while according to Baseball-Reference, he was worth -2.4 WAR, or he cost his team 2.4 wins over the year. All in all, he had a rough year.

That alone isn’t enough to be concerning. Players bounce back from awful years all the time, but they don’t do so at the kind of age that Young is at. Right now, he’s 36 years old. With a tip of the hat to Crashburn Alley‘s Bill Baer for putting the list together, only seventeen players age 35 or older ever posted seasons where they cost their teams 2.0 wins or more via the Baseball-Refernece WAR stat. Of those players, eight of them didn’t even play the next season. Two posted similar negative WAR values the next year. Four players posted values near zero (between 0 and 0.5 WAR). Only two posted anything close to a stat of value: George Hendrick in 1986 at 0.8 WAR (up from -2.1 in 1985) and Carlton Fisk, one of the greatest players ever, in 1987 at 2.9 WAR (up from -2.0 in 1986).

Basically, half the players who were that bad weren’t considered to be good enough to keep around the next year. Of the other half, only two posted anything remotely worth having on a team. The odds are not looking good for Young in 2013. And yes, I know not everyone buys into advanced metrics, which is fine. I can’t really preach too much more than I am now. But it usually bears out on the field in easier-to-grasp stats how bad a guy has been according to most value stats. He posted his lowest OBP in 10 years, his lowest slugging percentage ever, his lowest batting average in ten years, fewest home runs ever, and his fewest walks since his rookie year. It also doesn’t help that he’s arguably going from a better home ballpark for hitting to one that’s at least slightly worse. People give Citizens Bank Park a rap about being a hitters’ park, but it’s actually not nearly as good as the Ballpark in Arlington, especially for righthanded hitters. According to Stat Corner, the home run and extra base hit rates for righties in Texas are substantially higher than in Philly.

So basically, Young is staring up a cliff right now. It’s highly unlikely for his production to swing five wins like Fisk’s did, and even if he did reproduce Hendrick’s resurgence, paying him $6M for less than one win of improvement over average seems like a steep price to pay, especially when the team could have had similar numbers for less than $1M. Kevin Frandsen, who played the lion’s share of third base last year, posted anomalous numbers for his career, only in the positive direction. It’s unlikely that he would reproduce even the 1.6 fWAR/1.5 bWAR he had last year. However, he’s six years younger and again more than 5 million dollars cheaper. If you have the option of paying $6 for an apple or $0.85 for one, the more expensive apple had better be the best damn piece of fruit you’ve ever tasted if you’re going to buy it, right? Well, in this case, it’s not.

If the Phillies were going to spend cash at the hot corner, they could have kept Placido Polanco and gotten a good defensive player. They could have doubled up the price and signed Kevin Youkilis and gotten a guy who still actually gets on base at an above-average clip. It’s not even that the prospects Amaro gave up are all that sexy. Lisalverto Bonilla is a guy who might turn out to be a good pitcher, but he wasn’t projected by any means to be a can’t miss prospect. If Josh Lindblom had problems keeping the ball in the yard at CBP, he’ll be a glorious disaster serving pitches up in Arlington. It’s just the fact that once again, Amaro is throwing away money that could be used to pay better players that aren’t huge names on a guy who has bullcrap intangibles and a shiny label on the front of his packaging.

Maybe I’m wrong in my pessimism, and maybe Michael Young makes a comeback that’ll help the Phillies get back to the playoffs. However, the odds against it are really slim, and the shame part is that they would be better if Amaro was a better judge of talent. Whether it was Youkilis, Polanco, or even the rumored trade target Asdrubal Cabrera, the Phillies missed out on really improving the hot corner. Regardless of position outside of the pitching staff, this seems like a rather troubling trend for a team that is now firmly ensconced among the big boys of Major League Baseball.

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Tom Holzerman

Tom Holzerman has been a fan of Philadelphia sports teams for as long as he can remember. He's been writing about them and other things for almost ten years now, first as a columnist for the Drexel Triangle and then as a freelance blogger for several pages, including his own site The Wrestling Blog. He believes sports are meant to be both analyzed and savored and thinks that all the fighting between the "nerds" and the "meatheads" is unnecessary. You can follow him on Twitter @tholzerman, especially if you're a wrestling fan like he is.


One Response

  1. Bryan says:

    I’m with you Tom. Since the day it was announced that the Phils were looking into Young, I thought this would be a bad deal. I hope they keep Frandsen around, cuz I think their gonna need him.