Death or Glory: Delmon Young
“Delmon’s going to be as good as Delmon wants to be. He can do whatever he puts his mind to do.”
That was the quote Baseball America used on their website to sum up the prodigious talent of then Tampa Bay Devil Rays prospect, Delmon Young, who ranked as BA’s #1 prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2006 season. Delmon had just finished his 2005 campaign at Triple-A Durham, a level he forced his way to after taking a machete to Southern League (Double-A) pitching to the tune of a .336/.386/.582 line with 20 Hrs and 25 steals in just 370 trips to the plate. At age 19. It was neither the first nor last thing that made us shake our collective heads at Delmon in some form of disbelief.
We know now that Delmon Young did not (well, has not) become the generational player that virtually everyone expected him to become. But has anyone ever stopped to ask those most intimately involved, “why?” It’s a question we probably don’t ask enough in the prospect world because we simply do not have the time or desire to ask. There are always new players to evaluate, new bodies to project, new medicals to acquire and old scars of failure and misfortune we need not reopen by pondering the failures of young athletes which, as scouts, are simultaneously our own. But someone’s got to do it, so it may as well be me. What follows is an examination of one of the most talented baseball players we’ve seen this century and his rapid ascent to mediocrity.
Stories of unimaginable athletic feat are the heart of scouting lore. Deion Sanders runs a 4.2 forty and sprints straight out of the stadium and into a limo to the airport, pre-teen Bo Jackson throws apples through screen doors, teachers and students alike skipping class to watch Jack Cust’s BP sessions. Delmon Young is no different. Young’s name was inked into every California Area Scout’s ledger by 1999 when he competed in the Los Angeles Area Code games in Long Beach before ever stepping foot in an Adolfo Camarillo High School classroom. Thirteen-year-old Delmon was allowed to compete, the summer before his freshman year, in one of the most prestigious high school showcase events in the country. Enjoy this quote from David Rawsley’s write up on the game for Baseball America back in ’99:
“In a decision that created controversy in the Los Angeles baseball community, Area Code Games director Bob Williams allowed Delmon Young, the 13-year-old brother of the Reds’ Dmitri Young, to participate. Young, who will be a high school freshman this fall, was not only not overmatched—he excelled. One scouting director called him ‘the best under 15-year-old player I’ve ever seen.’”
From there, Young’s amateur clock continued to tick and his profile only grew. Scouts saw a projectable body, natural leverage in the swing but not so much that you’d think he’d have a problem making contact with the baseball, strength in the hands, bat speed, torque in the hips, average speed (though scouts knew it would dwindle as Young’s body filled out and he became stronger) and a plus-plus arm. A traditional right field profile. Soon, the adolescent Young became too extraordinary for the baseball industry to keep a secret and the national media began to pay attention. I unearthed a video that MaxPreps put together on Delmon during his Junior year at Camarillo. You’ll need more than one hand to count the harbingers of makeup doom in the video and a paper towel to wipe the tool-induced saliva off of your keyboard.
(An aside, Alex Merricks was drafted by the Twins in the fourth round of the ’02 draft. He never made it to the Majors)
I reached out to Delmon’s high school coach, Scott Cline, to discuss Delmon. We talked for about fifteen minutes. Here is an excerpt from our conversations:
Eric: I know Delmon was beginning to make serious noise when he was thirteen years old.
Cline, cutting me off: Eight.
Cline: Eight. When he was eight years old he was already hitting balls over fences and winning HR derbys in advacned age groups. We saw Delmon coming early.
Eric: What was the most ridiculous thing you ever saw him do on a baseball field?
Cline: Oh gosh there were so many…..okay, I’ll give you may favorite one. I was throwing BP to Delmon when he was a sophomore. He absolutely unloaded on one. He hit it out to left center and it kept carrying, went over the school’s track, bounced once and then hit the roof of a warehouse next to the track. I went and measured it the next day. 540 feet on one bounce.
I also asked Cline about Delmon’s work habits. He swears Delmon never missed a practice and was the first one there and last to leave every day. He also said Delmon was th emost talented player he’s been around, and Cline has been around some serious talent. Joe Borchard played at Adolfo a few years before Young and Cline laced up his spikes with Eric Karros at UCLA and played against some stiff Pac-10 competition in his day. Big thanks to Cline and Adlfo Camarillo Athletic Director, Mary Perez, for getting us together.
Delmon’s amateur career was capped by a stunning performance for Team USA in 2002’s IBAF World Junior Championships, where hit .513 (he had twenty hits during the tournament) and broke the event’s home run record. The previous record was three. Delmon hit nine. Nine of his twenty hits cleared an outfield fence. Paul Bunyan in stirrups.
While it was clear Delmon was to be selected near the top of the 2003 MLB Amateur Draft, it was not a foregone conclusion that he would go first overall. He committed to play baseball for the University of Arizona, mostly to give himself leverage at the bargaining table with whichever franchise ended up drafting him. Tampa Bay had the first selection and, according to this blurb from Jim Callis from a few days prior to that draft, was not dead set on selecting Young.
“Tampa Bay’s discussion on California high school outfielder Delmon Young and Southern second baseman Rickie Weeks continued well into Monday evening. Weeks gathered momentum when he performed well last Friday in an NCAA regional playoff game with Rays GM Chuck LaMar on hand, and his cause was helped further when Young turned down the club’s $3.75 million offer. But Weeks also decided not to work out in Tampa on Monday, and that helped swing the decision back to Young. Florida outfielder Ryan Harvey, a product of nearby Dunedin High, is a longshot third choice.”
When draft day came, Allan Simpson broke the news on BA’s live draft blog, a news reporting device which was probably a novel idea back in 2003.
“Sources with the Devil Rays have confirmed that Tampa Bay will select Camarillo (Calif.) High school outfielder Delmon Young with the No. 1 pick. Club officials deliberated long and often contentiously Monday night over whether the selection should be Young or Southern University second baseman Rickie Weeks. In the end, the player that scouting director Cam Bonifay targeted all along will be the Devil Rays selection. Weeks will go No. 2 to the Brewers.”
Why Delmon wasn’t a first overall lock is unclear. Whether Tampa was concerned about makeup or health (he did have an ankle issue during his senior year at Camarillo) or money (though Young ended up signing for $5.8 million, about two-thirds of it tied up in a signing bonus) or some within the organization just plain liked Rickie Weeks better, the pick was not a slam dunk. Young would sign late and begin his professional career with two weeks of Instructional League ball before finishing the year at the very advanced Arizona Fall League as a member of the Taxi Squad, playing on Wednesdays and Saturdays for the Mesa Solar Sox. Also on that Solar Sox roster: BJ Upton and Dewon Brazelton. After four hits in his first nine Fall League at-bats, Young was already thirsty for big league liquids.
“If all these guys are good enough to be there, I’m looking at sometime next year. If I can hang with all these guys and I’m only 18, and these guys are 22 to 26”, said Delmon in a Jack Magruder piece from October of 2003.
From there, Delmon’s minor league career began. It was fat with accolades and attention. Everyone knew how talented Delmon was, even his teammates. I contacted ex-Phillie Jason Pridie, who spent a ton of time with Young at various levels of the Minors and Majors, and asked him about Delmon. Here’s some of what he said:
“I still remember in Charleston watching him hit balls out Oppo against the wind blowing in from the river. I could barely pull one out and he was doing it Oppo. I would sit back and watch like a fan the way he would hit pitches that looked unhittable. And when it came to his arm, I still haven’t seen many that could compete with it. He would throw lasers all over the field that would make people’s jaws drop.”
Baseball America never ranked him lower than the #3 prospect in all of baseball during his minor league tenure. Best Power Hitter: Delmon Young, Best Hitter for Average: Delmon Young, Best Outfield Arm: Delmon Young. While never perfect (disaster likely always loomed for various reasons) they were the good years.
Somewhere along the line, things went sour and I think I have identified the crossroads. Late in 2005 after Delmon had just been promoted to Triple-A, Baseball America ran a feature on Delmon as he was to be named their Minor League Player of the Year. That Chris Kline article has a tremendous combination of praise coupled with sinister foreshadowing.
“He can do everything and do it loudly” – Durham Manager, Bill Evers
“Whenever Young’s name is mentioned, the word maturity is one of the first adjectives to describe him.” – Kline
“He has a near photographic memory in terms of pitch sequences and what any pitcher he’s faced tried to do to him in any given at-bat.” – Kline
“I wasn’t really planning on stealing any bags last year until Jimmy Hoff (TB field coordinator) said I had to have at least 25 attempts. I was 10 out of my first 10.” – Delmon Young
“It also helped that Young started taking conditioning more seriously after last season. He came into camp 30 pounds lighter.”
“He’s Albert Belle without the attitude.” – NL Scout
Now here’s where the whole crossroads thing happens…
“But for some, Young actually did show a little bit of attitude this season. He was suspended in Mongomery for chest bumping an umpire after a game in May, and he nonchalantly tossed his bat toward the mound after being hit by a pitch against Birmingham.” – Kline
“A lot of times the umpires try to act bigger than what they really are. Sometimes they think their job is a little more important than what it really is, instead of letting the game be played.” – Delmon Young
“Makeup questions also popped up when the Rays allowed him to room with outfielder Elijah Dukes, and suddenly the club’s top prospect appeared to have a short fuse.” –Kline
“It’s just this organization needs to get its mind focused on winning instead of trying to do everything to hold onto a dollar. They just need to let everyone go out there and play and have fun instead of worrying about stuff that’s not even really baseball related.” – Delmon Young
Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes played almost all of the next season, 2006, at Triple-A Durham together. It made for some interesting theater and literature. In most all of the research I’ve done for this piece, Delmon is portrayed as a likeable teammate and relatively hard working player who sometimes lost his cool and did stupid shit. You know, like a teenager. As soon as he begins hanging out with Dukes, things go almost exclusively bad. In April of 2006 we had the bat tossing incident which isn’t even worth getting into because you know about it already. What you may not know about is a piece USA Today published later that year that featured Young, Dukes and BJ Upton. I talked to RJ Anderson of Baseball Prospectus about Young and he alerted me of this piece, from which I have pulled excerpts:
“I don’t know what they’re waiting for,” Young says. “They’re what, 30 games (actually 20) out of first place? They think we’re going to mess up their clubhouse chemistry. B.J. should be up there. What are they waiting for? They always have excuses.”– Delmon Young on him, Dukes and Upton not yet being called up. Upton was still an infielder at the time.
“In the big leagues, you throw your uniform on the ground, and it’s washed and hung up nicely in your locker,” Dukes says. “Here you do that, you come back the next day and find it still on the floor. Those guys up there (in the big leagues) shower in Evian. Here, we use sewer water.” –Elijah Dukes on life in the Show
Delmon eventually got his wish and put on a Major League uniform in Tampa late in 2006. At the highest level, as is often the case, we started to see holes in his game. In that ’06 cup of coffee that contained a full city roast’s 130 September plate appearances, Young walked just once. In 2007, Delmon played all 162 games (but almost didn’t thanks to a blow up with Joe Maddon after he was pulled for lack of hustle in game 161) and walked just 26 times. No, walks aren’t everything, but plate discipline that atrocious does far reaching damage to your entire offensive output.
As soon as the 2007 season ended, rumors of a Delmon Young trade began. He was soon dealt to Minnesota (along with Jason Pridie and Brendan Harris) for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. After the trade, Carl Crawford and Young exchanged pleasantries through the media.
Delmon had one fine season in Minnesota before becoming, objectively, one of baseball’s least effective players. Not only was his offensive output lacking but a once solid defensive toolkit became a laughingstock. And we’re not just talking about little mishaps here and there but consistent, objective awfulness. I contacted Baseball Info Solutions’ Vice President of Product Development and Sales, Ben Jedlovec, to see what he could tell me about how BIS’ metrics evaluate Young’s defense.
“Delmon Young is unfortunately as bad as he looks out there. Our numbers have him perennially below average, even in left field where he’s spent most of his time in recent years. He especially struggles on deep balls, which are often costly extra-base hits. He’s never been good on deep balls, actually, dating back to his 2007 season in Tampa’s right field.”
Young has been at or below replacement level for his entire MLB career.
So what the hell happened? One of the most gifted hitters we’ve ever seen reaches the Major Leagues at a stunningly young age. He holds his own but has his faults which, given his age, you assume he’ll be able to improve with time if he works at it. He shows signs of it for one season before plummeting to replacement level. I asked some people who are smarter than I am about why Delmon did not become the leviathan we all anticipated him to become. Here are the responses I received:
“He didn’t seem likely to fail, and even now I’m shocked by how his career has turned out. In retrospect, though, there were some warning signs. Entitlement seems to be the common string throughout, even without touching on Young’s history of conflict with umpires and the like. It’s possible that being plump runs in the family, but you look at the guy and he usually looks out of shape now. It’s also telling to me that Carl Crawford lashed out at him after he was traded. Crawford doesn’t mince words when he talks, but he doesn’t talk a lot. The only other player I can remember him going after like that was Pat Burrell, who, well, you know about him. We both know that you need some predator in you to be a great ballplayer (or a great anything), and in some cases to be a monomaniac. I don’t know if Young was designed like that. I’m not too interested in playing armchair psychologist but the recent quote of his about getting back on the field (“No I’m not excited, it’s cold and it’s March,”), which was blunt and refreshing, sort of hints at it.” – RJ Anderson, Baseball Prospectus
“Never had a lick of plate discipline, no matter how you define the term. I’m sure there were other factors – he’s hardly Captain Makeup himself – but that was the early warning sign.”- Keith Law, ESPN
“There’s no question he looked every bit the elite hitter to…everyone. Incredible hands, big raw, it was all there. I think his inability to make adjustments hurt him, and I don’t think he took the best care of himself, or his game.” -AL Front Office Member
Is there still hope? Is there still room to for growth? Is it possible for someone to push the right combination of buttons to unlock the unlimited potential Delmon Young so clearly posesses? Maybe not someone but, $omething? Whether Young’s career dies or brings about some modicum of glory likely remains up to him. It’s just another story.