CHICAGO — Chris Young doesn’t like labels, not even the one that has earned him consistent playing time in a crowded Yankee outfield.
“As a player, you never really label yourself in any kind of way. I don’t label myself as a guy who crushes lefties,” Young said Saturday. “At the same token I don’t label myself as a guy who can’t hit righties because I was a guy who played every day for quite a while as well. So I don’t label myself in any kind of way.”
Whether or not he approves, Young has earned a label as a guy who absolutely destroys left-handed pitchers. That’s what happens when you hit .363/.426/.696 against lefties on the season, for a 1.112 OPS that ranks third in baseball (behind only Nelson Cruz and Paul Goldschmidt) among players with at least 80 plate appearances against southpaws. When you’ve racked up more total bases against lefties than any player but Prince Fielder (who has done so in 62 more plate appearances than Young) you’re going to grab someone’s attention.
Over the last 10 seasons, only 22 players have a better OPS against lefties than Young in 2015 (again, minimum 80 plate appearances). Most of those players ahead of Young are All-Stars and MVPs, not bench players on their fourth teams in four seasons.
After adjusting for park effects, Young’s 2015 OPS against lefties is 177% of his total OPS, per Baseball-Reference, giving him the second biggest left-right split in baseball (behind Adeiny Hechavarria) and the 13th biggest of the past 10 years.
How has a 31-year-old journeyman role player found such dramatic success against southpaws? Well, Young doesn’t quite know. Presented with that question, not for the first time, the right fielder pauses for a few seconds then tilts his head in thought before finally responding with a slight smile.
“I don’t know,” Young says. “Lately I’ve faced a lot more lefties than I have righties. So naturally I’m going to be more comfortable against lefties because I’m seeing them more often. You get a little more familiar with it when you’re seeing them on a consistent basis.”
Young’s performance against lefties might benefit from seeing so many of them, as he theorizes, but he has faced so many southpaws because his results against them have been so impressive. Even with Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran all healthy, Young continues to start against every lefty the Yankees face.
The big question for Joe Girardi and company as they evaluate Young’s role moving forward: Can this lefty-domination possibly keep up?
Young has always produced a platoon split — hitting .225/.293/.411 career against righties and .264/.363/.481 against lefties — but never one this dramatic. The closest the outfielder has come to this level of left-right polarization over this many games came in 2009, when he posted a .930 OPS against lefties and a .639 OPS against righties, for a difference of about .300 in OPS. That’s barely half his split this year, when he has produced an OPS against lefties nearly twice his OPS against righties (.566).
Only last year, Young could barely buy a hit against lefties, with a .149/.290/.270 slash line vs. southpaws in 93 plate appearances for the Mets and Yankees. Given Young’s career track record, those meager 2014 numbers against left-handers appear anomalous, but so do 2015’s Ruthian figures. In fact, if we combine Young’s 2014 and 2015 numbers, we get a .373 on-base percentage against lefties that’s not far off his .363 career split.
But Young’s success against lefties this season hasn’t come from his on-base ability — his walk rate this season when facing southpaws is below his career total. Instead, the difference between this and previous seasons has been Young’s power, as evidenced by a .340 isolated slugging percentage that rates well above any previous figure he’s posted. And since ISO stabilizes more quickly than most hitting statistics, according to research from Russell Carleton, there’s reason to believe Young’s lefty-mashing is more than just statistical noise.
Though Young’s platoon split likely won’t go away any time soon, the extent of it is almost certainly unsustainable. Beside the mere improbability of an average hitter maintaining a quadruple-digit OPS split for the first time at age 31, Young’s .390 batting average on balls in play won’t last — the correction may have begun Saturday night, when Adam Eaton robbed Young on a line drive to center field.
But even if Young’s numbers against lefties will inevitably regress a bit, he’ll remain a better option against lefties than unofficial platoon partner Carlos Beltran, who currently sports a .241/.307/.405 slash line against southpaws.
And regardless of what happens next, the Yankees can be thankful for Young’s contributions to this point. Eleven months after signing to a minor-league contract, Young ranks sixth among the team’s position players in WARP, with just over one win above replacement.
Young said his role as a lefty-hitting specialist comes with both perks and downsides.
“We’ve faced quite a few lefties lately, so it’s nice to be in there on a consistent basis,” he said. “But at the same time, you have streaks in this game where you may not run across a lefty for a couple weeks, so if that’s the case you have to figure out how to face righties as well.”
(Photo: Jim Cowsert-USA Today Sports)