Red Sox: How will Chris Young’s role evolve in 2017?
Chris Young excelled as part of a platoon in left field for the Boston Red Sox in 2016, will we see his role evolve this season?
After signing a two-year contract in December of 2015, Chris Young did exactly what the Red Sox wanted him to do in 2017 – rake against left-handed pitchers.
The 33-year-old did well overall last season (.276 average, 120 OPS+), but slashed .329/.410/.589 against southpaws with a 135 OPS+. While he did what was asked of him, Farrell struggled to find Young time in the lineup against favorable matchups. Partly because of a hamstring injury that cost him nearly two months and partly because the Red Sox faced consistent strings of right-handed pitchers. As a result, he had just 83 plate appearances against lefties compared to 144 against righties. In those appearances, he hit just .246 with a 80 OPS+.
The injury that cost him the nearly two months between June and August couldn’t have come at a worse time for Young, as he had just started to cement his role with the Red Sox. He hit .316 and .292 in May and June respectively before going on the DL. His injury was only part of a string of injuries that decimated the position for the Red Sox in 2016. Andrew Benintendi had staked his claim to the starting job in left by the time Young returned but had his own DL stint in August that put Young back in the forefront.
It’s clear that he wasn’t brought into Boston to be the team’s everyday left fielder and won’t be expected to claim that role during Spring Training this year. Benintendi is already penciled into the starting position against righties and depending on how much John Farrell trusts him, the majority of games against southpaws. Because of that, Young’s role in 2017 could undergo an evolution.
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To be clear, there’s still the chance that he sees regular starts against southpaws in left field. Talented as he is, Benintendi batted a mediocre .179 with 12 strikeouts and no home runs in 28 at-bats against lefties during his debut last season. I don’t expect Benintendi to maintain such hard splits over his career, but don’t be surprised if Farrell eases him into his starting position. During that process, Young will benefit with increased playing time.
Once Benintendi assumes the everyday position (which he will) finding Young regular at-bats becomes a little bit more challenging. He’s still athletic enough, even at his age, to play any of the outfield positions so he’ll be the first name called to backup Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley. Unfortunately for Young, they played 158 and 156 games respectively last season so there aren’t many at-bats to be found there.
Instead, Young stands to benefit from the retirement of David Ortiz and the Red Sox’ newfound flexibility at DH. Hanley Ramirez will receive the majority of at-bats out of Ortiz’s former position in 2017, starting against righties, and then moving to first with lefties on the mound. Thankfully for Young, the Red Sox’ new first baseman Mitch Moreland has a career 80 OPS+ against left-handed pitching and should sit with them on the mound. That vacancy at DH against lefties is where Young stands to earn his money this season.
By comparison, Ortiz started 84 games against left-handed pitchers last season, good for 152 plate appearances. As a benchmark for the number of times the Sox will face a southpaw this year, that’s nearly twice as many games and plate appearances for Young in a position that he thrives in. Rather than slotting him to bat against righties for the majority of his appearances, as Farrell was forced to last season, he can now optimize Young’s 130 OPS+ split. If there was a positive to come from David Ortiz’s retirement, greater lineup flexibility would be it.
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Young made the most of his limited time on the field last season, taking the majority of his at-bats against righties. Despite injury and unfavorable situations, he still put together a solid campaign and good overall numbers. With Benintendi expected to take over everyday duties in left, Young figures to get regular at-bats as the Red Sox designated hitter when a southpaw takes the mound for opposing teams.