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Failed Baseball America prospects: "The Scouting Report Phenom"

After beginning a long, exhaustive research project that nobody asked for, I've started to draw some conclusions about the annual Baseball America Top 100. Including why some "bust." Here's the first example: The Phenom.

a career in a single image
a career in a single image
Al Messerschmidt

If there was a Hall of Fame for baseball prospects, Delmon Young would be a shoo-in. He might be the greatest prospect of all time, at least, if you take a scouts word for it. In some ways, Trouble with the Curve would be the pro-Delmon Young baseball movie and Moneyball would be the anti-Young.

One of those ways is that Young was actually more mouth than action. And in another way, just like I wouldn't want to watch Young play baseball, I would also never want to watch Trouble with the Curve.

An article earlier this year at Crashburn Alley went into greater detail about the legend of Young when he was... well... young. He wasn't just drawing headlines at 13:

"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 RedsDmitri 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.’"

Coaches were well aware of Young for years before he entered high school. Years. How could you possibly look at a pre-teen and see a future Hall of Fame baseball player? Some people were certain that's what they were seeing, including his high school coach Scott Cline:

Cline: Eight. When he was eight years old he was already hitting balls over fences and winning HR derby's in advanced age groups. We saw Delmon coming early.

I could barely ride a bike when I was eight. Not that I am the baseline of an eight-year-old's athletic ability (I got one hit during my little league career. Seriously.) but I could hardly imagine impressing a baseball coach -- let alone impressing one so much that word of mouth would quickly spread about "the phenom" around little league circles -- yet that was Delmon Young's childhood.

And unlike other phenoms in that age range (remember Danny Almonte? Even if he was lying about his age, there was still a time when people were wondering if he was better than Henry Rowengartner) Young kept impressing people. Kept appearing to get better. People never wavered on the fact that they knew Young was one of the best prospects they've ever seen, and certainly he had the athletic ability to back it up.

540-foot home runs.

A rocket arm.

Brother Dmitri was a four-time Baseball America Top 100 prospect, topping at number 12 in 1993. I can even a recall a time as a teenager when ESPN ran a feature before that year that pondered if Dmitri would hit .400 that season. He didn't.

Others actually gushed over his maturity.

And so it was a foregone conclusion that Delmon would be the top pick in the 2003 draft, except that it apparently wasn't foregone:

"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."

(Seriously, thank you Crashburn Alley for digging these up. Old scouting reports can be hard to find these days.)

Why wouldn't the greatest teenager, nay the greatest eight-year-old, not be a lock for the first overall pick? It couldn't just be that Rickie Weeks was, on his own accord, one of the greatest NCAA players of all time, could it? It wasn't until 2004 that Andrew Friedman, now credited with an advanced statistical mind that would change the club's entire pitiful existence, became the team's Director of Baseball Development. But did the Rays have questions not only about Young's maturity (which would develop as an issue later on) but his ability to play at a high level?

I honestly wonder if Friedman would have drafted Young. Because despite the fact that Young is considered one of the biggest busts of all time, I have serious doubts about his merits for not only being a top prospect but for being perhaps the greatest Baseball America prospect ever.

Young was ranked third overall in 2004. Third overall in 2005. First overall in 2006. And third overall in 2007. What did he do to earn these rankings? That's a good question, because outside of those words from people that saw him play as a kid, and likely words echoed from scouts that saw him play on the field, was a flawed player from the get-go. One that deserved a ranking in the top 100, but maybe not the ones nearly as high as he received.

Problem One: Ranking a player before he's ever played minor league baseball.

As discussed, Young was the top pick in 2003, taken over Weeks, Harvey, plus Kyle Sleeth (3rd), Tim Stauffer (4th), and Chris Lubanski (5th). Not a murderer's row of prospects by any means. (The best was yet to come, with Nick Markakis going 7th, John Danks going 9th, Aaron Hill going 13th, Chad Billingsley going 24th, and Adam Jones going 37th.)

He later signed for $5.8 million, but as a case in point for what was/is perhaps the most frustrating thing about baseball and the draft, Young didn't play in 2003. He'd show up in the Arizona Fall League, and do very well, but the AFL might as well not be real baseball at all. It's a place to play, but I can do that at McDonald's.

For being a great high school player, Young was ranked third overall by Baseball America in 2004. The top prospect was Joe Mauer, another former number one pick, but one that was coming off of a season in which he hit .338/.398/.434 over two levels.

Second was teammate B.J. Upton, a player that hit .297/.390/.431 over two levels, including at AA when he was only 18-years-old.

Fourth was Edwin Jackson, a pitcher that had held his own at AA at age 19.

Fifth was Weeks, and as a college player with perhaps more incentive to sign, Weeks played 21 games in 2003 and hit .349/.494/.556 at single-A Beloit.

I see a lot of issues with ranking players that have never played in the minor leagues, or have only had enough coffee to get their feet wet. I also think it mostly just causes publications (or random bloggers) to look terrible several years later. Like when Kyle Sleeth was ranked 36th that year, and then went out and pitched fairly bad in 2004. Or that Harvey was ranked 65th and never made the majors. Lubanski was ranked 68th, had a poor 2004 season, and never made the majors.

If only we had waited to watch them play against better competition.

But maybe I'm the fool, because Delmon went out there in 2004, at the age of 18, and hit .322/.388/.538 with 25 HR and 21 SB at single-A Charleston, and even walked in 9.1% of his at-bats. By comparison, Matt Kemp was also in the Sally that year, was a year older than Young, and hit .288/.330/.499 with 17 HR and 8 stolen bases.

That's all fine and dandy, until I get to another one of my rules:

Problem Two: Hitting below double-A is all fine and good, it's produced some of the best talent we've ever seen, but it's also produced some of the biggest flops.

Yes, Young outperformed Matt Kemp. But he wasn't the teenager in the Sally that year with the highest OPS either: Ian Stewart hit .319/.398/.594 with 30 HR and 19 SB at age 19. Lastings Milledge hit .340/.401/.580 with 13 HR and 23 SB at age 19.

My mom always used to say the exact same thing every time I cleaned my room and told her I was finished: "It's a good start!"

You could argue that Young had done enough to prove that he was on his way to stardom going into 2005, but that season should have set off a bunch of red flags that it didn't.

The next year, Young stayed right where he was and ranked third again, this time based off of his prowess as a teenager, his draft status, and a great performance in single-A ball where Stewart and Milledge also had great seasons. (And also later flopped.)

Young found himself behind Mauer again, a consecutive number one finish for Joe despite the fact that he missed most of the year with injury. But Joe had 122 plate appearances with the Twins and hit .308/.369/.570 at age 21.

Felix Hernandez took over the number two spot, an 18-year-old that dominated the California League (11.2 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 2.74 ERA in 92 innings) and did well at double-A (57.1 innings, 9.1 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 3.30 ERA.)

Stewart's efforts placed him fourth. Milledge came in 11th. (Overall, the 2005 list is littered with disappointments, like Joel Guzman, Casey Kotchman, Andy Marte, and Dallas McPherson.) You could argue that Young had done enough to prove that he was on his way to stardom going into 2005, but that season should have set off a bunch of red flags that it didn't.

In 370 plate appearances at double-A, Young hit .336/.386/.582 with 20 HR, 25 SB, and 13 doubles. But he walked in just 6.7% of his plate appearances and he struck out in 17.8% of them. He was promoted to triple-A Durham, aggressive for a 19-year-old, and hit .285/.303/.447 with 6 HR and 7 SB. But now Young walked in 1.7% of his plate appearances (!) and struck out 14.1% of the time.

And though you can hear legends about his arm strength, I never personally came across anything that said Young could actually play the outfield well. That he had any range. That he could track down balls and do what outfielders do besides that random occasion when you have an opportunity for a putout. What are the possible red flags now for Delmon Young, supposedly the top prospect after Mauer and Felix had graduated:

- Can't walk

- Possible strikeout issues

- 32 stolen bases, but 12 caught stealing

- Potentially a bad outfielder

For these efforts, Young was ranked as the top prospect in baseball in 2006.

He was ranked ahead of Justin Upton, the number one pick in 2005 (See Problem One.) And Brandon Wood (Who's contact issues could be considered 'abysmal' at best, or 'awesome' if you're saucy.) And Jeremy Hermida, who actually just walked an astounding 111 times in 507 plate appearances (later article: Can a prospect walk too much?)

Was Baseball America right though and would Young justify the top spot?

From Wikipedia, in case you forgot:

On April 26, 2006, while playing for the Durham Bulls in a game against the Pawtucket Red Sox, Young was ejected for arguing a disputed third strike call and before heading back to the dugout, Young flung his bat underhand which made contact with the umpire. He stared at the umpire for some time and refused to leave the batter's box. He finally did, but then started to return to his dugout and the center field camera caught him throwing his bat underhand, end-over-end, toward the umpire. The bat hit the umpire on his chest and arm but he was not seriously hurt.

Young basically started the season with a 50-game suspension for being a dick. Crashburn Alley also points out that 2006 was the year that Young started rooming with noted dick, Elijah Dukes.

"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

And then from the words of Young himself, in the same year that he got himself suspended for 50 games and likely didn't understand the consequences and ramifications of his actions, even if he did disagree with the suspension:

"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 "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.

Good stuff, kid.

Ah yes, he is just a kid still after all. Only 20-years-old, Young played in 86 games with triple-A Durham and hit .316/.341/.474 with 8 HR, 22 SB and only 4 caught stealing this time. However, even if he was more successful on the basepaths in a limited sample, was he more successful in the areas at the plate and in the outfield?

Yes, between 2005 and 2006, Delmon Young walked in 4.5% of his nearly 1000 plate appearances. And he was the top prospect in baseball.

Young walked in 4.1% of his at-bats and struck out in 17.6%. His ISOP was .158 now. This, the kid who could hit 540-foot dinger dongers. His BABIP that season was .358. He may have been young for triple-A, but I don't care if you're young, old, or an in-betweeny when you're walking less than 5% of the time, and have walked just 44 times in your last 974 plate appearances.

Yes, between 2005 and 2006, Delmon Young walked in 4.5% of his nearly 1000 plate appearances. And he was the top prospect in baseball. And his power was diminishing. And his defense was bad. But hey, remember when he was eight!?!?!

Delmon was also called up to the majors in 2006 after the Devil Rays heard him crying all the way in Durham, and he got in 131 plate appearances. Enough to give you an idea of what you've got, but not enough to disqualify you from rookie status. Young, only 20, hit .317 in 30 games.

Problem Three: Just again a good time to point out that batting average is a crappy way to evaluate a player.

Young hit .317/.336/.476. He had 131 plate appearances... and one walk. One. In 30 games. He stole two bases and was caught twice. He struck out 24 times. Still, in only 30 games, Delmon Young had put together what would be one of his most valuable professional seasons, and he was still pretty flawed.

In 2007, Baseball America ranked him third again.

Question: How many red flags does it take for Baseball America to screw in their light bulb?

Answer: Never enough if you were the best 13-year-old of all-time.

Apparently at the time he was a better prospect than Upton again. And Evan Longoria. And Tim Lincecum. And Jay Bruce. And Troy Tulowitzki. And Andrew McCutchen.

This was a guy that had gotten suspended for 50 games for making contact with an umpire, and then seemed not to think it was a big deal. That his own ballclub, the one that paid him nearly $6 million for being a good teenage baseball player, was holding him back for no reason. That had walked in 4.5% of plate appearances over the last two years. That had terrible defense, and very little base-stealing ability, and had just seen his power go out.

The first ranking in 2004 I disagreed with because he had never played professionally.

In 2005, I could understand it, even if a little high.

In 2006, I could still sort of understand it, but Young was never the best prospect in baseball. Not since he was a kid.

But 2007 is likely the most unbelievable. I don't care if he was 20 or 10, Young was not playing well. Outside of a .316 average, sparked by a .358 BABIP, he was straight up playing poorly. That may have carried over into his rookie year, when Young finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting when he hit .288 with 38 doubles, 93 RBI, and 10 stolen bases.

However, he walked in only 5.6% of his at-bats, his ISO was .119, his BABIP was .338, he only hit 13 home runs, and he was starting to show that he might be a terror in the outfield. By 2007, Friedman was the general manager of the Rays and so it's not surprising that he did exactly what you would expect the "new Rays" to do, something the "old Rays" would not. They dealt Young, supposedly one of the top young hitters in the game, to the Twins (with Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie) for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan.

Garza, himself once a darling of the Baseball America Top 100 (#21 in 2007), was like the anti-Delmon. A dominating minor league pitcher that hadn't quite yet figured it out in the majors but seemed poised to do so. While Bartlett put up more WAR in 2008 with the Rays (1.8) than Young has been worth over his entire career.

Hell, Eduardo Morlan, who has never made the majors, has been worth more than Young. Delmon Young's career WAR per Fangraphs is -1.1.

Should we be surprised though? A few years into his minor league career, Young was a hitter that couldn't draw a walk to save his life, couldn't play outfield defense, wasn't very fast on the basepaths, had issues with authority, was self-entitled, and had even seen his power diminish. It's the same player he has been in the majors for way too long.

Fellow Rays prospect and Baseball America darling Evan Longoria has put up a career UZR of 72.5. Young's career UZR? -62.7.

If you believed what Baseball America and scouts told you, Young was one of the best prospects in the minor leagues, possibly one of the best ever. But if you looked at his stats in triple-A, you knew exactly what you were getting;

His walk percentage in AAA in 2006 was 4.1-percent. His career walk percentage is 4.1-percent.

His strikeout percentage in AAA in 2006 was 17.6-percent. His career strikeout percentage is 17.7-percent.

His ISO in AAA in 2006 was .158. His career ISO is .142.

On paper, Young was a glorious prospect with loads of potential in his bat and his arm that would one day be a superstar according to scouts. But we don't play baseball on paper, we play it on grass and dirt. And Young is horrible on grass and dirt. He's been that way for a long time. Sorry, Baseball America and scouts but Young isn't Peter Pan.

You can't stay eight forever.

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