It hasn't been a good year for Delmon Young.
Back in April, Young was arrested for using an anti-semitic slur in an altercation with a fan in New York City, and was subsequently suspended seven games. Things haven't been much better on the field, as the 26-year-old has put up a .273/.306/.421 line. And because he either is a DH or plays a bad left field, his performance has actually been worth -0.7 wins above replacement. That's right, according to WAR, Young has been worse than a readily available Triple-A player.
But Young was the hero on Friday night, as his three-run double in the seventh inning was the difference in the Detroit Tigers' 7-4 win against the Chicago White Sox. In the process, Detroit narrowed Chicago's AL Central lead to two games.
In addition to giving the Tigers a much-needed victory, Young's double also highlighted why he is the key to Detroit's lineup down the stretch.
I know what you're thinking: How can a borderline big leaguer be that vital to a contender's chances? Here's why.
For some reason that probably only makes sense to manager Jim Leyland, Young always bats fifth in the Tigers' lineup. Well, maybe not always, but he has started more than 100 games at that spot this season. And as you probably know, he has Prince Fielder hitting in front of him, and Miguel Cabrera before that. Since Fielder has a .410 OBP and Cabrera a .390 OBP, Young comes to bat with men on base quite frequently. In fact, he has 217 at-bats with men on base this year, which ranks eighth in the AL. In terms of opportunities to drive in runs, there are few better to hit than where Young does. The problem is that because he is so futile with the stick, he only has 57 RBIs this year, and teams are regularly pitching around Fielder just for the chance to face Young. (Fielder actually leads the AL with 17 intentional walks this year.)
But when Young can at least provide a threat and make teams pay like he did tonight, opponents won't be so quick to pitch around Fielder just to face him. And while Young has generally been seen as a disappointment as a big leaguer because he never lived up to the promise that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft, he hasn't always been useless with the stick. (His defense is another issue.)
In 2010, he actually posted an .826 OPS with the Minnesota Twins, and even finished in 10th place in the AL MVP vote. He was even decent after being acquired by the Tigers last August, putting up a .756 OPS down the stretch with the Tigers and then hitting three home runs in the American League Division Series as the Tigers upset the Yankees.
Point is, Young is not a good player, and you could easily make the argument that he's a bad player. But as long as Leyland is going to insist that he bats fifth in the Tigers' lineup, he is going to get plenty of opportunities with men on base. How he handles them will likely decide whether the Tigers can overtake the White Sox in what is shaping up as a down-to-the-wire division race.