Chris Young’s Surprising Comeback

Chris Young is in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career; depending on which metrics you prefer to look at. His numbers may not seem all that impressive at first glance, as his ERA and opponents’ batting average are his only statistics that are even slightly better than league average. Many of Young’s other numbers are rather pedestrian, if not entirely poor. Yet, the veteran has still managed to prevent runs as well as some of the biggest names in the game. While his run-prevention has been impressive, Young has received little recognition for his accomplishments this season, which is understandable. The Mariners signed the 35-year-old to a non-guaranteed contract just before the season, hoping that he would hold down a rotation spot until one of the Mariners’ young prospects, Taijuan Walker or James Paxton, returned from their injuries. Instead, Young has maintained his position in the clubs rotation and actually served as their 3rd best starter. It has been a long time since Young has pitched this consistently, as he has battled shoulder injuries for the last few seasons and struggled to return full-time to the big leagues. Prior to this season, Young last pitched in the Majors during the second half of the 2012 season. From 2009 to 2011, the righty threw just 120 innings across the three seasons. Due to continuing shoulder problems, Young failed to pitch in the MLB last season. However, last June, a doctor realized his shoulder pain was not due to his shoulder, but from a nerve issue known as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. With this new diagnosis, Young was able to properly treat the injury and return ready to pitch this season. More impressive than his successful return from constant shoulder issues, is the way that Young has come back better than before. He is pitching with reduced stuff, having aged and been injured, yet he is still performing better than plenty of star pitchers, in terms of runs allowed.

Despite his 6’10” frame, Young was never much of a hard thrower, as he averaged just 90.3 mph on his fastball in 2007, which was slightly below average for qualified starters. Even with average velocity, Young was able to maintain a K/9 above league average each year until his shoulder problems began in 2009. The righty’s ability to strikeout hitters helped him succeed, despite his extreme fly ball tendencies. That is no longer the case, however, as Young no longer has a better than league average strikeout rate. A low strikeout rate coupled with extreme fly ball tendencies is not a great recipe for success. Nevertheless, Young has still been very effective at preventing runs this season, which is due in part to a very low BABIP of .218 and a much better than league average strand rate of 83.6%. These statistics along with Young’s poor strikeout numbers and league average walk rate account for the large discrepancy between his ERA and FIP. Young has certainly prevented runs effectively, yet he has managed the 3rd worst FIP in the Majors. This shows how heavily he has relied on his defense and may be getting quite lucky with his low BABIP and high stand rate. Unlike most pitchers that rely on a low BABIP, Young’s BABIP is less likely to regress too far. For his career, the veteran has a .250 BABIP, so this season’s .218 mark is not too out of line. It is also important to note that fly balls have the lowest BABIP of any batted ball type and Young has the highest FB% of any qualified starter at 57.5% fly balls. Young also has the benefit of pitching in front of a very good outfield defense, as Mariners’ outfielders have compiled a UZR of 9.4. I certainly expect that Young’s BABIP will regress towards the mean, not necessarily towards league average, but more likely towards his career average of .250.

Just how rare is it that Young has been able to succeed as a starter with such a low GB% and low K/9? This season, he is among just 3 qualified starters to have a GB% lower than 40% and a K/9 lower than 6.00. The other two starters in the group are Josh Collmenter and Shelby Miller and of the group, Young has both the lowest GB% and lowest K/9. His GB% is nearly 15 points less than the other two starters, but he still has the best ERA of the group, albeit with the worst FIP and xFIP. Collmenter has also posted a better than league average ERA with a much better than league average BB/9. The final member of the group, Shelby Miller, has struggled to a 4.25 ERA, due in large part to compounding his low strikeout and groundball numbers with a high walk rate. There is no doubt this is a small sample and certainly with some survivor bias, as the pitchers that do not succeed with this formula are unlikely to amass enough innings to qualify. However, that goes to show how rare it is for a pitcher to succeed with low strikeout numbers and low groundball rate. There were no qualified starters that met the benchmarks of such a low K/9 and low GB% in 2012 or in 2013. Further demonstrating how few pitchers are able to succeed with such a low GB% and K rate.

It seems Young realizes the difficulty of succeeding with poor strikeout and groundball numbers, as the veteran has completely changed his approach since the end of May. He is now working with fewer fastballs than ever before in his career. For his career, Young has thrown 73.2% fastballs and he kept that pace, during April and May, as he threw 72.5% fastballs. Through the season’s first two months, Young carried a 3.27 ERA, but without average velocity, Young’s fastball heavy approach generated a meager 4.26 K/9. Young must have realized he could no longer rely so heavily on his subpar fastball because, in June and July, he cut his fastball% to fewer than 60%. His new approach has improved his numbers across the board. Not only has Young improved his ERA, but also his strikeout and walk rates. He has struck out nearly 2.5 more batters per 9 innings after reducing his fastball usage. There is no denying that two months worth of data is too small of a sample to draw many conclusions, but the results that Young has had with his new method are much more sustainable than the results of his previous two months.

Young is among a very small group of starters that have managed to succeed, despite striking out so few batters and managing such a meager groundball rate. His ability to outperform his peripherals may certainly be unsustainable, but this is a trend that has persisted his entire career, as his ERA has only been higher than his FIP in one season. There is no arguing that Young is highly dependent upon his defense to help him succeed, but with his fly ball tendencies and strong outfield defense behind him, there is no reason to believe this will not continue. His production looks even more sustainable after his improvements to his pitch selection, as he has improved his K/9 and BB/9. The league will certainly try to adjust to Young’s new approach, but they never made much progress before and Young has only improved his game plan.

Anthony Cacchione

The Cardinals’ Approach Without Molina

It is not an exaggeration to include Yadier Molina among the few MLB players that are irreplaceable to their team. He is an offensive threat at a defense-first position, while maintaining his status as the best defensive catcher in baseball. However, the Cardinals are now searching for a way to overcome the loss of Molina for an extended period of time. As Molina slid into third base in a game against the Pirates on Thursday, he tore a ligament in his thumb. The injury will require surgery and a recovery time between 8-12 weeks, which would keep Molina out until at least Mid-September. Even in the midst of a down season offensively, Molina registered a 112 wRC+, while still providing his elite defense. The Cardinals have claimed George Kottaras off waivers from the Indians, and he will presumably serve as Cruz’s backup. While he is an improvement upon Audry Perez, who would have been the Cards backup, he is not the answer. There are no acquisitions that GM John Mozeliak can make that will replicate anywhere near Molina’s level of production. However, that should not keep Mozeliak from pursuing upgrades over their current catchers. He has previously said that the trade market is currently too expensive, but with this loss, he can no longer afford to wait for the offense to come around and Michael Wacha to rehab from a rare shoulder injury.

For now, the Cardinals shift backup catcher Tony Cruz to their everyday starter, with recently acquired George Kottaras serving the role as the club’s backup catcher. Cruz is certainly an adequate reserve catcher, but he is not a reliable option as a starter with far below average offensive production and average-to-slightly above average defense over the course of his career. For his career Cruz has slashed .236/.280/.323, leading to a career wRC+ of 67 (100 wRC+ is average). Defensively, Cruz has compiled negative 6 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). While it is certainly possible Cruz performs better with regular playing time, it is equally likely that he struggles even more as the league gets a better scouting report on him. There is also nothing in Cruz’s Minor League career to suggest that he will suddenly become a productive offensive player. Kottaras is a journeyman, who is known for his keen eye and impressive pop for a reserve catcher. He has slashed .216/.326/.415 for his career with a 101 wRC+. Kottaras’s defense is comparable to that of Tony Cruz, as he has negative 9 DRS across nearly 5 Major League seasons. The Cardinals may plan to use the left-handed-hitting Kottaras in a platoon with Cruz, who bats from the right side. However, for his career, Cruz has hit much better against RHPs than LHPs. For his part, Kottaras has a 106 wRC+ against RHP, which would fit with a platoon. These internal options will not leave the Cardinals with much room for error, especially since they sit 2 games back in the division and a 0.5 game back of the second Wild Card spot.

In order to push past the Brewers for the division or at least claim the second Wild Card spot, the Cardinals will need to add another catcher that can provide more offensive value than the three options mentioned above. The Cardinals were already struggling mightily offensively, even before Molina’s injury, so they cannot afford for too much fall-off from Molina’s production without receiving more production from other areas. However, there are few easy areas to improve, so the Cardinals have decided to wait for the offense to return to its form of the past two seasons. With this injury, they now have a position that they can upgrade through the trade market without displacing a key contributor, who is slumping. The trade market for catchers is lacking impact talent, but there are still upgrades available. One catcher that may fit the Cardinals’ needs is David Ross, who his known for great leadership of a pitching staff, but has also dominated LHP this season and for his career. He has struggled mightily this season with a 60 wRC+, but against LHP, Ross owns a wRC+ of 128 with a .855 OPS. The Red Sox will likely be sellers this season and with Ross an impending Free Agent, he should be available at a reasonable price, especially with his overall offensive production being so poor. If the Cardinals do acquire Ross, they could choose to keep either Cruz or Kottaras or both on the Big League club to serve in the platoon. If both are kept on the roster, the Cardinals would likely designate either Daniel Descalso or Mark Ellis for assignment and put Cruz’s versatility to use, as he can play 3rd. The best trade possibility for the Cardinals is Kurt Suzuki, but it is not clear whether the Twins will make him available or attempt to reach an extension with him. He is in the midst of a resurgent season offensively and would be the outright starter if acquired. Suzuki has a .759 OPS and a 114 wRC+, while also providing strong defense behind the plate, so far this season. Suzuki would likely require a strong prospect in order to convince the Twins to trade him rather than extend him. The Cardinals could likely deal from the deep pool of outfield prospects, with James Ramsey or Randal Grichuk and another lesser prospect possibly going to Minnesota in a deal. Suzuki is the best catcher available on the market and would come the closest to Molina’s production offensively and defensively.

The Cardinals will not use the loss of Molina as an excuse if they fall out of contention, nor should they, as every team deals with injuries. The other two teams chasing the Brewers for 1st place in the NL Central have dealt with similarly devastating injuries. The Reds have lost Joey Votto to the DL, only to have him return before he was fully healthy and have to go back on the DL. They also just lost Brandon Phillips to the same injury that Molina suffered. The Reds also dealt with injuries to their Closer, Aroldis Chapman, and key Starting Pitcher, Mat Latos, to begin the season. The Pirates have dealt with injuries to young flamethrower Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. The fact is every team has injuries, but the Cardinals are fortunate that this injury occurred with weeks remaining before the July 31st Trade Deadline, as they will have an opportunity to address their new need. The Cardinals may not like the price of the trade market, but they can no longer wait for the offense to recover, especially after losing a key contributor. This injury will hurt the Cardinals, there is not much doubt about that, but the club does have an opportunity to limit the damage by adding outside help. My approach would be to go aggressively after Kurt Suzuki, but resisting the urge to include an elite player, rather trying to trade from the Cardinals depth in the outfield and young pitchers. If the Twins rebuke them, they should then turn to the Red Sox regarding David Ross. If the Cardinals decide they are happy with adding George Kottaras, then they will need to receive better offensive production from other offensive positions, which has yet to happen.

Anthony Cacchione