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

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