In the offseason after winning the 2014 award for American League Comeback Player of the year, Chris Young — that’s the exceptionally lanky pitcher Chris Young, not the merely lanky hitter Chris Young — received zero attention on the free agent market. It took until about mid-way through Spring Training until a team signed Young — on March 7, the Royals signed him to a very interesting one-year contract with a $0.675M base salary and a whopping $5.325M in incentives. That’s very little guaranteed money, though, especially compared to the 2014 National League Comeback Player of the Year, Casey McGehee, who is guaranteed to earn $4.8M from the San Francisco Giants this season despite performing below replacement level thus far.
Jeff explored Young’s lack of a market in late February, pointing out that Young is riskier than most pitchers because of both his frighteningly extensive injury history and perhaps also because of the uniquely large gulf between Young’s ERA and his FIP. Even though Young’s BABIP of .238 in 2014 was actually in line with his through-2013 career rate of .258, it also makes sense that no teams were eager to snap up a pitcher who compiled a 5+ FIP the previous season after missing the entire season prior to that.
The Royals were one of five teams that Jeff recommended sign Young, thanks to Kauffman Stadium’s large outfield dimensions and skilled outfield personnel patrolling said dimensions. What nobody saw coming — including probably Young himself — is that the Royals would convert Young to their notably elite bullpen, specifically as a stretch man. So far, signing Young has looked like a brilliant move from any perspective, including the not insignificant advantage of having a totally capable spot starter traveling with the team at all times instead of having to be inconveniently summoned from Triple-A.
Young has made one start this year, shutting out the Detroit Tigers last Friday in five pitch-count-controlled innings, and has come out of the bullpen five times, with only one three-out appearance and the rest going for five outs or more. He has been a revelation in all of his 14.2 innings, allowing only a two-run homer from Kurt Suzuki. That’s a 1.23 ERA. Suzuki’s homer is one of only four hits that Young has allowed: that’s a .091 BABIP. This season has been the most Chris Young-iest season of them all.
It wouldn’t be going out on a limb to say that Young’s BABIP will rise from that microscopic rate as the year goes on. Obviously it’s hard to maintain a BABIP that low even in the tiny sample of ten innings: among pitchers with just ten or more innings pitched, nobody had as low a BABIP last year. In watching Young’s innings, though, there is very little that feels fluky about that low, low number. While Young has benefitted from a slick sliding catch from Jarrod Dyson to secure a fly ball out, one of his hits given up was a meek blooper single, also to shallow right field.
Still, though, Young does not need to maintain a historically outlandish BABIP in order to turn in a good season. His 3.13 FIP so far would count as a career high, even including his back-to-back four-game seasons in 2010 and 2011. It could be the case that, by transitioning Young to the bullpen, the Royals have unlocked the potential of yet another former starter.
Wade Davis is the most successful transition story in the Royals’ bullpen. Since being moved from Kansas City’s rotation in 2013 to the bullpen in 2014, Davis posted a flabbergasting 3.4 WAR in 82 relief innings. After a career of trying to throw six or seven innings at a time, focusing on a single inning per game in the bullpen allowed Davis to really let it rip, adding significant velocity to his full arsenal of pitches.
Moving to the bullpen has allowed Young to do the same — even though he’s going multiple innings at a time, this has been Young’s fastest year since he was in his twenties.
On the surface, it doesn’t look like Young’s uptick in velocity shouldn’t be making a tangible difference. Davis made the jump from an average fastball at 92 MPH to an average fastball at 95 MPH. Young has made the big ol’ leap from 85 MPH to 86 MPH. Why the heck doesn’t this guy get clobbered?
At this point, well over a thousand innings into Young’s career, his ability to induce weak contact — specifically weak fly balls — sure does look like a repeatable skill. That low, low career BABIP is historically great, and can only be approached by just a few active veterans, most of them lifelong relievers. The word commonly thrown around when talking about Young is “Invisiball.” His long limbs make for such an unconventional delivery that starts so close to the plate, that the ball looks, I guess, invisible to batters.
“His fastball up, for some reason, just looks like it’s a good pitch to hit,” said Wright, who is 1-for-9 lifetime against Young. “And then when you start swinging at it, it just kind of stays up there.”
“It almost feels like he’s releasing it five feet in front of you.”
Not only is Young releasing the ball further away from home than five feet, he actually releases the ball further away from the plate than, say, Kyle Lobstein, his opponent for last week’s start, releases the ball.
Just by virtue of his height, Chris Young looks really different from other pitchers even if you hardly know the rules of baseball. But even for the players themselves, they’re also seeing stuff that they’ve maybe never seen before when Young is throwing. Having never stood in the box to face professional heat, I can’t imagine what the difference could be. I can only report that, on TV, it looks like each of Young’s pitches is imminently hittable. I can also report that hitters rarely hit it. My guess is that even Young’s marginal increases in velocity look, somehow, like a much different beast for the major leaguers who fly out against him, time after time.