Chris Young: Is It Real, Or Is It Safeco?

Of the many new statistics brought into play by the so-called sabermetric revolution, FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, for the uninitiated) has arguably gained the most mainstream traction. Virtually everyone these days accepts the limitations of the ERA statistic, and appreciate the fact that FIP attempts to credit the pitcher for the outcomes which he truly controls, while trying to weed out the vagaries of context. This just in, though – FIP is far from perfect itself. Case in point – Chris Young, the NBA-sized righty now plying his trade for the Seattle Mariners, currently possesses a 3.15 ERA…..and a 5.00 FIP. Even this deep into the season, we’re accustomed to seeing pitchers with sizeable ERA/FIP disparities, but a 1.85 difference is beyond the pale. What on earth is going on here?

Chris Young is, if nothing else, an outlier. He’s first and foremost an extremely bright young man, to put it mildly. He was the first of a recent wave of talent from the unlikely baseball hotbed of Princeton University, blazing a trail for Ross Ohlendorf, Will Venable and David Hale, as well as some high draftees who didn’t quite reach the majors, like B.J. Szymanski and Thomas Pauly. Young and Venable took the outlier thing even further, also playing high-level Division-I basketball while at Princeton, Young as a 6’10” center, and Venable as a Swiss army knife-like multiple-threat point guard. Young left a contract offer from the Sacramento Kings on the table when he decided to pursue an MLB career after being selected in the 3rd round of the 2000 draft by the Pirates.

Young was successful, but far from a phenom early in his minor league career, actually being traded twice, first to the Expos and then to the Rangers, in relatively low-end deals that didn’t evolve material MLB talents. In 2004, Young made his major league debut for the Rangers, and asserted himself as a viable back-end starter/innings-guy type in his one-plus seasons with Texas. He was then involved in what could certainly be classified as a “high-end” trade, moving on to the Padres along with Adrian Gonzalez for a package “highlighted” by Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka. Not exactly new Rangers’ GM Jon Daniels’ proudest moment, though it has proven to be a rare blemish on his record.

It was in San Diego where Young blossomed, having his two best seasons to date in 2006 and 2007, making the All Star team the latter campaign. Petco Park helped, but at that time Young combined the ability to miss bats – he whiffed nearly a batter per inning in both seasons – with an extreme fly ball tendency keyed by his ability to get outs up in the zone with his fastball. He made his first of many extended trips to the disabled list in 2008 after being hit in the face by an Albert Pujols line drive, but was still basically the same guy before and after the injury.

Things took a long-term turn for the worse in 2009, as he experienced his first shoulder injury, and underwent surgery to repair a partially torn labrum. This is where being an outlier didn’t work to his benefit. Surgeries aren’t performed on 6’10” pitchers every day, and Young was very slow to recover. He still showed flashes of his core abilities on the rare occasions he was able to pitch over the next few seasons, still racking up huge popup and fly ball rates, but his command had taken a major hit. He underwent another shoulder procedure prior to the 2012 season, but after a modestly successful stint with the Mets that year, again experienced shoulder and neck pain after the season.

In 2013, he underwent yet another surgery, this time for thoracic outlet syndrome, which involved a rib resection to lessen pressure on the nerves in the shoulder area. It is a fairly rare procedure, but if successful, it can spell the end of chronic shoulder issues for pitchers. When I covered the Northeast for the Brewers, I scouted another very tall high school pitching prospect named Pat Egan, who had shoulder issues, and eventually underwent the same surgery. It took Egan a while to get back in the saddle, but he grinded through four years of college at Quinnipiac, and fell just short of the majors after a seven-year minor league career in which he had substantial success at the upper levels. Outlier pitchers, undergoing outlier surgeries, and living to tell about it.

The Mariners got some heat this spring for releasing Randy Wolf near the end of spring training after he refused to sign a 45-day advance consent that would have basically un-guaranteed his full 2014 salary. What needs to be retroactively added to that story is the fact that the Mariners did so with the knowledge that Young was in the process of being released by the Nationals. Young, by the way, signed the same 45-day advance consent, and left his financial situation up to his right arm, which has served him well to this point.

The raw traditional numbers obviously paint a very gaudy picture of Young’s 2014 performance. Not only does he have that shiny 3.15 ERA, he also has allowed only 71 hits in 91 1/3 IP, and is threatening to average six innings per start for the first time in his major league career. There is this slight matter of his home park, however – at Safeco, he is 5-1, 2.19, with a respectable 34/17 K/BB ratio in 49 1/3 IP. On the road, he is 2-3, 4.29, with an amazingly poor 13/18 K/BB in 42 IP. Now if you’re reading this, you’re fully aware that we really don’t want to get too caught up in small sample sizes, but the Safeco factor must be taken into account.

Prior to the 2013 season, the fences were brought in at Safeco by a fairly sizeable margin, ranging from four to 17 feet from LF around to RCF. The fence height was also lowered substantially to dead LF. According to my own park factors, based on granular batted ball data, Safeco remained the second most pitcher-friendly park in MLB after these changes, with an overall park factor of 88.2 in 2013, fractionally higher than PNC Park’s 88.1. Safeco’s fly ball park factor of 71.8 was also second lowest, ahead of only Kaufmann Stadium’s 70.0. Chris Young, extreme popup/fly ball pitcher, meet Safeco Field – this was a marriage made in heaven.

Let’s take a closer look at Young’s 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data to get a sense of how he gets it done:

FREQ – 2014
C.Young % REL PCT
K 12.6% 62 1
BB 9.4% 119 85
POP 20.7% 269 99
FLY 34.6% 124 96
LD 19.9% 95 26
GB 24.8% 57 1

When you have a bunch of 1’s and 99’s on your frequency table, it screams “outlier”. Young’s 12.6% K would have ranked dead last among MLB ERA qualifiers in 2013, and is fractionally ahead of only Kevin Correia and Eric Stults this season. His ability to maintain low line drive rates appears to be a skill of his, as his percentile rank of 26 isn’t atypical for him. He not only has a ground ball percentile rank of 1, but is on an island unto himself. Young’s 24.8% grounder rate is unbelievably low – only A.J. Griffin (29.8%) among 2013 MLB ERA qualifiers was below 30%, and Marco Estrada has the second-lowest grounder rate among 2014 qualifiers at 34.8%.

None of those are the most important numbers on his frequency table, however. That would be his popup rate of 20.7%. Again, the 99 percentile rank figure doesn’t do him justice. He’s more likely in the 99th percentile of the 99th percentile in this very important category. How big a number is a 20.7% popup rate? Well, in 2013, 8.3% of batted balls were popups, and only Griffin (14.3%) and Travis Wood (11.9%) had popup rates of over two standard deviations above their respective league averages. Young is three more standard deviations above them. Truly staggering.

Popup generation is a repeatable skill, and Young is the foremost master of it. While a strikeout is certainly a preferable result – after all, you limit hitters to a .000 AVG-.000 SLG when you whiff them – the popup runs a close second. In 2013, major league hitters batted a thunderous .016-.021 on popups. Sure, Young’s very low K rate puts him at a great disadvantage, requiring him to severely limit batted ball authority just to remain in the game, but his extreme popup rate allows him to do just that.

If you consider strikeouts and popups to be “free outs” from a pitcher’s perspective, Young has recorded free outs from 27.8% of the batters he’s faced this season, which is a bit above the MLB average. While his K rate is extremely subpar, his extreme popup rate more than compensates. He is an outlier among outliers in this regard.

Now let’s take a look at the production by BIP type allowed by Young in 2014, both before and after adjustment for context:

PROD – 2014
FLY 0.217 0.620 66 93
LD 0.623 0.811 86 100
GB 0.212 0.258 85 112
ALL BIP 0.246 0.439 66 85
ALL PA 0.211 0.286 0.377 86 106 3.15 3.28 4.06

The actual production allowed by Young on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. In the three right-most columns, his actual ERA, his calculated component ERA based on actual production allowed, and his “tru” ERA, which is adjusted for context, are all presented. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

Young has allowed well below MLB average production on fly balls this season, a REL PRD of 66 which is adjusted upward for context to 93. This is where the Safeco effect comes into play. Young has allowed slightly better than average fly ball authority this season, but that translates to a major discount in offense in Safeco. Also, it’s a pretty big deal for an extreme fly ball pitcher to be able to limit fly ball authority. Remember the identity of the second-most grounder averse starter in the majors this season – Marco Estrada, who has recently devolved into a homer machine. Young has allowed well below MLB average production on liners (86 REL PRD) and grounders (85), but those figures are also adjusted upward for context to ADJ PRD figures of 100 and 112, respectively. Without taking context into consideration, Young’s overall REL PRD on all BIP – his “contact score” – is 66, which is about what it takes to lead a league over a given season. His adjusted overall contact score of 85 is still well above average, and is almost solely due to his extreme popup rate.

Add those K’s and BB’s back, though, and you get a better picture of what Chris Young is, on balance. His actual and calculated component ERA’s of 3.15 and 3.28 paint him as an upper-rotation, #2-3 type starter. His “tru” ERA, however, takes context into account, and pegs him at 4.06, squarely in innings-eater, #4 starter territory. The traditional method of evaluating Young, via his ERA, is dead wrong, but so is the “new and improved” method, utilizing FIP. ERA ignores all types of context, but FIP ignores those glorious popups.

No, Chris Young is not as good as his ERA, and yes, he is aided measurably by his home park. His employers aren’t complaining, however – his manager, Lloyd McClendon, has called him a “godsend”. He certainly is an upgrade over the Joe Saunderses and Aaron Harangs that comprised the back end of the Mariner rotation in front of a historically poor outfield defense in 2013. If he can remain healthy, Young’s presence at the back end of the rotation is one of the key factors that separates the 2014 Mariners from the 2013 version.

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9 years ago

Beating FIP has been Chris Young’s calling card his whole career and part of that has been that he gets infield popups at a much higher rate his whole career so this season is really just an extension of that.