Chris Young, of the Kansas City Royals, is known for both his Princeton pedigree and his height. The 6-foot-10 right-hander is also known for getting outs up in the zone, with a slow fastball. Young’s four-seamer averages 86.4 mph, and he has the highest FB% (58.2) and the lowest BABiP (.217) among pitchers who have thrown at least 100 innings. The velocity and fly balls are in line with his career norms; his probability defying BABiP is even more striking than the .248 he’s registered during parts of 11 seasons.
Thanks in large part to his frame, Young has a deceptive delivery. He also has a high spin rate on his lukewarm heater. It’s not elite, but it ranks among the top 20% of hurlers and contributes to his above-the-belt success. The 35-year-old has appeared in 32 games this year — half of them starts — and has a 10-6 record to go with a 3.29 ERA and a 4.71 FIP.
Young on spin rate: “I haven’t heard about my spin rate being high – nobody has said a word to me about that – but I do understand how it works. Spin rate creates the rise, the life on the ball. For me, the intent is there, but I wasn’t aware of the result. Maybe that quantifies my deception, or whatever it is that you want to call it.
“Early in my career, I had a chance to talk to Curt Schilling. I looked up to him because he was a four-seam fastball guy. He told me that the one thing he wants to feel on his fastball is the backspin off of his fingers. He wants to feel that action, that whip, that finish. That’s the same thing I’m trying to do on my fastball. I don’t throw as hard as Schilling — or as hard as a lot of guys — but it’s the same mentality of wanting to get through the ball to rotate it, to really backspin it. I want to create life on the ball. That said, it’s not something where I can consciously say, ‘I want to make this ball spin more than another pitch.’”
On learning he could work effectively up in the zone: “It’s the way I’ve pitched my whole life. When I was 14, 15 years old and getting into high school, I was the same way. I’d change eye levels. I’d work down in the zone and pitch up in the zone. Back then, it happened more by accident than intent, but it was effective. Over time, I recognized how to do it intentionally, and how it played in terms of hitters’ swings.
“I remember having a Double-A pitching coach saying to me, ‘You won’t be ready for the big leagues until you learn to pitch down in the zone.’ It almost had the opposite effect. When I moved up to Triple-A, I had better results, because all those pitches that were foul balls at the lower levels became pop ups. They became outs. I realized, ‘This is an effective pitch.’”
On conviction and changing eye levels:“It’s not like I try to throw every pitch up in the zone. You have to work down in the zone, and you don’t want to throw down in the zone without life. I’m trying to throw every pitch with 100-percent conviction. If I do that – whether it’s down or up – I feel that it results in better action. It’s the conviction behind a pitch that leads to a more-favorable result.
“Sometimes you can read a hitter – you can read their swings or how they take a pitch – and see if they’re trying to get you down, or trying to get you up. I’ll try to adjust accordingly. It’s equally important for me to be able work down as it is for me to work up.
“High and low play off of each other. If a hitter is laying off a pitch that’s up, it probably makes him more susceptible to swing at a pitch down. For the same reason, he’s not swinging at a breaking ball in the dirt because he’s trying to make you get the ball up – he wants to see a ball higher in the zone. Pitches up and down are correlated, certainly. I try to establish both.”
On data and preparation: “Every series, I have a PDF sent to me from the Royals scouting department with the data I want from them. Then I look at video and match it up with heat maps. I determine my game plan from there.
“The stuff I look at is maybe a little more in depth than your basic scouting report. It helps me determine what type of hitter someone is and what his game plan is. I match up the statistics with what I’m seeing on video. More often than not it matches up, but there are times my eyes get deceived a little bit and I need to check out the data more closely. The sample size matters, too. The bigger it is, the better idea you have of what he likes and what his approach is.
“When I look at heat maps, it’s against right-handed pitchers and whether he’s more of a high-ball hitter or more of a low-ball hitter. That’s the main thing with heat maps, but I also look at whether he covers away or in better. In certain situations, that gives me a visualization of, ‘OK, this is where I want to throw the ball.’”
On velocity and the non-quantifiable: “Pitching is so much more than velocity. It’s about deception, it’s about movement, it’s about location. Then there are the intangibles. There is the mental toughness, the conviction, the poise, the thought process, the intent, the ability to read swings. All of that goes into making a pitcher successful. You can look around baseball and find so many guys throwing 98 mph – guys all over the minor leagues who aren’t ready for the big leagues, many who will never play in the big leagues. That shows how important the other aspects are.
“Velocity is the most quantifiable thing, but now we’re reaching some other forms – some other measurements – that are allowing people to evaluate differently. But in the end, I think the biggest thing is between the ears, and that’s something you can’t quantify.”
On the mental component: “There’s obviously physical talent involved, but I think what makes pitchers successful is the mental component – the ability to process information and to compete with conviction. Knowing you can get a hitter out is a belief. It’s a feeling – a confidence you have – whether you’re throwing 80 mph or 100 mph. If you lose that, hitters will sense it and jump on it. It’s like a dog sensing fear.
“It exists and it’s tangible. It’s what separates average from good, and good from great. Show me a pitcher with brains, heart and balls, and I’ll show you a winner. That’s the hardest thing to quantify, and it’s probably the most important.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.