Chris Young: The Hometown Babe Ruth

If you’re a Yankees fan, you probably know that Chris Young (the hitter) has been on a bit of a tear lately, forcing himself into the starting lineup on a daily basis. If you’re a general baseball fan, you also might know that Young is from Houston, Texas. How would you know a sort of random bit of information like that? Most likely because there are two known Chris Youngs, the hitter: Mr. Young the usually fringy outfielder, and Mr. Young when he’s playing in Houston.

The former Mr. Young we’ve known for some time. He had a ton of expectations put on him early in his career, a few momentary flashes of what could have been, then he’s bounced around in a fourth-ish outfielder role for a number of clubs in the past few years. He owns a career line that supports such a role:

Total 1177 4533 132 9.7% 22.5% .194 .272 .235 .313 .429 94 17.2

A little power, a little speed, but not really enough there to merit full-time work. Young is almost 32 years old, so the ship sailed long ago on him becoming the guy people expected when he was called up. However, the main point: there’s a place on some major-league team for a guy like Chris Young, even if there barely is, and even if that role is limited in nature.

Young just finished up a great June, however — posting a wRC+ of 137 — thereby playing himself into a full-time role. Taking that into account, we shouldn’t have been too surprised to see him do this two Fridays ago:

And then this the next day, on Saturday:

One of the most notable things about those dingers (in addition to their actual worth to the outcome of a professional baseball game) is the fact that they were hit in Houston, in front of the usual strong contingent of Young’s family members. This was very much the other version of Chris Young: the “when in Houston” version. The question now becomes: does Young actually play better when in Houston, or is this just a lucky mirage?

First, let’s take a look at Young’s career line when playing at Minute Maid Park:

Total 27 123 3 7.3% 17.8% .352 .420 .396 .434 .748

It’s just 27 games, but it’s a positively Ruthian 27 games. The high BABIP is what’s mainly driving the gaudy average, but it’s the power output that’s the most cartoonish. Ten home runs in 123 plate appearances would be an incredible month for some of the best power hitters in baseball, and Young has done it broken up over the span of over eight years. Small sample sizes make things look crazy, and there’s no doubt that we’re dealing with some craziness here.

Still, there’s some other date through which we can wade to see whether Young actually gets some sort of bump from playing in his hometown. First up, let’s look at Young’s home-run distance and home-run batted-ball speed away from Houston vs. in Houston, courtesy of HitTracker Online:

Speed (MPH) Distance (Feet)
In Houston 100.9 384.1
Everywhere Else 103.7 399.8

Ok! Some of those home runs he hit in Houston are of the Minute Maid Park variety — that is, they wouldn’t be home runs in many other places. The Crawford Boxes do that for right-handed hitters (and left-handed hitters too, for that matter). Again, it would be nice to have more data here, but we can see that the home-run output from Young in Houston might be a little inflated, given that he’s hit his home runs softer and shorter in Houston than in other places.

How about swinging-strike rates? While we don’t have great access to plate-discipline splits by ballpark, we can do a few calculations using Baseball Savant. Let’s take a look at Young’s overall and in-zone swinging-strike rates for Houston, compared to all stadiums:

In Houston All Stadiums
SwStr% 8.0% 9.1%
Z-SwStr% 6.8% 8.4%

In this sample (with the data going back to the start of 2008), Young does show less of a propensity to swing and miss in Houston than in his overall numbers. That sort of difference is noisy given the sample size, but it’s interesting to imagine him having some gift of contact when he’s in Texas.

Finally, let’s look at his batted-ball breakdown. Here’s a table of his fly ball, ground ball, line drive, and infield-fly-ball rates for Houston, as well as all stadiums:

In Houston All Stadiums
FB% 30.1% 32.5%
GB% 30.1% 33.5%
LD% 27.7% 19.2%
IFFB% 12.1% 14.8%

Yes, Young’s crazy BABIP is what’s driving some of his numbers, but he’s also hit a ton of line drives, which helps. His swinging-strike rate and line-drive rate in Houston puts him somewhere around the profile of a guy like Mike Trout. We know Chris Young is not Trout, but when’s he’s been in Houston, he has been about equal to a month of Trout playing out of his mind.

All of this is about Young, yes, but it’s also setting up a larger question that we may not be able to answer without a lot more research. Is a hometown “bump” a real thing for some players? Do certain people thrive when they know their friends and family are watching them play in-person? Those players could be offset by others who tense up with playing in their hometown (everyone should be expected to have a different response to the pressure of being expected to perform), but could certain skills become honed in those situations as opposed to others?

In the end, we (or I) need to dig deeper into more, and lots, of data. A lot goes into sports psychology, and the sort of data we’re interested in — the kind that deals with a situational mindset — might not even be readily available. For Chris Young, we see that some of his insane stats in his hometown are a little lucky in a pretty small sample; even adjusting for that luck, however, he’s probably still above his usual production in the data we have, and that’s food for thought. There might be something to a hometown bump, or there might not. The only way to find out is to look at more players.

Whenever Young has come to town, his cheering section in Houston has gotten to see the MVP that never quite materialized. Lucky or not, they don’t care, because he’s been an unstoppable hometown force.

Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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7 years ago

You vaguely answered the question yourself; “(everyone should be expected to have a different response to the pressure of being expected to perform)”