Is There Room for Chris Young?

Two bits of news spread almost simultaneously Monday night: Bruce Chen signed somewhere for a minor-league contract, and Barry Zito had signed somewhere else for, also, a minor-league contract. This is the season of minor-league contracts, as the pool of available free agents has been reduced to a puddle on an otherwise dry concrete foundation. But of those names still out there, Chris Young has a certain intrigue. If Chen and Zito can find opportunities, it stands to reason Young should find one as well. Right?

Certainly, his agent has been called. Certainly, there have been feelers. And it’s not a complete mystery why Young remains unsigned. This is Chris Young, to the naked eye:


That’s 84, and that’s perceived to be a problem. Young, also, has never been durable, and that’s a problem. Young is also 35, and that’s a problem. It’s not hard to come up with reasons not to sign him. But at the same time, Young is coming off 165 innings with a 3.65 ERA, and while ERA is ERA and the run environment is the lowest it’s been in ages, this sentence contains two important facts. Young, in 2014, lasted awhile, and Young, in 2014, was of use to his employer. The point isn’t to dwell on ERA, but with Young, it can’t be ignored, because there’s something about him.

As an analytical baseball fan, you’ve probably heard something somewhere along the line about Young and his fly balls and his tendency to beat his peripherals. He’s as extreme a fly ball pitcher as there is, and he generates a ton of pop-ups. The result has been this: Young’s career ERA- is better than his FIP- by 15 points. Young’s career ERA- is better than his xFIP- by 21 points. The former is more than two standard deviations better than the mean; the latter is nearly three better. People are always looking for pitchers who are exceptions to the usual rules. Young is proven to be one, as he was exceptional in 2014, and as he’s been exceptional his whole career.

Young, naturally, isn’t what he was at his peak. It’s been a long time, and he’s been cut open on several occasions. He’s no longer a borderline ace, or anything close. If you look at what Young just did with the Mariners, you see a low ERA and a whole bunch of ugliness. But perhaps we can be nicer by being more understanding. Young didn’t begin the year in the rotation, and he had to find his footing. Toward the end, he wore down, because he basically didn’t pitch at all the year before. Young wasn’t hurt, but he did develop fatigue and dead arm around the end of August. If you grant him some excuses, there was a half-season stretch in the middle where Young was genuinely helpful by any metric. And he should now be better prepared for a full season in 2015, if he’s given the chance.

For the sake of a little perspective, let’s look at starters last season who threw at least 100 innings. Young ranked in the 15th percentile by strikeout rate. However, now let’s fold in infield flies. If you add both strikeouts and pop-ups, then Young moves up to the 51st percentile in “automatic-out rate.” He was tied with both Sonny Gray and Anibal Sanchez. Over the past five years, Young’s in the 30th percentile in strikeouts, and 68th in automatic outs. Strikeouts don’t tell the whole story, which can be an easy thing to miss.

Now, the reddest of red flags for Young have been his injury problems. It was totally justified by, well, his injury problems, and Young still has never thrown 180 innings in a regular season. Between 2008 and 2013, Young started a combined 60 major-league games. He could never get and stay quite right, but then he had surgery to relieve thoracic outlet syndrome. Young said he felt better immediately after coming to — there were positive reports about him last season out of camp — and then Young backed up his words with his performance and stability.

He made almost a full season’s worth of starts, he didn’t have any injuries and some of his velocity came back. He topped out just above 90 mph. His changeup got a couple ticks hotter. His slider was the fastest it had been since 2007. When Young underwent his operation, he had a doctor tell him the thoracic outlet syndrome was probably the cause of all of his issues. It’s tempting to want to dismiss that — it’s almost too easy — but Young just went a year without a disabled-list stint. The fatigue is easy to explain given the dramatic increase in year-to-year workload.

It seems Chris Young should get a chance somewhere. It seems like he’s earned that, and while skepticism is warranted to some degree, Young could be a real good fit in the right environment.  That’s the other thing. Young allows contact, and he allows fly balls. Seattle was good for him, just as San Diego had been good for him. You wouldn’t want to put Chris Young in Boston, where the run value of the average fly ball skyrockets. I decided to try to find the best fits, simply by analyzing fly ball run values in would-be home parks, and projected outfield defense.

This ignores AL/NL adjustments. Based just on the above, here are the five best fits, by a decent margin over No. 6:

  • Royals
  • Marlins
  • Cardinals
  • A’s
  • Rays

The Royals have the amazing defensive outfield, and the massive actual outfield. So Young could work there. But the rotation is full, with Danny Duffy at No. 5. The Marlins will be without Jose Fernandez for a few months, but they might prefer Tom Koehler, David Phelps or Andre Rienzo. Yet given the Dan Haren questions and the Mat Latos questions, perhaps Young would make sense as insurance. The Cardinals seem content to try Carlos Martinez as a starter, and Jaime Garcia lurks as an unknown. The A’s are clearly interested in additional pitching help, just in case, but perhaps Zito took the spot that could’ve gone to Young. And that takes us to the Rays.

The Rays want to contend. They have a fine team that isn’t a great team, and Matt Moore will be sidelined for at least the first few months. Tropicana Field is a pitcher-friendly environment, and the team defense should be a plus. The current fifth-starter battle will be between Alex Colome and Nate Karns.

Throw in Young’s high-fastball tendencies and you see a potential match. It’s not that easy — Colome is out of options, and Karns has some intriguing strengths — but perhaps Tampa Bay would make the most sense for Chris Young. Perhaps one of the other teams would make more sense, if something happens to the staff in spring training. Young couldn’t thrive everywhere, but he only really needs to avoid places like Boston and Colorado and both Chicago teams.

I realize you’re probably not that interested in Chris Young, especially at this point in his career. But Young is one of the most unusual pitchers in the game, and he’s one of the most thoughtful pitchers in the game. The game’s better with him somewhere in it. He should get the 2015 opportunity he’s earned, and he should continue to be strange and infuriating for all he strikes out.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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9 years ago

2014: 3.52 ERA, 0.2 fWAR

Neil S
9 years ago
Reply to  Eminor3rd

Did you actually read the article?

9 years ago
Reply to  Neil S

Yes. Was my comment not related to Jeff’s point?

9 years ago
Reply to  Eminor3rd

And 2.4 RA9-WAR. Chris Young has a career BABIP of .250 and was .238 in 2014. FIP, by definition, assumes that pitchers cannot control their BABIP and regresses the stat. However, the article and Young’s career stats indicate that he has a mucher larger influence over his BABIP than most and that his FIP will not be an accurate representation of his performance (again, from the article).

Guess what fWAR is based off of? FIP.

9 years ago
Reply to  Sean

I know.