Chris Young was a revelation in 2014. After battling injuries in the past few years, the tall, soft-tossing veteran rebounded in Seattle to post a 3.65 ERA in 165 innings pitched. Despite this, few teams were interested in the 35-year-old during his free agency last offseason, so in spite of his successful 2014 campaign, Young signed a one-year deal with a base salary of just $675,000 to pitch out of Kansas City’s bullpen. MLB Trade Rumors, a calm voice of reason in the baseball journalism world of aggressive hot takes, wrote, "For Young to receive a big-league deal at this point in the offseason qualifies as a minor coup." His contract does include incentives that could push the deal to $6 million, but when a team gives a journeyman number five starter a base salary only a few thousand dollars above league minimum, they do so without the expectation that he will be starting Game Four of the World Series. Welcome to the world of Chris Young, where an unwanted swingman has turned into a star on baseball’s biggest stage.
No one pitches like Chris Young. More specifically, no one has a fastball like Chris Young; he does not throw it hard. The offering averages just 86.99 mph, and only renown soft-tossers Jered Weaver and Mark Buehrle throw a slower four-seamer. Unlike many soft-tossers, his fastball is not designed to record ground balls. Instead, it does just the opposite. Only three pitchers, Jake Peavy, Marco Estrada, and Adam Morgan, have a lower ground ball rate with their four-seam fastball than Young. His fastball does not generate swings-and-misses very often. The 12.57 percent whiff per swing rate with the pitch comes in at number 96 out of 115 pitchers who threw at least 500 four-seamers this season.
In spite of this, Young’s fastball remains effective. By Baseball Prospectus’s True Average, Young’s fastball was more effective than Yordano Ventura’s heater this season by a wide margin. The soft-tosser’s four-seamer was also more effective than the four-seamers from the hard-throwing Nate Eovaldi and Carlos Carrasco, and was tied in effectiveness with Yankees’ star rookie Luis Severino. The True Average numbers for these pitchers, and a few other notable arms, are shown below.
How is Young’s heater effective despite accomplishing neither of the two most common goals for a pitch: swinging strikes and ground balls?
Young is an extreme fly ball pitcher, and his four-seamer is a big part of that. A whopping 38 percent of balls put in play against the pitch are fly balls, the third-highest mark in the league. Fly balls typically feature a low batting average but a high slugging percentage makes them worse for a pitcher than ground balls, which rarely produce a result worse than a single. However, not all balls in the air are created equal. Baseball Prospectus differentiates between fly balls and popups, the latter of which almost always result in an easy out. For another 14 percent of balls put in play against him, Young is able to induce an easy popup. His popup rate is down two percent from his career average of 16 percent, which ranks second in the PITCHf/x era among pitchers with at least 2000 fastballs. Sum that up and Young’s fastball is hit in the air 52 percent of the time. This is a skill and Young has mastered it.
Young arrives at this skill due to a combination of factors. Unlike most pitchers, Young does not sacrifice release height for release distance (extension), and despite standing at 6’10", releases the ball farther from the plate than most pitchers. According to a terrific Ben Lindbergh article posted in June at Grantland (RIP), Young releases the ball a mere 5.949 feet from the rubber, causing him to lose an average of .587 mph in perceived velocity for his heater. Instead of striving to release the ball as close to home plate as possible, Young takes the unusual (and in most cases, less effective) route of striving to maximize release height. His fastball is released a whopping 79.92 inches off the ground (roughly 6’8"), giving him an advantage that is easy to observe from the batter’s box but difficult to measure with numbers: deception.
The movement on Young’s fastball is a perfect match for his towering release height. The ball begins its flight to the plate from a steep angle, but then adds deception by rising on its way to the plate. Marco Estrada, whose heater is the most similar to the Royals’ number four starter, is the only pitcher to generate more vertical movement than Young’s 11.97 inch average. Spin rate is the cause of the rise, and Young has no trouble maximizing the frequency of the spin on his fastball. In the postseason, the pitch has averaged 2,483 rpm, allowing it to slice through the air quickly and stay above the trajectory of other fastballs.
The combination of release height and vertical movement gives Young’s four-seamer the visual effect of starting high and never coming down. The deception is obvious, and it is easy to see how batters frequently swing too low and hit popups and fly balls. Adding to the deception, however, is the status of the pitch as a true one-of-a-kind offering. No one else throws a fastball like Young; the tall righty also gains an advantage based on the unfamiliarity of his fastball. This is especially true the first time through the order, when Young holds opponents to just a .554 OPS. The second and third time through the order, once the hitters have seen his fastball, he allows OPS figures of .748 and .743, respectively
In an era of ground ball and strikeout specialists, fly ball specialists are rarely valued because of the relative success modern hitters have hitting fly balls out of the park. Power is king, and power hitters are deliberately trying to hit the ball in the air for doubles and home runs, but fly balls against Young are different. He generates a high rate of popups that help him enjoy good results on balls hit in the air. Opposing hitters have just a .533 OPS on balls hit in the air against Young, and if we take away home runs, the Royals' outfield defense helps him enjoy just a .066 batting average on balls in play. He is pitching to his strength, pitching to his team’s strength, and pitching to his home park. A Princeton grad, Young understands his skills as a pitcher and knows how to use them to his advantage. His method of pitching goes against the modern conventional wisdom on the mound, but as the only pitcher throwing a slow, rising fastball from a high angle, the league's shift far away from pitchers like himself has only helped him become more unusual and consequently more effective.
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Dan Weigel is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and Sporting News. He is also a pitching coach, but never has and probably never will instruct a pitcher to throw like Chris Young. You can follow him on twitter at @DanWeigel38.