Chris Young Challenges the Data

“You should go look at the research again and see what the charts say,” Chris Young, the Seattle Mariners pitcher, emphatically told me one afternoon this season. We were talking about high fastballs and he didn’t agree with something I’d said.

In particular, it was about his high fastballs. Only four starters are throwing the fastball more often than Chris Young this year. I asked him about the pitch. Did he trust it more than his off-speed stuff at this point in his career? “Fastball command is first and foremost for any pitcher,” he said. “If you throw the ball where you want, you can get outs”.

What’s interesting about this is, to some extent, the fastball is often treated as a way to get to breaking balls. The balls-to-strikes ratio on the pitch is best in baseball; the whiff rate, though, is worst. Get ahead and then put them away. Except for Young. For him, it’s use the fastball for all the strikes. “Every game I try to identify a plan,” he said. “I try to identify where I can put my fastball to each hitter so that it will hopefully result in soft contact or an out of some sort.” Notice he said “fastball.”

In particular, Young throws the fastball higher in the zone than some. Check out his heat map from 2012, which has a decent sample of fastballs. He’s known as a high-ball pitcher for a reason:

chrisyoungFA12

When I asked him if throwing a mid-80s fastball up in the zone was daring, that’s when things got serious. “That’s your opinion,” he told me. “I’ll show you a chart on every hitter that shows you that most hitters have a hole in the zone up.” Take a look at three important hitters he was facing that afternoon: Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Coco Crisp (in order from left to right, versus righties, from BaseballHeatMaps). There’s something to be said about his information. Crisp was pretty much the only hitter Young could point to as a high-ball hitter.

donaldsonheatMossheat crispheat

First and foremost, Young thought there was too much at play between a hitter and a pitcher to be formulaic about statements like that. When I said a pitcher could try for ground balls by throwing low in the zone, he pointed out that it also depends on the hitter. “You can say you’re trying for something,” he agreed. But, he added, that doesn’t mean it’s “in your control.”

And yet, we have graphs like this one, which depicts the league-wide ground-ball rate from right-handed hitters against fastballs from right-handed pitchers in certain areas. From this, you see that low balls lead to grounders more often:

gbp

But there was more to his resistance to this baseball truism. “You can look across the board and see that pitching up can be just as effective as pitching down, maybe moreso,” he said. “Hitting is cyclical. I’ve given up plenty of home runs on low balls. Hitters are very good low ball hitters now, too.”

It turns out, he’s on to something… maybe. The fact that low pitches mean ground balls does not prove the inverse. High pitches do not — necessarily — mean more home runs. Check out the heat map for home runs below (again for righties against righties on fastballs).

hrp

Look how low the red zone goes, and how there are lighter spots at the top of the zone. And yet, it’s still generally true the high fastball goes for homers more, isn’t it? Now let’s look at home runs per fly ball (same conditions):

hrfb

Well, hello. There are fewer fly balls down in the zone, perhaps, but when a hitter gets a hold of one of those, it’s more likely to be a home run than fly ball pitches at the top of the zone. Golfing works.

And maybe you noticed both heat maps had a hole high and tight, a place Chris Young likes to go. “Working vertically is just as important as working horizontally,” Young said. “Being able to locate the fastball gives you four different pitches: down and away, up and away, down and in and up and in.” Up and in, in particular, is a great spot to hit, it looks like. And since Young also thinks generalities are less important than the particulars of each batter, it’s interesting to return to those specific charts above and remember not all hitters can turn a high fastball into a home run.

To some extent, Young is in a great place to take advantage of a high fastball. He’s six-foot-10 and acknowledges that hitters sometime call his fastball “invisible.” Some part of this is perceived velocity, since he releases his fastball closer to the plate. Eric Seidman once investigated this phenomenon in great detail and found hitters might perceive his 84.4 mph fastball as if it were a 91.1 mph pitch.

But that’s just math. There might be more to it. “I don’t know if it’s spin rate or the way a pitcher hides the ball, or the angle of the pitch, there are a lot of different variables” that go into perceived velocity, Young said. This is important, and not just because Sean Doolittle exhibits how important it can be or Tony Cingrani uses the same glove flip or Ryan Dempster once revived his career with a waggle.

“When an organization or team figures out how to measure that, they’re going to be able to identify at an earlier stage players that are going to play at the big-league level and those who aren’t,” Young said. “There are so many guys that throw hard but it doesn’t always translate to success.” And Young has been lucky to have it. He’s heard hitters say his fastball “gets on you” no matter what the gun says. (“When I threw a little bit harder, they really said it.”) But what part of that deception is reach, what is his angle and what is his vertical pitching style? That’s left for future research.

By being able to hit the high-and-tight pitch, Young is able to exploit a baseball-wide hole. By concentrating on high fastballs, he’s working against the current low-ball trend in baseball. By focusing on each particular hitter, he’s making sure his game plan is locked down. Add in a little boost in perceived velocity that might come from Young’s natural mechanics and height, and that’s how you can still get great innings from a 35-year-old pitcher with a mid-80s fastball.*

* Correction: A smart, 35-year-old pitcher with a mid-80s fastball.

Thanks to David Appelman for the beautiful charts above.




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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


51 Responses to “Chris Young Challenges the Data”

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  1. Daniel W says:

    The “uses the same glove flip” Cingrani reference links to Doolittle’s article. Intentional?

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  2. Kyle Boddy says:

    Great interview, and awesome insights by CY.

    Similar insight as to the GB pitchers getting killed when they do give up FBs. It’s all about mitigating bat exit speed on a trajectory-adjusted basis when it comes to BIP.

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  3. ALEastbound says:

    Eno, great name, great writer.

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  4. Mr baseball says:

    Good stuff. Looks like the awakening is happening. We’ve got a decent conceptualization of the macro trends in the game…now the really hard part is going to be uncovering the granular data that really can generate true understanding as opposed to mere knowledge. The current stats movement overstates its understanding of the game.

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    • Carl says:

      Strand runners at a rate higher than you ever have before, walk nearly 10% of the batters you face, and manage a BABIP against of .188 while having a K/BB ratio hilariously close to 1.

      You think that’s an awakening? That’s cute.

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  5. Klatz says:

    I think what’s amazing from the charts, particularly the HR/flyball is how relatively dangerous the low and away zone is. I think it’s fairly common place for pitchers to focus on low and away during tight games, late in the game, and with men on.

    You’d think up and in would be a better place to live by these charts.

    Of course that’s just focusing on HRs.

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    • Andrew says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      The charts are from the batter’s perspective, so I think it’s the inverse of how you were looking at it. So low and away and high and tight are the safest places to live, in terms of HRs, if I’m reading it correctly. Right?

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      • GMH says:

        Yes, you are correct. Klatz was obviously looking at the data for pitches down and in, which of course is a more dangerous area for pitchers.

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  6. Jose Fernandez Jr says:

    revisit the article in a month.

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  7. Jose Fernandez Jr says:

    this guys has been bad the last two/three years just a lucky month.

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    • Sylvan says:

      Pretty dismissive of a smart dude who’s turned an 87 MPH fastball intp a 10-year MLB career with a 3.76 ERA.

      Regardless of whether he’s on the decline, he clearly knows a thing or two about pitching.

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      • Carl says:

        You’re cherry-picking data. You don’t get to include the numbers he put up in his prime when his K/9 was double what it is now and fastball 6mph faster to defend his epic rungood over a small sample *this year.*

        His K/BB ratio is flirting with 1. He throws his fastball more than anyone else, claims control is his key to success yet his walk rate is near 10%. Is this Chris Young changing the game of baseball?

        I don’t dispute Chris Young being a smart guy and/or pitcher who has found a way to make one last run in the Bigs.

        I dispute ANY of his success this far being remotely representative of his actual skill set and long-term projected numbers.

        But hey, what do I know. Maybe if he can strand baserunners at a rate higher than when he was in his prime, hold hitters to a BABIP of .188 which can definitely last. Fastballs up in the zone!

        Next article: Alfredo Simon, ace?

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        • Carl says:

          I am deeply saddened by the fact that a website I associated with intelligent baseball minds will so fervently defend a pitcher (smart or not, is moot) who has put up such miserable numbers on his way to a respectable ERA over a small sample space of 10 starts.

          This debate is literally divided into people who think ERA is a better measure of long-term success than stats like FIP or SIERA.

          Me: “His numbers are not indicative of someone who will perform well. He is probably the worst regular starter in baseball.”

          Other: “He’s 6’10 so his fastball REALLY gets on you. Why such a low K rate then? Well, it gets on you just enough for you to kind of hit it, which makes a BABIP of .188 reasonable. He controls the pitch he throws 75% of the time so well he only walks hitters 10% of the time.”

          Better start finding out how Alfredo Simon became such a genius! Variance isn’t a real thing. Fastballs up in the zone!

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        • Eno Sarris says:

          Here’s what I don’t understand: what does the quality of the pitcher have to do with the possible insights he might have? Here’s a dude with a bad change-up, a below-average slider, and a mid-80s fastball, and he’s still pitching in baseball. Maybe we should ask him about pitching?

          If we only went to the best players for insight into baseball, we’d have no pitching or hitting coaches, and we’d get a lot of “make your pitches, man.”

          This isn’t an article about Chris Young, either, which is the real head scratcher. It’s an article about wether or not the cyclical nature of baseball has created a chance for arbitrage at the top of the zone and in. That HR/FB heat map is what this article is about for me, and there’s nothing about Young’s sustainability that has anything to do with that.

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        • Eno Sarris says:
          FanGraphs Supporting Member

          Correction: this isn’t an article *only* about Chris Young.

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        • Carl says:

          I strongly agree Eno that it’s very important to pick the brains of guys like Chris Young who get by with subpar stuff and what appears to be a subpar skill set in general.

          If I was not clear, I had very little problem with the article, save perhaps the last sentence. (I don’t even think you can get average innings from Young, let alone great ones, and the numbers back that up).

          Being an intelligent pitcher DOES make up for some lack of skills, stuff. It does not, however, turn Chris Young into an acceptable starter.

          The problem I’ve been aiming at doesn’t have to do with the article. It sounds like it was a great interview, that Young is a cool dude, and you asked the right questions.

          I’m talking to the people in the comment section who seem to think Young is a good starter because “look at his ERA” opposed to the reality of him being a ticking time bomb who has survived on a magical mix of variance and rungood.

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    • frivoflava29 says:

      I wish you wrote this article

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    • Carl says:

      Jose- what do you mean lucky?

      You think a guy with a K/BB ratio approaching 1 and a BABIP of .188 won’t have long-term success in the Majors?

      But he’s 6’10! Fastballs up in the zone! And he’s smart!

      Checkmate.

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  8. Wobatus says:

    Young since he started pitching is 1st among 206 starters wih 500+ innings pitched in FB%, IFFB% and lowest gb%. And 30th lowest LD%. Hence the lowest babip. And he’s 13th in HR to FB%. And it isn’t just his home parks like Petco. His road hr/fb is 21st lowest over that span at 8.6%. Despite all the flyballs homers don’t kill him.

    Fascinating article Eno on Young and how he pitches.

    He also led the 1999 Princeton Tigers to the NIT (highest wins share on the team), averaging 13 points, 6 boards and 3 blocks. They beat NC State and Georgetown in that tournament.

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  9. hscer says:

    Is Chris Young the most polite yeller in the game?

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  10. Great read, really fun to see how you try to work through the numbers when you get challenged by a player.
    The other thing that stands out about Chris Young is his vertical fastball movement, which ranks at the top of all players in the PitchFX era (2007-2014). Players with more rise on their fastball (+1SD above the mean) give up more fly balls, but also get more infield flies and give up fewer homers-per-fly than average.
    Young has the highest IFFB% since 2007 (min 500IP), and the only player with a lower HR/FB% is Kershaw, which is why he’s outperformed his FIP more than any other starter.

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  11. ThundaPC says:

    Good stuff.

    Chris Young has really been fascinating to watch. Despite his ugly peripherals, his unorthodox style is generating results that actually seem repeatable. Multiple hitters have attested that the ball Young throws “gets in on them.” It’s remarkable to see Chris Young cause hitter after hitter to harmlessly fly out. A few fly balls do leave the yard and a few of them reach the warning track but hitters are not able to tee off on him.

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  12. SabathiaWouldBeGoodAtTheEighthToo says:

    “Nobody likes the ball low and away, but that’s where they’ll get it from me.”
    -Satchel Paige

    Not germain to the story, but the heat maps bear this out.

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  13. Peckerhead says:

    Nice work Eno! Maybe the reason more pitchers dont work higher in the zone is that they are afraid what may happen if they miss…

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  14. harmony says:

    I am better informed after reading this exchange between a Stanford graduate and a Princeton graduate.

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  15. Orsulakfan says:

    Very good article: the game of adjustments is always fun to follow, and this is a great example of how that plays out.

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  16. AK7007 says:

    More of these please. Totally cool the way Young responds to his own numbers.

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  17. Ghost Hands says:

    Based on The Book’s GB/FB platoon split this makes sense. If you’re facing a lineup full of fly ball hitters (like the ’13 and ’14 Athletics) you should be more successful as a fly ball pitcher (like Chris Young) than a ground ball pitcher. Part of that strategy, I assume, is pitching up in the zone.

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    • arthurpete says:

      Looking at his game log he has seemingly performed better against flyball hitting teams. His 3 poorest games have come against @Mia (4ER, 7H, 1HR), @Min (5ER, 10H, 2HR) and @TX (4ER, 7H, 2HR) who are the 20th, 14th and 29th least FB hitting teams but are 6th, 9th and 26th in line drives respectively. Conversely, against the most flyball hitting team the A’s, Young has done pretty well (8 IP, 3H, 2ER and 1 HR) He also came away with a quality start against the Angels (11th) and the Astros (13th).

      Obviously we need more data but there may be something to say about his starts at home against fly ball hitting teams. His next test is the Tigers at Safeco who rank #4 in FB, followed by @TB (#16) and NYY (#17)

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      • arthurpete says:

        Correction, he actually has another game against Oakland i somehow overlooked….it was at home where he shut them out in 6 innings and gave up zero ER or HR.

        So against the highest flyball hitting team he has a sparkling 0.64 ERA and 0.86 WHIP with 1 HR in 14 innings.

        Haha, Im still not ballsy enough to start him against Detroit tomorrow.

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  18. MGL says:

    Pitchers who throw 84 cannot throw up in the zone. This guy is the worst projected pitcher in baseball. He is terrible. He used to be good way back before all of his injuries when he threw 89-90. He is below replacement now. He should not be pitching in the majors. ZIPS and Steamer have him projected with an FIP of around 6. That is AA level, maybe worse. I don’t know why anyone would want to listen to this guy about pitching, or at least about HIS pitching.

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    • MGL - Math is Hard says:

      For someone who supposedly knows a lot about math, you sure make some broad generalizations that cannot possibly be true 100% of the time, such as “pitchers who throw 84 cannot throw up in the zone.”

      OK? So if you face a pitcher who throws 84, he must throw 100% of the pitches he has in the bottom of the zone? Hitters will optimize for that and eliminate everything up, then, giving them a huge advantage in cheating on fastballs and breaking balls down.

      Pitching is a hell of a lot more fluid than your dogmatic approach. You do sabermetrics an insane disservice when you talk about pitching, including your nonsensical rants on Twitter.

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      • MGL says:

        Pitchers who throw 84 cannot throw primarily up in the zone. There may be a small percentage of exceptions, I don’t know. Happy?

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        • Adam says:

          You’re right. He can’t “throw” up in the zone with a mid-80’s fastball. He pitches up in the zone with a mid-80’s fastball.

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        • Dan Greer says:

          So how many pitchers are 6’10”? I’d bet they have a slightly better chance of being the exceptions.

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        • Carl says:

          Yeah he *Pitches* up in the zone with a mid-80’s fastball. Using words makes his pathetic K/BB ratio better, and that .188 BABIP against magically become representative.

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    • TJ says:

      Simply because he isn’t succeeding as often doesn’t mean his mentality/method is wrong. Eno showed us the maps. Clearly Chris Young isn’t speaking out of his ass.

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    • Cliff says:

      Sarcasm?

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    • tomemos says:

      Well, how hard can *you* throw, yet you expect people to listen to you.

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    • GMH says:

      I stridently recommend that no pitcher throws up in the zone. I am pretty sure that sort of thing would result in an immediate ejection and probably a suspension and hefty fine. Not only would the batter likely charge the mound, the home plate umpire and the pitcher’s own catcher would alomst certainly follow suit. No one likes being barraged with chunks of vomit.

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    • Dan Greer says:

      You poop on his velocity, while ignoring his effective velocity. Why discard Young’s physical outlier status when faced with him being an extreme statistical outlier? He’s been outperforming FIP for nearly 1000 innings. I don’t think he’s much more than a marginal starter, but speaking with so much certainty about this particular individual not belonging in the Majors does nothing but discredit your opinion. Perhaps you’ll be proven right, and eventually, you surely will be. But that might not be for a while longer.

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      • Carl says:

        Outperforming FIP and xFIP by tenths of runs is very different from doing it by 2 or more runs.

        He’s outperformed FIP by .6 runs for nearly 1000 innings- so by your logic his ERA should be pushing 5.

        You can’t rationalize a FIP-ERA of over 2 because he’s outperformed it by .6 over his career.

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  19. Jose fernandez he says:

    Of course chris young is saying fip and xfip are not always true measures of pitchers. Runs allowed is the most important stat in terms of effecting wins or losses. there are guys outperforming fip and xfip every year ( weaver, cain). So to says these numbers are 100 percent meaningful is not always true. But bottom line is it’s going to be hard for a guy walking as many as he strikes out to be effective for very long. For good pitchers pitching up in the zone fip and xfip might be skewed since they value ground balls.

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  20. Regression says:

    I’m comin’ for ya, Chris.

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  21. Carl says:

    Eno- interview Alfredo Simon and figure out what his secret is. I mean, with an ERA under 3 he’s *even better than Chris Young* :o

    And since his ERA-FIP is over 2 he MUST have a secret. Variance in a sample size of 10 starts? Nonsense.

    Fastballs up in the zone!

    In related news, the secret to quick recovery for pitchers: hot ice. You heat up the ice!

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    • Eno Sarris says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      Don Cooper was a terrible pitcher. Should I pass on talking to him if I get the chance?

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      • Carl says:

        Definitely not. That’s not what I meant. But just because you interview a guy and he’s nice, smart, and even opens your eyes to a new concept (maybe there is something to working more up in the zone) that doesn’t justify this amount of praise for his on-the-field performance.

        But I do understand you have a job to do, and you did a damn good job of it, so I should give kudos to that.

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    • Carl is an idiot says:

      Its not a sample sixe of ten starts its a sample size of for over 10 years

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  22. scrivenergm says:

    I think Chris Young peed in Carl’s cheerios back at Princeton and he’s had an axe to grind ever since.

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  23. Average Fastball Velociraptor says:

    Just went back to read this and shared with a friend. One of the best pieces I read all year.

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