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The Curious Case of Chris Young

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"There is ONE word in America that says it all, and that one word is, 'You never know.' " - Joaquin Andujar

Every year, Joaquin Andujar is proven right. Going into last season, a 95 loss campaign for the Rangers would have been overachieving in the minds of many, as Texas was predicted to finish last in the A.L. West and lose 100+ games. Instead, the Rangers got off to a hot start and hung around in the playoff race until the last week of September, largely on the strength of the best bullpen in the majors, which carried a mediocre offense and rotation all season.

Coming into 2005, with no upgrades to the rotation and very few changes to the offense, it was thought that, if the Rangers were going to repeat and build on last year's success, the bullpen was going to have to do the heavy lifting once again. And while the Rangers are currently just a half-game behind division leader Anaheim, it is the rotation and the offense that has been behind the team's success, with the bullpen (sans Frankie Francisco and Carlos Almanzar) posting the second worst ERA in the A.L. going into Sunday, ahead of only the hapless Royals.

The rotation, however, ranked 4th in the A.L. in ERA coming into Sunday, an amazing accomplishment given the perils of pitching in TBIA.

The media has trumpeted the newfound rotational stability as being behind the rotation's success, pointing out that the Rangers have used just five starters so far this season, after going through seventeen in 2004. The reality, though, is that two of those starters - Pedro Astacio and last year's ace, Ryan Drese - have struggled, and Chan Ho Park has been barely average (although us long-suffering Rangers fans would, at this point, take barely average from Park).

No, the success of the Ranger rotation lies primarily on the shoulder of two very different men - Kenny Rogers and Chris Young. Rogers is currently defying all convention, leading the A.L. in ERA at the age of 40 and while posting an abysmal K/BB ratio, epitomizing the cliché of the crafty lefthander while thumbing his nose at Father Time and a leaky Ranger front office.

But Rogers' success doesn't interest me so much, in part because I know that he won't be keeping this up, that there's no way that he'll be able to continue performing like this, and because he's likely not going to be around past this year anyway, who will be part of the nucleus this team is building around.

No, the really interesting half of that pair is Chris Young - the guy who the Rangers got for Einar Diaz and Justin Echols fifteen months ago, the 6'10" former Princeton center who, although chronologically 26 years old as of last Wednesday, is baseballically younger, due to baseball not being his primary focus until he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2001. A 2000 draftee, he lost his final two years of baseball eligibility by signing a $1.65 million deal as the Pirates' 3rd round draft choice, but didn't begin playing with the Pirates right away. By opting to finish his classes at Princeton for the 2000-01 school year, he essentially lost a year of development time, and didn't join the Pirates' minor league system until June of 2001, at age 22. Young's minor league numbers were never terribly impressive, his size never translated to the type of fastball the Pirates had hoped, and he ended up being dealt twice, first from the Pirates to the Expos with John Searles for Matt Herges, and then to the Rangers in the Einar Diaz deal. He generated some buzz in Texas, but his numbers at AA Frisco in 2004 were uninspiring, and even after posting a 4.71 ERA in 7 starts in the majors late last season, he didn't appear to be an ace in the making. Still, the scouts seemed impressed by him, liked his makeup and his size, and Young was fast-tracked with the Rangers...when no significant free agent starter was added this offseason, Young was the favorite among the in-house options to fill the 5th starter spot.

Personally, I didn't understand the fascination...yeah, he's a big guy who looked pretty good in a late season audition, particularly since some mechanical adjustments added some life to his fastball, but still, Young had a 4.25 ERA in AA, just 30 1/3 innings in AAA, and still appeared to be a work in progress. He's a guy...not "a guy" in the John Hart sense, conveying respect and a high opinion of the player, but "a guy" in the sense I use it, meaning just another nice arm in the system. Someone interesting, worth looking at and giving a shot to at some point, but not someone worth slotting in the rotation right away. Why not let Ricardo Rodriguez - who looked terrific last season when he wasn't dealing with an emergency appendectomy or recuperating from a broken arm - take the 5th starter spot, and let Young spend some more time in AAA? (Or better yet, let both stay in the majors, and let Pedro Astacio leave...but that's a discussion for another day...)

Well, as Andujar said, youneverknow...or at least, I didn't know, in this case. Young, after a couple of rough early outings, is currently standing 6th in the A.L. in ERA, is first among A.L. rookies in VORP, and has positioned himself (along with Gustavo Chacin and Joe Mauer) as a major contender for the A.L. Rookie of the Year Award. Young, along with Kenny Rogers, has given the Rangers one of the best rotations in the A.L., and he doesn't even have 100 career major league innings yet.

There's nothing in Young's statistical background to suggestion that this was coming. BP's PECOTA system, Shandler, DiamondMind, Szymbroski...all the major forecasting systems saw Chris Young as, well, just another guy. A below-league-average starter in 2005, someone likely to post an ERA in the low- to mid-5s pitching half his games in TBIA. Someone who might have some promise, but not someone who was ready to explode on the league.

Given all this, the initial assumption that someone like myself makes is that there must be some aberration here, some sort of random statistical variance from the first ten starts of Young's season that can explain this phenomenon. Something that suggests (like Kenny Rogers' awful K/BB ratio) that Young's hot start is a fluke, that he isn't actually pitching as well as his raw ERA would suggest.

The first thing that pops to mind is the defense...if Young is pitching in front of an especially talented defense, then they are going to make plays on more balls than the average defense, and would drop Young's ERA as a result. That would also help explain Kenny Rogers' ridiculous sub-2 ERA, although it also raises disturbing questions about the other three members of the rotation, questions that are best ignored for now.

Of course, the data doesn't support that conclusion...in fact, it shows the exact opposite. The Rangers are 11th in the A.L. in defensive efficiency - that is, the percentage of balls in play which are converted into outs - at .6931. That's actually a little better than 2004's .6879, but still, it disproves the notion that Young's great ERA is due to an exceptionally talented defense behind him.

But it could just be that Young has been fortunate thusfar this year...he's getting some good breaks, not giving up any bloop hits, line drives are being caught. In other words, he's this year's version of Damian Moss, circa 2002. So we put this to the test by looking at Young's Defensive Independent ERA (DIPS ERA).

(A sidebar here - if you do not know about Voros McCracken and his notorious DIPS theory, but would like to know about it, I'd encourage you to read his 2001 BP article on DIPS, and Tom Tippett's more extensive follow-up study that rebutted many of McCracken's more extreme claims, but confirmed some of McCracken's general ideas.)

(If you want the Reader's Digest version of DIPS, it is a way of isolating those pitching statistics that are "defense independent" - that is, strikeouts, walks and home runs - from those that are dependent on the pitcher's defense. A pitcher has much less control over what happens when a ball goes into play than is generally assumed, and a significant disparity between DIPS ERA and "real" ERA often signifies a pitcher that is experiencing a lot of luck or good defense behind him - good if the "real" ERA is lower than the DIPS ERA, bad if the other way around.)

(In other words, a pitcher with a DIPS ERA much higher than his actual ERA is due for a fall.)

Now, getting back to Chris Young...if we look at his DIPS ERA, we discover it is 3.19 this season...higher than his actual ERA.

A-ha!!! Mystery solved!!! Young isn't good...he's just lucky, right?

Well, no. His DIPS% -- DIPS ERA divided by his actual ERA - is 1.09, which puts him 26th among the 55 qualifying pitchers in the A.L., or almost right in the middle of the pack. For all intents and purposes, his actual ERA is reflecting how well he is pitching so far.

In fact, if we look at the rankings in the A.L. in DIPS ERA, Chris Young's ranking actually improves - from 6th to 3rd, behind only Johan Santana and Erik Bedard. So when we look at the DIPS ERA, the method designed to eliminate randomness behind a pitcher and focus only on what he has control over, Young's placement among his peers actually improves. And remember, DIPS does not take into account park effects, making Young's performance thusfar all the more impressive. Young is third in DIPS ERA, and 6th in actual ERA, despite pitching in the most difficult park for pitchers in the A.L.

(Kenny Rogers, for what it is worth, drops all the way to 20th, a little above-average. Pedro Astacio, meanwhile, clocks in at 24th, between Zack Greinke and C.C. Sabathia. Hmmm...maybe I need to be a little more patient with Pedro...)

So how is Young doing it? Well, essentially, he's doing a solid job in those areas a pitcher can control, and letting his defense do the work behind him. His strikeout rate isn't spectacular, at 6.63 Ks per 9 IP, but it is good enough to put him 13th in the A.L. in that category. His K/BB ratio is 3.07 on the season - again, not stellar, but very solid, ranking him 12th out of 55 qualifying pitchers. The combination of a solid K rate and a solid K/BB ratio, though, makes him relatively unique, as only three pitchers - Santana, Bedard, and Randy Johnson - rank ahead of him in both categories.

Most remarkably, though, despite six of his ten starts taking place in the friendly confines of TBIA, Chris Young has allowed only three homers on the season. Only five of the 55 qualifying A.L. pitchers have allowed fewer - Kirk Saarloos and Kenny Rogers, who have allowed one each, and Nate Robertson, Matt Clement, and Kevin Brown, who have allowed two apiece.

What makes Young's success in this regard so remarkable is the fact that, unlike the five pitchers mentioned above, he is a flyball pitcher. Saarloos, Robertson and Brown are all in the top ten in ground ball to fly ball ratio (GB/FB), while Clement and Rogers are in the top half in GB/FB ratio. With a GB/FB ratio of 0.96, Young is one of only 10 qualifying A.L. pitchers to have allowed more flyouts than groundouts. Young has the fewest home runs allowed of any of those ten pitchers, and has the second-lowest slugging percentage allowed among the ten predominantly flyball pitchers, trailing only Cliff Lee.

There are a couple of other statistics regarding Young, in connection with the rest of the A.L., that leap out. First is quality start percentage - with only three quality starts out of ten, Young ranks near the very bottom of the A.L. in that statistic, tied with meatballs like Sidney Ponson and Hideo Nomo. Even though Young has been dominant, ERA- and DIPS ERA-wise, he isn't picking up quality starts - even Chan Ho Park and Pedro Astacio have more quality starts.

Why? Because Chris Young doesn't work deep enough into games to pick up a quality start. Despite his success this year, he's gone six innings or more only three times. (Strangely enough, each of those three occasions, he went eight innings. In fact, in his last eight starts, he's gone 8 innings three times, 5 2/3 innings three times, and 5 innings twice. Weird.)

Okay, then, why isn't Young working deep in games? Is Buck Showalter babying him? It doesn't look like it...Young is averaging 98.1 pitches per start, which isn't a ton, but isn't an extremely low amount, either. Showalter isn't riding him real hard, but he isn't treating him like he's Izzy Valdez, either.

No, the problem is that batters are seeing a lot of pitches when they face Young. Young throws an average of 3.95 pitches per plate appearance (P/PA)...only 6 qualifying A.L. starters have a higher P/PA. As a result, despite being efficient in that he is not allowing many baserunners (Young is 15th in the A.L. in opposing OBP allowed), Young is throwing 16.9 pitches per inning, the 12th highest amount in the A.L. Of the 14 pitches allowing a lower OBP than Young, only one - Cliff Lee - is throwing as many as 16 pitches per inning.

From watching Young, I think that is probably attributable to Young not being great at missing bats. He throws strikes, but he doesn't throw a lot of balls by people, and batters ending up fouling a lot of balls off. He gets the batters out, but it means more work for him in the process. That may not sound like a big deal...but the difference between an extra pitch or two per inning can mean the difference between going 7 innings and getting the ball to your setup man, and going 5-6 innings and getting the ball to your middle man. And it can mean the difference between being a great starter who can carry a rotation, and being a pretty good starter who is a solid #3 man in a rotation.

So...what does all this mean for the future? Beats me. This may simply be a hot streak for Young, or it may be a sign of things to come. The incessant fouling may be a sign that Young simply doesn't have the stuff to be a top starter, or it may be the growing pains of a guy figuring out how to pitch in the major leagues. As Joaquin Andujar says, youneverknow.

But I can say this...my assumptions about Young, that this early season start was a fluke unsupported by his peripheral stats, was wrong. Chris Young's performance to date is for real. Whether he continue to pitch this well or not is up for debate...in particular, I'm concerned about his ability to maintain such a low home run rate, given his flyball tendencies. But Young isn't lucky, he's not having a fluky run due to great plays with RISP, he's not putting up a great ERA due to stellar defense behind him...he's simply pitching extremely well. And if he keeps pitching like this, he's going to be the American League Rookie of the Year, and quite possibly a Cy Young Award candidate this year.