Chris Young is one of the most fascinating pitchers in the game. He’s 6’10”, he seems like an articulate guy, and he’s in the process of defying his fielding independent pitching stats again.
A few years back, sabermetrician Voros McCracken did some work that changed the baseball analysis community. He found that mlb pitchers, as a group, have little control over their BABiP (batting average on balls in play). Once the pitcher delivers the ball and once it’s hit into play, there is little the pitcher can do about whether it turns into an out or not (at least, in general). Since Voros’ findings, there have been many looks at BABiP and defense independent pitching stats. The general theory has held, although, not without slight modifications. Pitchers do have some control over their BABiP because they also have some control over how balls are put into play against them. Fly ball pitchers generally are able to suppress their BABiP’s a little because fly balls are more easily caught than other balls in play. Still, although they do have some control, the degree of which is considered quite minimal. Pitchers BABiP’s should be regressed a long way back towards the mean (MGL, PDF file) – while, on the other hand, their peripheral stats like strikeouts and walks should not be regressed so heavily to the mean. This is because of the unsustainability of pitchers, as a group, to “control” their BABiP to a significant degree year in and year out.
And this is part of the reason why Chris Young is an interesting case to look at. First off, he’s an extreme fly ball pitcher (here’s his fangraphs page with all the gory details). Since the start of his career, 461 innings worth, he has a 52.1% fly ball percentage. He’s also allowed 30% grounders and 17.9% line drives. We can already see some signs that would point to a lower BABiP than the average pitcher. He hasn’t allowed too many line drives and he’s allowed a ton of fly balls.
However, last year was still very much a fluke. In 04 his BABiP was .278, in 05 it was .304, so far this year it’s at .267. In 06 it was an unbelievably low .237. Among qualified pitchers from 2003 to 2006, that .237 mark is the lowest posted. So last year Young saw his share of luck. Last year, though, the Padres team BABiP was .282 (well below the league average level of ~ .300). So for Young, it was luck, defense, park, distribution of batted balls against, etc, etc. He played some part in that low BABiP, but a lot of it was still “luck” and factors out of his control that were involved.
Fast forward to this year: His BABiP, like I mentioned before, has predictably risen to .267, though that’s still well below average (but, at least, much closer to it). But believe it or not, he’s getting lucky again this year, but in another way. This year he’s allowed just 2.7 home runs per 100 fly balls allowed. The average is about 11 and Young’s career average is 8.3 counting this year. A rate of 2.7% hr/fb is certainly considered unsustainable, at least for any extended time period. Consider the lowest mark from 03-06 among qualified starters: 6.2% hr/fb (by Dontrelle Willis). Once again, even when the BABiP has regressed a bit, Young still finds himself getting his ample share of “luck” over the given sample of performance. If CY had a 8% hr/fb ratio this year, he would have given up closer to 9 home runs, instead, he’s allowed just 3. This should have quite a drastic effect on his ERA when some balls start flying over fences.
Finally, let’s look at how Young has outperformed his FIP (fielding independent pitching) thus far throughout his career:
—-FIP ERA (FIP-ERA)
04 5.21 4.71 .5
05 3.48 4.26 -.78
06 4.66 3.46 1.20
07 3.26 2.34 . 92
You can see that over the past two years he’s significantly outperformed his FIP’s. Like with Barry Zito, however, there comes a point when we have to wonder when the luck starts becoming skill (or at least how much of it). Perhaps some new batted ball data or the new mlb enhanced gameday features will help us better understand CY. Is he able to induce weaker contact consistently? Why? His height, his arm angle? These are questions I’m sure the Padres are trying to answer right now. I’ve suggested dealing Young before as I don’t think his value could be higher than it is now. And I think his perceived value (in the form of his ERA) versus his predicted value (more in the form of DIPS type statistics) is a long way apart. He is, however, a key guy in the rotation and still a fine pitcher even if the expected regressions take place. Young is a case that deserves some real hardcore research. Very well might not be me doin’ it, but we’ll see as we go along here.