This Royals teams has imperfections. It always has. It’s just these days, those imperfections are bubbling to the surface.
Take Chris Young as an example. Young entered Thursday’s game with a 1.55 ERA in just over 40 innings of work. He had pitched masterfully in the majority of his starts for the Royals. Yet his FIP was 3.41. Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) to the uninitiated is an ERA-type number that strips out defense, luck and sequencing to give a more complete picture of how a pitcher performed. A gap between ERA and FIP isn’t always notable. Some starters – Young included – routinely outperform their ERA. However, the almost two run gap between Young’s ERA and FIP is wider than normal. That leads you to believe a correction was on the horizon.
Why did the gap exist? For one, the Royals otherworldly defense is going to help immensely. Especially for a fly ball pitcher like Young, who has Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain patrolling two-thirds-plus of Kauffman Stadium. On the season prior to his last start, Young has allowed batters to put the ball in the air 62.9 percent of the time the ball is in play. That’s high, even for Young, who’s career fly ball rate is 55.1 percent. For some perspective of how extreme Young’s fly ball rate has been, here are the top five pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched ranked by fly ball rate:
Young is lapping the field. I mean, this is amazing.
What happens when you have so many fly balls hit to the Royals outfield? Yep, the batting average on balls in play can get insanely small. In Young’s case, before the game on Thursday, his BABIP was .184. Again, it’s important to keep in mind that because Young is an extreme fly ball pitcher, he is going to have a BABIP that would be considered below average. In fact, his career BABIP is .249, which if I had to guess, would be among the lowest of active pitchers with a similar amount of mileage on their arms. It’s certainly the lowest among pitchers with at least 40 innings thrown this season. Here are the bottom five ranked by BABIP:
Also, it’s worth looking at Young’s strand rate. Frequent readers of the blog know that I favor strand rate when examining whether or not a pitcher can continue a successful sequence of starts. League average for starters is around a 75 percent strand rate. It’s higher for relievers. Young’s strand rate entering Thursday’s game was an eye-catching 87.7 percent. Here are the top five pitchers ranked by strand rate:
No doubt some of those numbers are helped due to his time spent in the bullpen for the first month of the season, but he had thrown only 12 of those 40-plus innings in relief. That skews things, but not as much as you would think.
Young was a pitcher who was posting a higher than normal fly ball rate which resulted in an extremely depressed BABIP and an elevated strand rate. From the tables above, you can see exactly how out of whack those numbers are with the rest of the league. Either one of two things are going to happen going forward. One, more of those fly balls are going to leave the yard. Or two, his fly ball rate will normalize (for him) and his line drive rate will increase, which will lead to more hard-hit balls, which will lead to more base hits.
It should also be noted that Young entered Thursday’s game with an xFIP of 4.91. xFIP is the same as FIP, but it replaces a pitches home run total with the number of home runs they would be expected to allow, given their fly ball rate. Again, Young is always going to outperform his xFIP just due to his ballpark and his elevated fly ball rate. But a three run difference is too extreme. Young had allowed just three home runs in his 40.1 innings of work. He gave up a home run to Brandon Moss (who else?) which will cut the difference just a little.
What we saw on Thursday was a pitcher in the grips of regression. As long as Young stays in the rotation, there will be other starts like this. It’s who he is as a pitcher.
This isn’t to say the Royals should dump Young, or should shift him back to the bullpen. This is to say that with the Royals defense and their home ballpark, it is indeed the perfect scenario for Young. There isn’t a better team in the majors for him to ply his craft. But for every start like the one against the Tigers, there’s going to be one like we saw against the Indians. His great start to the season was never sustainable. As the innings pile up, he will continue to give back the luck he experienced over the season’s first two months. Baseball is funny that way. The Royals will continue to hope that Young can survive on the back of the Royals outfield defense and home ballpark. And they also will wait for their offense to awaken from this slumber.
And they will hope that Danny Duffy or Kris Medlen can push Young back to the bullpen.