Chris Young has always been an oddity. For one thing he’s an Ivy Leaguer in the major leagues. He’s also 6-foot-10, but Young was never a power pitcher and his average fastball hasn’t topped 89 mph in a decade. Not particularly durable and frequently on the disabled list, he’s nonetheless managed to pitch 12 seasons in the big leagues and is currently signed to a multi-year contract at age 37. For that entire career he’s been baseball’s most extreme flyball pitcher, posting an absurdly low groundball rate of 26 percent, yet Young’s homer rate is barely worse than average and his rate of homers per fly ball is one of the lowest around.
Or at least it was, until this season.
After more than a decade of mostly successfully walking a very thin line as a soft-tossing extreme flyball pitcher, Young has seen those soft-tossed flyballs leave the ballpark at an alarming rate. In his most recent start Tuesday night Young allowed four homers in 2 1/3 innings against the Blue Jays, which is only tied for his second-most homers allowed this year. He also surrendered four homers to the Indians on June 5 and served up five homers to the Yankees on May 9. Combined in those three starts Young allowed 13 homers in 9 2/3 innings. This year 25 pitchers have thrown at least 100 innings while allowing 13 or fewer homers. Last season Jake Arrieta allowed a total of 10 homers in his Cy Young-winning campaign, during which he logged 229 innings.
Overall this season Young has allowed 26 homers. That leads baseball—he’s allowed five more than anyone else—and what Young is doing has a chance to be historic. “Has a chance” because with historic ineptitude teams often put an end to it rather than letting the player keep chugging along toward the record books. Young is in the first season of a two-year, $11.5 million deal, so the Royals aren’t going to release him, but a stint on the disabled list or a bullpen demotion could derail his chances of challenging Bert Blyleven’s record of 50 homers allowed in 1986. Blyleven led the league with 272 innings that season and was actually pretty effective, whereas Young is 2-8 with a 6.90 ERA and has needed just 60 innings to allow his 26 long balls.
Here is the furthest of those 26, a 456-foot missile off Josh Donaldson’s bat Tuesday night:
That just narrowly out-distanced this 454-foot rocket off Brandon Moss’ bat last week:
Those are Home Run Derby swings and there are many, many more where they came from.
On a per-inning basis, no one in baseball history comes anywhere close to allowing homers like Young has so far this season. His rate of 3.9 homers per nine innings is the highest of all time among pitchers who logged 60-plus innings in a season and no one else in that massive 20,203-pitcher sample even cracked 3.0 homers per nine innings. Here’s what the single-season leaders for all-time homer rate looked like before Young came along:
- 2.85 – Glendon Rusch, 2006
- 2.66 – Ken Dixon, 1987
- 2.62 – Miguel Batista, 2000
- 2.57 – Russ Ortiz, 2006
- 2.56 – Ezequiel Astacio, 2005
- 2.56 – Doug Waechter, 2004
- 2.55 – Bruce Chen, 2006
- 2.52 – Andy Benes, 2001
Those are the only eight instances in which a pitcher threw at least 60 innings and allowed 2.5 or more homers per innings. Half of them threw 70 or fewer innings, six of the eight threw fewer than 100 innings, and none of them threw more than 110 innings. Not only has Young allowed a whole extra homer per nine innings compared to current all-time leader Glendon Rusch, he’s on pace to throw 117 innings for the Royals this season. Here are the all-time homer rate leaders for pitchers with at least 110 innings in a season:
- 2.41 – Greg Gohr, 1996
- 2.31 – Scott Elarton, 2001
- 2.29 – Jorge Sosa, 2006
- 2.20 – Jose Lima, 2000
- 2.15 – Tommy Hunter, 2012
Young has allowed 62 percent more homers per nine innings than Greg Gohr did to grab that top spot in 1996. Sixty-two percent! Or, to put that in a different context: Young could hypothetically throw 37 consecutive homer-less innings and he’d still be tied with Gohr at a rate of 2.41 per nine innings. As is, he’s given up an average of 16 homers per 37 innings, so perhaps that scenario is a tad unlikely. Blyleven, in his record-setting 50-homer season, allowed 1.7 home runs per nine innings, which seems downright quaint in comparison.
Given his age and injury history Young’s health would seem to be a potential explanation, but he insists there’s nothing wrong. “Physically, I feel good,” Young told Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star. “I feel strong. I feel like my breaking ball has been good. I can’t pinpoint it. If I knew what the answer was, I’d change it by now. It’s been as frustrating as anything I’ve experienced in my career from a performance standpoint. And physically, mentally, I’ve done everything I can to prepare. I go out there, but the results aren’t there. It’s beyond frustrating.”
On the surface, at least, his numbers seemingly agree, because his velocity and strikeout rate are both up this season. Young has averaged 87.8 mph with his fastball, compared to 86.4 mph last season when he threw 123 innings with a 3.06 ERA and just 16 homers allowed. In fact, Young is throwing harder this season at age 37 than he has since 2007 with the Padres, when he made his lone All-Star appearance by logging 173 innings with a 3.12 ERA and just 10 homers allowed. His strikeout rate of 23 percent is also his highest since 2007, up from 17 percent last year. Even his groundball rate remains unchanged at 27 percent, compared to a career mark of 26 percent.
He’s throwing harder, missing more bats, and inducing the same number of flyballs, but holy crap are those flyballs doing damage. Prior to this season 8.7 percent of Young’s fly balls had gone for homers, including a rate no higher than 12.7 percent in any season. This year 26.0 percent of his flyballs have left the ballpark, which is insane. If a ball is hit in the air off Young it’s had a one in four chance of being a homer! His average exit velocity of 91.7 mph is sixth-highest in baseball and his average distance per ball in play of 272 feet is 30 feet longer than anyone else.
Opponents have a .657 slugging percentage off Young this season. The only hitter in the past 10 years to top a .657 slugging percentage was Albert Pujols in 2009. Throughout his career Young has had fairly typical platoon splits for a right-hander, but this year lefties have demolished him to the tune of a .364 batting average and .873 slugging percentage, including 16 homers in 110 at-bats. By comparison, Barry Bonds hit .362 with an .812 slugging percentage in 2004. Remember, that's probably the best offensive season ever.
Blyleven’s record will almost certainly not be broken this season, because at some point on the road to 50 homers Royals manager Ned Yost would throw in the towel, but Young will have to put together a helluva homer-less streak to avoid finishing with the highest per-inning rate ever. If you take Young’s homer rate in 2016 and extrapolate it over Blyleven’s workload in 1986 the final tally would be 118 home runs. Strange as it may sound, Blyleven’s too-many-home-runs record is safe because Young is giving up too many home runs.
Give thanks for the Baseball Reference Play Index.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now