Young, Perez the ideal combo to stifle Mets
Soft-tossing righty, catcher pair up to make high fastballs effective
Chris Young has always been something of an outlier. After all, he's 6-foot-10, has an Ivy League education, and shares his name with a Yankees outfielder. But perhaps that's never been truer than in this particular World Series, populated by endless flamethrowers like Jacob deGrom, Yordano Ventura, Noah Syndergaard and Wade Davis. Statcast™ tracked 500 non-knuckleballers who had thrown 100 fastballs this year, and Young's average four-seamer velocity of 89.75 mph was all of 494th.
Now, Young is the one being trusted with holding down the Mets in Saturday's Game 4 (7:30 p.m. ET air time on FOX, 8 p.m. game time) as the Royals seek a 3-1 edge in the best-of-seven Series. If it seems like an unexpected development for the soft-tossing 36-year-old who didn't find a job until March and made exactly one start in the months of April, August and September combined, well, it is.
Yet while Young seems a truly unorthodox option to be starting such an important World Series game, he does have two considerable assets working in his favor. In catcher Salvador Perez, Young has found a partner who is perfectly suited for his unique skills. In addition, what Young does to overcome his limited velocity makes him surprisingly well-positioned to take advantage of a Mets weakness.
In order for Young to survive with such limited velocity, he has to stand out in other ways, and indeed he does. In a world in which pitchers are continually drilled to "keep the ball low" in order to induce grounders and avoid home runs, and where hitters have become accustomed to seeing those pitches, Young takes the opposite route. He throws the ball high -- constantly.
Let's define "high fastball" as "any hard pitch that's at least 3 feet off the ground," regardless of whether it's called a ball or strike, and look at which pitchers have been doing it the most over the past two years.
2014-15 "high fastball" percentage, minimum 2,500 pitches
1) Young, 34.9 percent
2) Jordan Zimmermann (Nationals), 32.7 percent
3) Trevor Bauer (Indians), 32.6 percent
Young threw a higher percentage of high pitches in 2014 than anyone, and he was fifth in 2015, which he's said in the past is due to his belief that "most hitters have a hole in the zone up." That's an issue that we saw even Angels great Mike Trout had to work on, and it's motivated pitchers like the Rockies' Adam Ottavino to throw higher in the zone in an effort to be different.
The fastball may not be fast, but it's got good spin -- 2,379 rpm, 53rd among those same 500 pitchers -- and it goes where most others don't. High-spin pitches tend to stay up a little longer than hitters expect, generating swings that catch the bottom of the ball. (Young's positive vertical movement, meaning that the ball does indeed avoid the effects of gravity for slightly longer, is the second highest in baseball among those with 500 pitches, behind only the Blue Jays' Marco Estrada, who we profiled here earlier as a similar type of low-velocity successful righty.)
Despite the narrative that Young's great height allows him to release the ball closer to the plate, the data simply doesn't support that; his 5.99-foot average extension on his four-seamer is just 333rd of those same 500 pitchers. What we have here is a high-spin pitcher throwing high pitches that stay high. Hitters don't like that.
You might expect the combination to generate Young plenty of fly balls. You'd be right. By a lot. There have been 1,725 pitcher seasons of at least 120 innings since 2002. Only three times has someone topped 56 percent fly balls, many of which are harmless popups. Guess who:
2002-15 FB percentage leaders, minimum 120 innings
1) Young, 2014, 58.7 percent
2) Young, 2015, 57.9 percent
3) Young, 2006, 56.4 percent
4) Guillermo Moscoso (Athletics), 2011, 55.5 percent
So what does that have to do with Perez and, by extension, the Mets?
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Perez is one of the larger catchers in baseball. Among catchers who played in 81 games this year, only White Sox backstop Tyler Flowers was taller. Perez's size has often presented an issue with pitch framing, as he's generally been graded as below average. But the truth is, as Royals general manager Dayton Moore told reporters following a controversial high strike call against Toronto's Ben Revere in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, Perez's size makes it difficult for him to get good calls low.
Up high, where Perez is generally set up due to his size, he's quite good -- or so the theory goes. If we go look at all pitches that were three feet off the ground or higher, Perez had 494 called strikes, second to the Nationals' Wilson Ramos. That's slightly misleading due to how often Perez plays, but even using multiple approaches to running the query, he always grades out better on high pitches than low.
So you can see why the partnership with Young works well, and that's an understatement. While there's often limited utility to viewing a pitcher's stats per catcher -- sample size is an issue, and there's no control over quality of opponent -- the fact is that Young's performance with Perez dwarfs anything he's done before. There have been six catchers to receive Young for at least 90 innings, and his 2.32 ERA with Perez is easily the best, topping Mike Piazza's 3.11 or Josh Bard's 3.58 (both while with San Diego). Put another way, Young allowed eight homers this year with both Perez and Drew Butera, except Butera caught fewer than a third as many innings.
That doesn't even include the 11 2/3 innings of three-run ball they've shared this postseason, including Young's three scoreless innings of emergency relief in Game 1. Now, surely the Royals' stellar outfield defense helps catch those flies, and of course Perez can't be credited for the fact that Young, working on a week's rest, managed to hit 90 mph for the first time since 2009. But pairing a pitcher who throws high with a catcher who is good at snagging those high strikes would seem to work -- and so far, it has.
That's not great news for the Mets, because high fastballs aren't their strength. Let's go back to the "three feet above the ground" view again, limit it to hitters who had at least 50 plate appearances, and the problem is apparent. Yoenis Cespedes was 8-for-72 on those high fastballs, a .111 average that was the fourth worst in baseball. Wilmer Flores, at .145, was the 10th worst.
As a team, the Mets hit .176 against high fastballs, the third-lowest average in baseball. They slugged .295, the fifth-lowest mark. They're facing a pitcher who throws a ton of high fastballs and a catcher who can turn them into strikes. Young may not be able to keep pace with the velocity everyone else is showing. He's got something else, though. He's got the right plan in the right situation with the right catcher.