The decision came down on Tuesday afternoon, one day after Chris Young allowed five homers in a 6-3 loss to the New York Yankees, and not long after he had sequestered himself in a room here with head trainer Nick Kenney and ran through his options one more time.
For the last six weeks, the 6-foot-10 Young had started games with tightness in his forearm. The discomfort forced him to change the way he brushed his teeth and tied his shoes, yet it did not affect his velocity, so Young battled through the pain, recording a 1-5 record and a 6.68 ERA in seven starts. For the moment, he will not get an eighth.
Royals manager Ned Yost announced Tuesday that right-hander Dillon Gee will start in place of Young on Saturday at Kauffman Stadium. Young will board a flight home to Kansas City on Wednesday morning and undergo a forearm evaluation from team doctor Vincent Key.
The decision to insert Gee into the starting rotation was nearly certain after Young allowed five runs in 2 2/3 innings in a loss on Monday. But Young believes his lingering issues with his right forearm could help explain his lack of performance during April and early May. In specific, Young believes it could be sapping the ‘life’ from his fastball, which he views as a critical component of his pitching style.
“It’s pretty obvious I haven’t performed up to what I’m capable of yet,” Young said. “It’s really the only issue that I’ve had, in terms of physical stuff. The rest of my body feels great. The ball is coming out great, but there’s no life there.”
Young describes a fastball’s “life” as the way it explodes through a strike zone, appearing to pick up speed at the last moment. To generate that life, Young says, a pitcher must finish his pitches by driving the ball down through the zone.
“That last finish is something that’s been important to my success,” Young said.
In 2015, Young posted a 3.06 ERA in 123 1/3 innings while shuttling between the bullpen and the starting rotation. At the age of 36, he was a revelation accompanied by a 86 mph fastball, bolstering the Royals rotation during the regular season and coming up clutching in the playoffs. He recorded a 2.87 ERA in the postseason, pitching three innings in relief in Game 1 of the World Series and starting Game 4 in New York. The Royals won both games while claiming their first world championship in three decades. Young signed a two-year, $11.5 million deal in the offseason, stating that he had found another home in Kansas City.
Seven months later, he has hit a wall in 2016. In seven starts, he has allowed a league-leading 13 homers. He has logged six innings in just one start. For the last six weeks, Young says, he has searched for an answer for his lack of performance, convinced that the results would come. His velocity — which has sat around 89 mph — has been its highest in years. His body has felt healthy. The combination was confounding, Young said. But the answer may reside in whatever problem ails his forearm.
“I’ve had to monitor my workouts for the last six weeks,” Young said. “I’ve had to change the way I take off my shoes, the way I brush my teeth, the way I take off my shirt, stuff like that. But throwing does not bother it, which is why it’s a little bit hard to address. It feels OK when it’s hot and loose.”
Young said he did not want to speculate on what the forearm issue could be. In some pitchers, forearm tightness can foretell an elbow injury. He underwent a physical evaluation by Kenney this week, and “all the serious stuff checks out,” Young said. It could be something as simple as a case of inflammation. It could be something more serious.
“It wasn’t something he wasn’t dealing with,” Yost said. “Looking at different things, aspects of his game, his velocity is up, so we know it’s not mechanics. But still the performance is down. We’re trying to figure out exactly what it is. Because it’s just kind of precautionary to send him back and see where we’re at with it.”
For now, the Royals will move forward with Gee in the starting rotation. A former starter for the New York Mets, Gee, 30, signed a minor-league deal with the Royals in the offseason before being placed on the 40-man roster during spring training. He made the club out of camp as a long reliever. He has recorded a 2.61 ERA in 20.2 innings. On Monday, he threw 68 pitches while throwing 5 1/3 innings in relief of Young. Yost said Gee will have a pitch count of 85 to 90 pitches when he takes the mound Saturday against the Atlanta Braves.
“I wouldn’t say it is what I was waiting for,” said Gee, who made 110 starts for the Mets from 2010 to 2015. “I just want to do the role the best I can. This just happened to pop up.”
The rotation shuffle comes as the Royals starting pitching has lagged in over the last few weeks. In addition to Young, Kris Medlen and Yordano Ventura have battled through spates of inconsistency. Gee offers one reinforcement. Another resides in left-hander Mike Minor, a former Braves starter who signed with the Royals in the offseason after undergoing shoulder surgery last summer. On Tuesday, Minor started a rehab assignment at Class AA Northwest Arkansas. He could be available by the end of May.
For now, the Royals are hopeful that Young will get encouraging news as he returns to Kansas City to undergo an MRI. For close to six weeks, he has not felt like himself on the mound. If the forearm issue is indeed limiting his effectiveness, perhaps his season can be salvaged in time.
“I can see it in the ball,” Young said Tuesday, standing before his locker at Yankee Stadium. “It doesn’t have the drive down through the zone that I’m accustomed to, the way I did last year at 85 mph or 86 mph. When the ball has life, guys take swings that show the ball is exploding the last part through the strike zone.”