The tall pitcher and the curious coach met on an Arizona baseball field. This was the first time Chris Young would perform in a Royals uniform. Anything that happens on an otherwise empty diamond a month before the real games is not of grand importance, but first impressions last, especially when expectations are blown to bits.
And so it was when Young started that day, going through all of his pitches — the fastball and the change-up and the slider. None of Young’s pitches is impressive on the surface. His fastball is one of baseball’s slowest, averaging 86 mph, the speed of some of his new teammates’ change-ups.
But Young makes up for that in so many ways. You have probably heard of some of them. He is 6 feet 10, the tallest man to appear in the big leagues this year, and has a naturally deceptive delivery that has the ball appearing to come right out of his shirt. But there is something else, something Dave Eiland began to see immediately on that first day.
“(Expletive)!” Young screamed at himself after a fastball missed his spot by a few inches.
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“Get your (expletive) right,” Young said to himself after a slider went wide of the corner.
Eiland did not say anything. He has a well-earned reputation as one of the game’s best pitching coaches, but on this day he kept quiet. Raw talent is great, but also overrated. Eiland started to see how Young had not only survived but thrived for more than a decade against the world’s best hitters.
Young is thoughtful. Ivy League educated. Kind. He has this way about him. Polite. Considerate. You will often hear teammates and coaches call him one of the nicest people they’ve ever met, and this is all admirable except that the nicest people in the world typically make for lousy major-league pitchers.
In that way, it is important to note that the Young you might meet at a restaurant is nothing like the Young that will start for the Royals on Thursday against the Twins. On that first day, Eiland began to understand all of this. So he stayed silent as his newest pitcher went through a spring-training side session with World Series intensity, and he smiled.
“Oh yeah,” Eiland remembers thinking. “I really like this guy.”
The talk about Young often centers on what he doesn’t have on his fastball. Instead, perhaps he should be starting a different conversation — about how much we all tend to overstate the importance of fastball velocity.
Among 140 pitchers with at least 50 innings this season, Young’s average fastball velocity ranks 133rd. Yet his ERA ranks 14th, and his WHIP ninth.
He is one of baseball’s best arguments for a point that should be self-evident but has instead become counterintuitive: Fastball velocity is vastly overrated and often does not mean what we think.
Chris Young has thought more about this than virtually anyone. He’s never thrown particularly hard, and when he was in the minor leagues, he found himself overexerting to add a digit or two to the radar-gun readings. Scouts, you learn quickly, always know how fast your fastball is.
Young did not fit into this world, no matter how hard he tried, so eventually he was able to ignore it. He learned to concentrate more on subtleties like repeating his release point, or studying a hitter’s swing to find holes, or what sequence of pitches will net the best result.
We all have different paths, and catch different breaks, Young thinks he caught a big one when he played with Greg Maddux on the Padres. Maddux has a case as the greatest pitcher of his generation, winning 355 games and four Cy Young Awards with a fastball in the mid-80s.
Maddux helped Young clear his mind of the things that don’t matter (like velocity) and focus on the things that do (mechanics, for instance). The result is an approach to pitching that’s become unconventional in a baseball world where the first thing anyone wants to know about a pitcher is the speed of his fastball.
“The game is too hung up on that,” Young says. “It’s the most quantifiable aspect of pitching. But if they could quantify deception, or a heavy ball, that stuff is more important than velocity. You can have a guy throwing 92 but with an extremely heavy ball and late life, then a guy throwing 97 and getting smoked.”
But this is very much a fight against a deep-rooted culture for Young, and actually, in that way, it’s interesting that he’s doing it with the Royals. Of the 18 men who’ve pitched for the Royals this year, 10 average 93 mph or more on their fastball and more are on the way — Class AA Northwest Arkansas has seven relief pitchers who touch at least 95 mph.
This is more than a perception thing. Young’s relatively unimpressive velocity has cost him, literally, millions of dollars. For example, in separate conversations about Young and fastball velocity, two different baseball men brought up Justin Masterson.
Young had a far better 2014 season, but over their careers Masterson’s fastball has been about 6 mph faster. Masterson signed with the Red Sox for $9.5 million in December; Young got a $675,000 guarantee in March and even with incentives will probably make less than half of Masterson’s salary this year.
The trick is that if you lack fastball velocity, you better make up for it in other ways. For Young, that’s clean mechanics, deception in part because of his height, maniacal preparation and the competitive edge Eiland noticed back in March.
“I think velocity definitely played a part in me not being able to get a job,” Young said. “We’re in an era where so many guys throw so hard. Now, to get drafted, if you’re at 90, that’s nothing. So yeah, I think that definitely gets overlooked. But you can’t overlook winning and performance.”
The strange thing here is that baseball people know they have a problem. This isn’t Young imagining invisible obstacles or simply complaining about a bad break. Scouts and executives know they value velocity too much. But it’s hard to break that habit, to give up that crutch.
Glenn Fleisig is the research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute, which has long been the leader in understanding sports-related injuries and as such has worked with many major-league teams.
He says that many of those teams openly admit that they put too much emphasis on fastball velocity. Part of it is that pitch speed is so easily quantifiable, where other factors like character and mechanics and work ethic can be vague. He hears over and over again that if two prospects are otherwise comparable, the one with more velocity will be more highly regarded because they figure to have more potential.
Fleisig thinks the teams should be taking the opposite approach.
“I’m trying to tell them that if you have two guys with the same results, with the same makeup, same injury history,” he says, “I would actually rather have the one with less velocity. Because if all those other things are equal, he has less chance of injury.”
It’s a hypothetical, of course, but one that scouts and executives have to think about. J.J. Picollo, assistant general manager for the Royals, deals with this constantly.
The Royals have prioritized power arms, most successfully with building what is generally regarded as the game’s best bullpen.
“That’s fairly safe to say,” Picollo says, when asked if otherwise equal pitchers are paid differently based on velocity. “You’re going to look to your analytics and break down what he does well, and because he doesn’t throw hard, you’re going to be skeptical. Can he continue to do this? Because his margin for error is smaller.”
In that way, the Royals are showing that two seemingly conflicting approaches can both work. Their top three relief pitchers average 96.2, 95.5 and 93.3 mph on fastballs. But Young and others — Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie, most notably — have thrown enough innings that as a team the Royals rank 22nd in average fastball velocity.
Presumably, this shows that the Royals are open to more than one approach, which is how every team should operate. Radar-gun worship closes off possibilities.
This year, for instance, the sport’s hardest throwers include the Yankees’ Nathan Eovaldi (96 mph and a 4.81 ERA) and Chris Archer (94.7 mph and a strong case to start the All-Star game). The softest throwers include Young and Kyle Lobstein (4.34 ERA).
All of it is evidence to reinforce a point Fleisig has made to teams. A few years ago, he ran data to correlate fastball velocity and performance, as measured by ERA. He found the relationship to be non-existent. Zero. Nothing.
Maybe that surprises you. It surprises some scouts. It does not surprise Young, halfway through another season showing that fastball velocity is overrated and overpaid.