Royals

One email ended the pain and saved the career of Royals pitcher Chris Young

Chris Young is scheduled to make his first start for the Royals on Friday against Detroit.
Chris Young is scheduled to make his first start for the Royals on Friday against Detroit. The Kansas City Star

Inside an extended-stay hotel in central New York, Chris Young wrote an email detailing the downfall of his career. The recipient was a surgeon in St. Louis who Young viewed as a last-ditch option to fix his damaged right shoulder. His arm tired as he typed. His right pinky fell asleep.

As spring turned to summer in 2013, Young suspected he suffered from thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that pinched the nerves in his shoulder, sapped velocity from his fastball and incited agony away from the diamond. The pain left him contemplating retirement.

In the email, Young outlined his fruitless regimen of physical therapy, soft-tissue exercises, massage therapy and chiropractic adjustments. He could not complete push-ups. When he exercised on an elliptical machine, his arm ached. He could not fall asleep on his right side. He gave his toddler son a piggy-back ride and felt his hand go numb.

Young spent 1,168 words describing his symptoms. He ended on a note that sounded both hopeful and desperate.

“I do believe,” Young wrote to Robert Thompson, director of the Washington University Center for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, “that I can pitch successfully for another 5 years if this can be resolved.”

The prospect looked remote. Young was 33, a former All-Star with a Princeton degree, now languishing in the baseball hinterland of Syracuse, N.Y. The site of the Washington Nationals’ Class AAA affiliate resides one rung below the major leagues. With his fastball hovering around 80 mph and his shoulder in constant misery, Young knew he was much further away than that.

On Friday night, Young is expected to make his first start as a Kansas City Royal, about 23 months after he walked into Thompson’s office. He has gone from a broken, embittered pitcher in Syracuse to the American League Comeback Player of the Year in Seattle to a vital complementary piece with the defending AL champions, an insurance policy for a shaky starting rotation.

The journey turned a corner on that June day in 2013. When he spoke with Thompson, Young felt an emotional turmoil that matched his physical discomfort. He had spent hours researching this condition on the Internet and calling a former teammate with similar symptoms. He was desperate for an explanation for his arm’s disintegration. Young told Thompson to tell him if he was crazy.

“And he kind of chuckled,” Young said. “And he said, ‘I read your email. You have classic thoracic outlet symptoms. And I think we can get you back in a reasonable amount of time.’”

The operation extended the career of Young, already one of the game’s more unique entities. At 6 feet 10, he turned away from a promising basketball career when the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him in the 2000 draft. He is a stylistic anomaly, a giant with an unassuming fastball.

chris young_2
At 6 feet 10, Royals pitcher Chris Young relies upon deception created by his height and the craftiness to discombobulate a hitter’s timing. His fastball has topped out around 87 mph, his highest velocity since 2008. SHANE KEYSER The Kansas City Star

In five outings for the Royals, Young is 1-0 with a 1.86 ERA. He has hummed a heater near 87 mph, his highest velocity since 2008. He relies upon deception created by his height, the craftiness to discombobulate a hitter’s timing and a slider that “just disappears,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. The spray charts from his outings feature the parabolas of lazy flyballs floating into outfield gloves.

“He’s a smart dude, really, really smart,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “He knows how to read the swings and study certain guys. There are certain guys who he realizes their swing pattern won’t allow them to hit a certain pitch. He exploits that pretty much every time.”

The combination of size, guile and precision keeps Young viable at this stage in his career. He has pitched well enough that manager Ned Yost will consider him as a late-game reliever — if he doesn’t supplant struggling starters like Jeremy Guthrie or Jason Vargas in the coming weeks.

Young was once the toughest starter to hit in the majors. As a San Diego Padre in 2006 and 2007, Young held opposing batters to a .196 average, the best among qualified starting pitchers. He trailed only Twins ace Johan Santana with 1.12 walks plus hits per inning. Young’s frame allowed his fastball to resemble a weapon in the mid-90s and confound hitters.

One talent evaluator reflected on Young’s ability in his 20s, and wondered how devastating it would be to combine his former arsenal with his current aptitude. “Can you imagine?” the scout asked.

young pujols line drive
San Diego Padres starter Chris Young was helped from the field after being struck in the face by an Albert Pujols line drive in a 2008 game against the Cardinals. Lenny Ignelzi The Associated Press

Young developed cunning as his arm collapsed. The spiral started when Albert Pujols fractured his nose with a line drive in 2008. When Young returned from the disabled list three months later, he strained his right forearm. An onslaught of arm injuries followed, with each year presenting a fresh case of misfortune.

In 2009, he required surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. A year later, he tore the shoulder’s anterior capsule. Young eschewed surgery for rehabilitation. Four starts into the 2011 season as a New York Met, he tore the capsule again. This time, he opted for the operating table.

chris young mets
While he pitched for the New York Mets, Chris Young twice tore the anterior capsule in his shoulder. Kathy Willens The Associated Press

Young recovered in time to make 20 starts for the Mets in 2012 with a 4.15 ERA. He found little interest in his services in the majors the subsequent spring, so he took a minor-league deal with Washington. He felt “miserable” during camp and the Nationals assigned him to Syracuse. Once there, he endured the indignity of destruction at the hands of International League hitters.

His mood darkened with each outing. His arm refused to stay supple during games. He felt like his right ear was attached to his shoulder. He wrenched his neck constantly to loosen up, but turning his head to either side was a chore.

“It actually hurt to watch other people throw,” Young said. “Because I knew, ‘Ugh, how do they do that?’ Because my shoulder hurt so badly.”

At some point, Young came to see pain as a prerequisite for pitching. He had undergone a series of major shoulder operations. He assumed his arm was supposed to ache.

One afternoon in Toledo, Ohio, Young fell into conversation with former teammate Shawn Hill. They were standing in the outfield at Fifth Third Field when Hill asked Young to share his symptoms. Young ran down his list of issues. They matched up with what Hill felt, albeit in his elbow not his shoulder, before he underwent thoracic outlet surgery in 2012.

Pitchers such as Chris Carpenter, Kenny Rogers and others have undergone the procedure, but it is still considered a rarity. Experts in the field believe it often goes undiagnosed, in part because “we don’t have a really good, objective test for it,” said Clark Fuller, a thoracic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. An MRI can help discover the condition, but is not foolproof.

The condition involves pressure on the nerves bundled between the collarbone and the first rib. Pain radiates into the arm. The patient can also experience numbness in the fingers. Young exhibited these symptoms, and his career in baseball exposed him to it, experts said.

“We know that a repetitive, over-the-head motion like that would predispose someone to this disease,” Fuller said. “I’m surprised we haven’t heard about it more commonly in baseball pitchers.”

After talking to Hill, Young dove into research online. The path to Thompson’s office was still circuitous. Young underwent examinations by team doctors in Syracuse and again in Washington. Young flunked a test with a physical therapist in Birmingham, Ala., which led the Nationals to send him to St. Louis.

Before his appointment, Young completed a lengthy questionnaire. The document lasted for several pages. “About half of the questions dealt with depression,” Young said. “I found it odd. And then, finally it dawned on me, like, ‘Yeah. This is depressing. I get it. I understand how people get miserable. It’s not fun to live this way.’”

Relief came in the form of surgery. Thompson completed a “decompression procedure” to free Young’s nerves. He removed Young’s first rib and his scalene muscles in his neck to aid the upper portion of his collarbone, and helped ease the pressure on the lower portion of the collarbone. “It truly was a career-ending, career-threatening condition,” Thompson said.

When he woke up, Young experienced a foreign sensation: “My shoulder doesn’t hurt.” A month later, he started playing catch and did not stop. When Washington granted him his release the next spring, he latched on with Seattle. On Aug. 17, he was 12-6 with a 3.07 ERA.

As Young reflects on his final month with the Mariners, he laments an onset of fatigue. He had been pitching for 14 months since undergoing surgery. He posted an 8.35 ERA in his final five starts. The slide raised familiar questions about his durability.

Young understands the skepticism, but he still found himself dumbfounded by a lack of interest as a free agent this past winter. The Royals were one of three clubs to show legitimate interest, he said, and he signed an incentive-laden contract with a $675,000 base salary. Most teams declined to approach Young or his agent, Jon Fetteroff, with even a minor-league deal.

“I’m going, ‘This is unbelievable to me,’” Young said. “But then I had to remind myself, to step back and say, ‘You know what? If I don’t like it, go perform better than I did last year.’”

When he was in his 20s, Young settled on a pair of mantras. One is “the game owes you nothing.” The other is “it’s a performance-based game.” He repeats these sayings when he grows frustrated or pities himself.

On Friday night, in front of a sellout crowd at Kauffman Stadium, Young can display how far he has come since the summer of 2013. His career once seemed over. Now he finds himself a critical cog in a pennant race.

“I feel better now at 35 than I did when I was in my late 20s, early 30s, because I was dealing with so much pain,” Young said. “I forgot what it was like to be healthy. Now I try to make up for lost time.”

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4730 or send email to rmccullough@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar. Download True Blue, The Star’s free Royals app, here.

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