It has been five years since Chris Young last threw a pitch in excess of 90 miles an hour. On Wednesday against the Braves, the Seattle righty didn’t come particularly close to reaching what is usually the minimum velocity standard for a big-league starter. He didn’t even touch 88. And yet, the result of Young’s start was the same as it has often been in his first season with the Mariners, a strong outing and a win.
After the Mariners’ 7-3 victory over the Braves, in which he allowed three runs on seven hits over five innings, Young's record stands at 10-6 with an ERA of 3.27. He also cemented his position as perhaps the least likely key contributor to any team currently competing for a playoff spot. The Mariners, at 59-54 and one game behind the Blue Jays for the second Wild Card spot, certainly qualify.
Before this season, Young was known for many things, most of which had little to do with sustained quality pitching. He was the guy who went to Princeton. He was the guy who could have been a first-round NBA pick, had he not decided to play pro baseball. He was the guy who is married to the granddaughter of hockey legend Lester Patrick, who gave his name to the NHL’s erstwhile Patrick Division. He was the guy who was as tall as Randy Johnson – 6-foot-10 – but threw 15 miles an hour slower. He was the guy who is not this guy.
Mostly, he was the guy who couldn’t stay healthy. According to Baseball Prospectus, Young has spent 545 days on the major league disabled list since his big league debut in 2004. Most of his time on the shelf has been shoulder-related but none of those DL days came, officially anyway, last year, when he worked just 37 injury-marred innings as a Nationals minor leaguer before undergoing yet another surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.
This season, though, Young is fully healthy, and he has justified the Mariners’ incentive-laden roll of the dice on him. On Wednesday, Young reached double-digit wins for the first time since 2006, when he was a member of the Padres, and the third time in his career. He also pushed his season’s workload to 134 2/3 innings, putting him 45 short of setting his career high – at the age of 35.
Young has done it without the benefit of any heat to speak of (his average fastball comes in at just 85.3 miles an hour, the second-slowest of any non-knuckleballing starter), and by largely throwing just two pitches, his fastball and his slider. Of the 92 pitches he delivered on Wednesday, he threw only five changeups. But he has succeeded due to his nuanced command of the strike zone, and also thanks to a release point that is so high – often some seven feet off the ground – that batters can often do little but swing under his offerings, popping them up at an extraordinary clip. According to Fan Graphs, Young’s flyball rate of 58.9 percent is not only nearly 10 percent higher than that of his closest competitor, the Angels’ Jered Weaver, but higher than that of any pitcher since 2002, which is as far back as the website’s data extends. Young also occupies the second and third spots on that list.
Entering the season, Seattle expected to have one of the best starting pitching trios in the league in Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and the rookie Taijuan Walker. While Hernandez and Iwakuma have performed as expected, Walker has struggled with injury and performance: he’s made just three big league starts, and allowed eight runs over 2 1/3 innings in an outing with Triple-A Tacoma on Monday. Even so, the Mariners’ top three starters have combined for an AL-best 2.66 ERA, thanks, in part, to the altogether unexpected contributions of Young.
“He’s pretty much made our season what it is,” left fielder Dustin Ackley told Greg Johns of MLB.com after Wednesday’s win. “With Felix and Iwakuma, they're going to do what they do. But he's pretty much been the guy that has stepped up and put us where we're at this year. If we didn't have him, there's no telling where we'd be."
“He’s been a godsend,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. Young has always had such a season within him, or else clubs wouldn’t have continued to take shots on him year after year, which kept ending in sore-shouldered disappointment. But his success with the Mariners has been an entirely human one, springing from a man who refused to believe that his reputation had become ossified and whose body finally, and belatedly, cooperated.