Can Chris Young take the Livan Hernandez path to success?

Chris Young had another strong outing, going 5.1 IP and allowing just one run Tuesday night versus the Nationals. So far this Spring, Young has a team-leading 14.1 IP and a squad-best 1.88 ERA and has locked down the team’s fourth starter’s job.

Young has allowed 3 BB and 2 HR this Spring and has 6 Ks. According to Adam Rubin, Young “sat at 85-86 with his fastball, up from the last outing” and Terry Collins was “very, very happy with what he saw.”

On the surface it all sounds wonderful. But the question that should be on the front of all Mets fans minds is: Can a guy with an 85 mph fastball survive, much less thrive, in the majors?

In the last three years, there has been only 20 times a non-knuckleball pitcher qualified for the ERA title with an average fastball velocity below 87 mph. And 12 of those were by southpaws – the quintessential crafty lefties. Since Young is a RHP, here are the eight seasons by righties:

Name Year FBv K/9 GB% ERA xFIP WAR
Livan Hernandez 2010 84.3 4.85 39.3 3.66 4.76 3.0
Dave Bush 2010 86.5 5.52 39.5 4.54 4.98 0.1
Livan Hernandez 2009 84.7 5.00 40.6 5.44 4.78 1.6
Livan Hernandez 2008 83.7 3.35 44.5 6.05 4.90 1.5
Greg Maddux 2008 83.7 4.55 49.3 4.22 4.03 2.1
Paul Byrd 2008 85.7 4.10 35.8 4.60 5.14 1.1
Mike Mussina 2008 86.4 6.74 48.5 3.37 3.47 5.3
Jeff Suppan 2008 86.9 4.56 44.4 4.96 4.79 -0.2

Mussina, the most successful pitcher of the group, had the top K/9 rate and the second-best ground ball rate. The 2010 version of Livan Hernandez had the second-best year. We see by his xFIP that he was essentially the same pitcher all three seasons but last year he had great fortune, most notably a career-low 5.8 HR/FB rate.

A 2.0 WAR is a league-average player. Maddux was the only other pitcher on our list to top this mark and he did it with the best GB% rate of anyone in the group. The other five seasons were below-average, with Bush and Suppan turning in replacement-player performance.

So, it’s extremely tough to be a righty and survive with a fastball like what Young brings to the table here in 2011. In his heyday of 2005-07, Young was in the 88-90 range on his fastball and had K/9 rates around 8.0 those seasons. Now his manager is happy when he hits 86 and he has a K/9 of 3.77 so far this Spring.

To make matters worse, Young is a notorious fly ball pitcher. Anything under 40 percent is usually considered a low ground ball rate. The lowest mark on this list is the 35.8 rate posted by Byrd. Young’s best GB% was the 32.7 mark he posted in 2005.

Young does have a history of posting below-average HR/FB rates, as his career mark is 8.1 percent. And Citi Field is one of the better pitching parks in baseball. But even with those two things going for him, Young faces an uphill climb to be an asset with his current arsenal.

He has to be healthy enough to take the ball every five days and Young needs to be even luckier than normal with his home run rate to be an effective pitcher for the Mets. Odds are against either of these things happening.

Last night Young faced a Nationals lineup missing Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, the top two hitters on the team. That’s not unusual for a Spring Training game and yet another reason why Spring results should be taken with a grain of salt. But even facing these types of lineups, Young has allowed 2 HR in 14.1 IP.

We know that Young is going to give up a lot of fly balls. We have a pretty good idea that he will not be posting above-average strikeout rates. In order to succeed in 2011, Young is going to have to limit his walks and really limit his home runs allowed. He’ll have some control over the former but he’ll need good luck with the latter.

As painful as this is to say, Livan is a good comp for Young this season. Hernandez has also been better than average in limiting home runs over his career, with a lifetime 9.5 HR/FB rate. In 2008, when he had a higher HR/FB than normal (10.7), he was terrible. In 2009, Hernandez’ home run rate was slightly better than his average (8.4) and he was not good. Then last year Hernandez had a fantastic HR/FB rate (5.8) and turned in a fine season.

Hernandez pitched for the Mets in 2009 and most fans couldn’t wait until he was out of the rotation. He had an 11-start stretch for the Mets that season where he was 4-2 with a 3.24 ERA. Hernandez allowed 6 HR in 72.1 IP in that time frame. In his final eight starts with the club, Hernandez was 2-5 with an 8.71 ERA. He allowed 5 HR in 41.1 IP in that span.

Obviously, there is more to a pitcher’s success than merely his HR rate. But it’s one of the easiest things to identify and should be a good marker for what type of season Young is having. If Young succeeds this year, he will not do it by giving up a HR on 10 or even 8 percent of his fly balls. Instead, he’ll likely need a season with a HR/FB below 6 percent to be effective.

Just like our old pal Livan.

3 comments for “Can Chris Young take the Livan Hernandez path to success?

  1. michael
    March 16, 2011 at 11:34 am

    There isnt a comparison between Young and Hernandez. Throwing an 86 mph fastball from the height of 6′ 10″ with an overhand delivery is not the same. Since he is closer to the plate, even by a couple of inches make a difference in the perception of the speed. I saw an article that stated his 88-89 is more like 93-94.

    • Brian Joura
      March 16, 2011 at 11:42 am

      If his fastball really is “like 93-94” that should show up in his K rate. Sid Fernandez did not light up the radar guns but because he was so tough to pick up, it made his fastball appear better than it really was. Sid had an 8.4 K/9 lifetime and even in his final 31 games, he had 190 Ks in 160.2 IP.

      If Young rediscovers his 2005-07 K-rate, I’ll agree he’s not like Hernandez. But early results are not promising…

      • michael
        March 16, 2011 at 12:28 pm

        As you say early results, which mean nothing 2 weeks before the season starts. Also he was throwing only 84/85 last year when he came back and struck 15 batters in 20 innings. He is also working on a split finger to induce more ground balls.

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