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Early Observations on Alex Young

Arizona’s young, mostly unheralded starter has been might impressive in his first few games.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Texas Rangers Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Alex Young was taken in the second round of the 2015 but didn’t really do much in the minors his first few years. Suddenly, in 2019, his strikeouts skyrocketed in AAA, which was made more impressive by keeping his homers down (0.99 HR/9 vs the ~1.37 HR/9 league average for the PCL). This led to a rather unexpected call-up for a spot start in San Francisco, largely due to not being remotely close to any top 100 prospects list. Suddenly, it’s a few weeks later and Alex Young just made his third start, another 1-run performance AT the hitter-friendly Texas Rangers stadium (which actually has a higher 1-year park factor than Colorado so far this season, per FanGraphs). Then net result of Young’s first three starts and a middle relief performance has been a fantastic 0.9 bWAR in his first 16.1 big league innings. That is some pretty impressive run suppression.

So, that begs the question, “Who is Alex Young?”

Alex Young Has Excellent Command

This is something that stood out pretty quickly for Young - he’s got really good command. Aside from this year at AAA, Young has had above-average walk rates in the minors and visually, you can see that he is very consistent in his delivery and is really good at hitting his spots, especially when he’s coming off the plate.

Young’s walk rate this year is a sterling 4.6% and while that is almost impossible to sustain in the MLB, his 6.2 xBB% shows that he hasn’t over-performed by much. If Alex Young can maintain a sub-7% BB% going forward, it’s going to significantly help his MLB potential.

But limiting walks isn’t the only important part of command - hitting your spots and not making mistakes are both crucial to MLB success. And while there is pretty much no way to quantify the rate at which a pitcher “hits his spots” because we don’t have a way to measure the intended target, we can use Statcast to see were his pitches are ending up. And Alex Young, so far, has been a nearly prime example of this.

Many of you are probably familiar with MLB GameDay’s strikezone map. Statcast used both that and a more advanced strikezone map to help classify pitch locations:

Reading this chart should be fairly straightforward. Pitchers want to mostly avoid the “Heart” zones as these are where batters can do the most damage. Pitchers will also want to mostly avoid the “Waste” zones as batters will easily recognize these pitches as a ball.

So, how does Alex Young attack the strikezone? Let’s compare him with the 594 pitchers that have thrown at least 100 pitches this season:

Heart: 19.2%, 30th-lowest (95th percentile)

Shadow: 40.4%, 412th-highest (31st percentile)

Chase: 28.4%, 24th-highest (96th percentile)

Waste: 12.0%, 511th-lowest (14th percentile)

Baseball is obviously more nuanced than simple than “more pitches in shadow/chase, less pitches in heart/waste” but it does help to give a good overview of Alex Young: He aggressive attacks the parts of the zone where batters are tempted to swing, aka chase pitches out of the zone. And when he misses, he misses out of the zone at a higher-rate than average instead of coming into the heart of the plate. This is pretty much ideal for guys with fringe velocity but a lot of movement.

This leads us too...

Alex Young Has Good “Stuff”

This might be the most surprising thing to grasp, though watching him makes it easy to believe - Alex Young has surprisingly good “Stuff”. Now “stuff” is a very loose term, but is usually refers to either having swing-and-miss potential or is really good at inducing poor contact. Alex Young appears to possibly be good at both!

The strikeout rates right now might be a bit misleading. Young’s 6.27 K/9 is well below league average, however this is deflated largely due to how insanely low his WHIP is (pitchers with higher WHIPs get inflated K/9 due to having more baserunners over 9 IP). His 20.0% K% is better, though still below league average. But he appears to be a bit underperforming so far - his xK% is sitting at 21.9%, which is right around league average.

However, there appears to be room for growth from here - Young’s swinging strike percentage currently sits at 14.4%, which is an elite number. If you were to compare that 14.4% number to other MLB starters, he would be 7th-best out of 75 qualified pitchers. That’s better than Chris Sale, Robbie Ray, and Patrick Corbin, just to name a few. Remember how I said he likes to aggressively attack the “chase” portion of the strike zone? Well, his 37.9% O-Swing% would be the third-best in baseball, behind only Stephen Strasburg and Justin Verlander. His 51.6% contact rate on these pitches outside the zone would rank 5th in baseball, behind Luis Castillo, Max Scherzer, Shane Bieber, and Gerrit Cole. These are all elite strikeout pitcher stats that Young is achieving.

However, there is a twist to Alex Young - his 91.4% Z-contact% would be the third-HIGHEST among MLB starters, not what you’d expect from a strikeout pitcher. But there is a reason for this. Here are his pitches and their Zone% per Statcast:

4-seam fastball: 52.1%

Cutter: 40.7%

Sinker: 38.2%

Curveball: 18.2%

Changeup: 17.9%

Alex Young is coming in the strike zone with his fastballs, but he is using his movement in combination with a very healthy mix of changing them up to induce boatloads of poor batted ball contact. And I mean really poor batted ball contact. In an era of hard-hit balls, Alex Young has the 12th-lowest average exit velocity, out of 594 pitchers with 100 or more pitches thrown this season. That’s 98th percentile in exit velocity. However, if you narrow it down further, to all fastballs (so sinkers + 4 seamers + 2 seamers + cutters combined), he is the 5th-lowest or 99th percentile. If you narrow it down to fastballs that are in the strike zone, he is the 4th-lowest (and the three guys above him have a combined 10 batted balls).

Pretty much, in his first four appearances, Alex Young has been the best pitcher at inducing weak contact in the strike zone. Statcast, so far, is very high on Young’s pitches. Here are his pitches by xwOBA and their corresponding rank:

Cutter: .370 xwOBA (105th out of 132)

4-seam: .295 xwOBA (85th out of 528)

Sinker: .200 xwOBA (2nd out of 125)

Changeup: .178 xwOBA (20th out of 333)

Curveball: .130 xwOBA (25th out of 299)

Just... wow. Aside from his cutter, his other 4 pitches have been exceptionally good. Now, keep in mind, Alex Young’s sample is effectively that of a .087 BABIP which means he’s been very good and our sample is biased towards that. Once he has a “bad” game, we might expect this to go up. However, xwOBA is meant to address the quality of the pitch, not the result, so it leads to the possibility that he really could have four plus pitches in the MLB. Overall, he has a .166 wOBA vs a .260 xwOBA, the latter of which is still a really really good number. The .260 xwOBA ranks 25th in baseball among 396 pitchers.

The Cause For Concern

Of course, we couldn’t get this far without pointing out some of the concerns, including the obvious. The most obvious being that we only have 18.2 innings of a sample size, one that is very biased towards straight dominance (so far). Things are going to change as the sample grows and he has some not-so-unhittable games. That being said, the underlying stats so far are all telling us that yes, this Alex Young has been very real so far. You don’t accidentally stumble into elite whiff rates and batted ball profiles.

The other main concern is his velocity. Alex Young is only 25, yet his fastball velocity is already averaging below 90 MPH and ranks in the 2nd percentile in velocity. That’s extremely low. We’ve already seen that Young can succeed at these velocities (as has Zack Greinke) but it does narrow his margin for error. Considering the type of pitcher he is, especially combined with what appears to be an excellent approach, the velocity shouldn’t matter too much in the interim - the real velocity concern is that his lifespan in the MLB may not be very long. If he can maintain these velocities for an extended period of time, then he should be able to last a while. But if he declines in velo from here, his MLB shelf life probably won’t last more than a few years.

So those are the first overall impressions from Alex Young. Pretty mind-blowing, really. I’m really hoping it’s more than a SSS mirage - the underlying stats seem to indicate there is something here - but obviously time will tell.