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Thinking about Chris Young

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How should we be looking at the pitching coach and the job he has done in 2019?

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

At some point this year, you have probably wondered about the Phillies’ pitching coach, Chris Young. We have too. His name is one that comes up frequently in our interstaff conversations, mostly accompanying the phrases “fire into the sun”, or “need a new voice”, or even “he shouldn’t be here anymore”. There has been some merit to the angst, especially since we’ve seen a prominent member of the staff come out publicly and say that the team’s pitching philosophy isn’t what’s best for him.

As fans, it’s always easy to place blame on the coaches when the team is struggling, mostly because we know they are for the most part fungible and can be replaced with a newer voice and/or philosophy. When a pitching staff can’t get people out, it’s easier to blame the coaches because they are the ones that should be fixing the problems. Some teams are spoiled to possess coaches that show real results. I’m thinking about Derek Johnson in Cincinnati with someone like Sonny Gray.

Sonny Gray with NYY & CIN

Team IP ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Team IP ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Yankees (2 yrs) 195.2 4.51 4.40 8.4 3.9 1.1
Reds 157.1 2.75 3.37 10.4 3.4 0.9

This is obviously a bit of cherry picking since Gray has been one of the most improved pitchers from 2018 to 2019, but my point remains that we praise a pitching coach for anyone he can turn around and blame him when pitchers go bad.

Yet I’ve been thinking about Chris Young a lot lately. I’ve been pretty vocal among the TGP staff about my distaste for Young and how he has done this year, but the more I think about it, the more I’m questioning myself. Is it fair to place all of the blame simply at Young’s feet for the pitching staff’s woes this year and require that the team move on from him? Should we look at all the different factors that led to the pitching staff’s struggles before rendering a final verdict?

Todd Zolecki asked a form of this question of Gabe Kapler the other day and got this response about how the manager views Young’s performance:

“Yes,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said Tuesday, when asked if he is satisfied with Young’s performance. “The way I’d elaborate is, we’ve seen some improvements over the course of the last six weeks. That stands out to me. We’ve also seen a guy in Jason Vargas who has come over and performed well for us. But obviously, he’s had some success in his career. I think Drew Smyly is a good indication that good work is being done. His last start was excellent, obviously. I think if you asked Drew, he’ll speak to some of the work that he’s done since he’s been here. That’s how I’d address it.”

If there has been a pattern to Kapler in his managerial tenure, it’s his refusal to place any blame at the feet of his coaches. You’ve rarely, if ever, head him place any of the staff’s issues directly at the feet of his coaches. The same held with John Mallee prior to his firing this season, even after he was let go. In this quote, he’s picking and choosing who he wants to use as highlights for Young’s work this year, but he’s not too far off base. There have been some pitchers under Young that have shown incremental improvement. It is also fair to say that there have been a majority of the team’s pitchers that have not.

This is what I’ve been thinking about and has led me to at least reconsider my calls for Young’s ouster. Whenever I am thinking about it, I come back to these two questions:

  • Can we really blame Young for any of the reliever’s issues with all of the injuries that they have had to endure?
  • With the rotation, is it really Young’s fault they have underperformed, or did we just mistake how good the pitchers actually were?

Let’s discuss the first question. Heading into the season, the bullpen was supposed to be strength of the team. We’ve heard about it all year, but the injuries that have been suffered truly have sapped the team of its strength. When the young pitchers were pressed into duty and struggled, is that Young’s fault? If we look at some scouting reports from the beginning of the year, perhaps we should have girded our loins for the struggles ahead. From the always informative philliesminorthoughts.com, here are some reports of pitchers that have thrown innings this year:

  • Edgar Garcia - “Garcia has not been dominant at any level, but he also has been young for each level. Garcia does need to sharpen up his command and consistency to be an impactful reliever at the major league level, as he has outings where he ends up walking a few batters. Without a dominant fastball or a plus plus secondary pitch, Garcia profiles more as a 7th/8th inning arm who may be deployed more as a right handed specialist than a generalist.
  • Cole Irvin - “The loss of velocity puts a damper on a profile that relies more on a mix of pitches and velocity than overpowering batters with a plus pitcher or two...Irvin will get a major league chance at some point soon, but he will need to be a constantly adapting pitcher who is going to probably have to prove it each night with little margin for error.

These reports were prepared by Matt Winkelman, who I trust most when it comes to Phillies’ prospects, and they aren’t glowing. This is cherry picking, but it goes to my point of us as fans being prepared about who we were going to see if injuries hit. Both of these guys had the benefit of being on the 40-man roster and would be among the first called up, but the point is the same. The pitchers the Phillies had in reserve simply weren’t good enough.

When look at other parts of the bullpen, the pitchers they acquired to help reinforce the team at the deadline and beyond also should help remind us of this: they were castoffs from other teams that were actually playing for something as well. The Twins, in the middle of their own pennant race, didn’t want Mike Morin or Blake Parker anymore. Why? They weren’t good enough. The Phillies grabbed them because they needed arms, not because they won the lottery. The same applies to Jared Hughes. Can we really place their failures in big spots on Young’s tutelage?

Now, if we move on to the rotation, one of the first things we ask when evaluating Young is: who improved? Who got better?

Let me ask you this - with the opening day rotation set up as Aaron Nola, Nick Pivetta, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin, and Vince Velasquez, which of those five did you really have high expectations for?

Pivetta has been easily the biggest disappointment of the lot despite being the one touted as the breakout candidate of the team, but when you really drill down to it, we’ve come to realize all of that hype was in the data that was presented. Pivetta had been decidedly average during his starts last year and never really proved much on the mound when asked to actually pitch in games. We should have seen it all along (and some did), but we had the data-lined wool pulled over our eyes.

Arrieta was always the obvious candidate to regress a bit due to his age and cratering peripherals. Couple that with the fact he had been pitching with a bone spur in his elbow and he just couldn’t do the job. He tried, but he just couldn’t do it, eventually succumbing to surgery. With Eflin and Velasquez, well - I mean, hadn’t we all seen enough in the past? Why did we think that they would improve? What evidence had they provided that this would be the year? It’s not like they had a small sample size behind them and they could be expected to improve. In fact both (Eflin with over 240 innings pitched, Velasquez with over 300) had provided large enough samples that we should’ve just seen they were what they were. Was Young expected to provide that much of an impact that both of those pitchers, along with Pivetta, should have been expected to take a giant step forward?

Listen, I’m not saying Young doesn’t deserve criticism. Everyone who performs in a major league baseball organization, from the owner at the top to the 40th man of the roster deserves to have his job critiqued. It’s part of the job and I’m sure that each person would say they expect it. I’m saying that I just don’t think all of the criticism is warranted. The old saying “you can’t bleed a stone” applies here to an extent. There also were some “success” stories this year - Jose Alvarez turning his season around, Ranger Suarez at least getting better from whatever he was when he was called up, Nola settling into the ace we know he is prior to these last few starts.

We as a fanbase couldn’t expect Young to perform miracles if the talent he was given wasn’t that good in the first place. Can Young get better at his job? No doubt. You’ll get no argument from me if you want to rant about his abilities as a coach. I believe that Young himself would tell you he can be better next year if he’s still with the team. Whether that be in coach-player communication, data interpretation and/or application, whatever it may be, areas exist where Young can improve. However, as the 2019 season winds down, it’s best to take a bit of a step back and ponder how much is actually Young’s “fault” and judge him that way. If you still feel he needs to be replaced, that’s fine. I’m just going to continue to wonder myself about what more he could have done. It’s at least worth having the discussion.