Wednesday, May 29, 2024
AL EastAmerican LeagueAnalysisMLBTampa Bay Rays

Ryan Yarbrough… The Two Starter?

Considering all five of the expected starters are healthy and guaranteed to be ready for the season, this must have come as a surprise to many. Ryan Yarbrough only tops out around 90 mph, and he’s more likely to live in the mid-80s. There are still questions about the first prominent “bulk guy’s” role as a traditional starter. Yet he is second in the rotation. As a starter. How did this happen?

Different Look

Remember the days when sinkers and sliders were in style? That was before the launch angle revolution. That’s almost always a troubling pitch mix to have for a starting pitcher nowadays. In the era of pitching vertically with high four-seam fastballs and nasty curveballs, Yarbrough puts a new spin on the old doctrine of pitching horizontally. Instead of throwing a sinker and a slider, he relies on a cutter and a changeup. Last year, almost two-thirds (61.3%) of his pitches were either cutters or changeups.

He is a true pitcher, able to execute a couple backdoor cutters in order to set up a changeup beyond the outer edge of home plate. Pitching primarily off the cutter in 2019 allowed his changeup to accumulate a swinging strike rate of 18.1%. That’s not exactly what you would expect for a guy whose main pitch is 84 mph, but it’s the reward of good pitch sequencing. And while sequencing may not be all on Yarbrough, he’s the one who executed the pitches.

As Tom Verducci wrote for Sports Illustrated, “[t]he crown of the bell curve is the worst place to be for a pitcher,” which helps explain why Yarbrough’s cutter — 7th slowest in MLB last year min. 250 pitches — is actually an effective fastball. For those unfamiliar with what a bell curve is, it is a graph of how frequently a certain thing happens. Being at the top means it is a common event, whereas being on the edges is more rare. 

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Shape of a Bell Curve

Logically, it would be better to have qualities as a pitcher. A basic example would be a pitcher who throws a straight fastball with similar speed to batting practice. While these guys don’t make it to MLB, you can see why it’s a bad thing to throw what batters are used to seeing. They are more likely to hit it. Being unique like Yarbrough tends to pay off in pitching.

Why So Slow?

Using that idea, Yarbrough achieves better results with well below average velocities compared to more normal ones. He has struggled to make good use of his 89 mph sinker, which has been hit very well by hitters the last two years. In 2019, the cutter became his primary fastball, and he actually took 2 mph off that compared to the year prior. Unsurprisingly, he had better results on the pitch by making it less average. Most of his stats on the pitch improved, including a drop in wOBA from .321 to .269.

In Yarbrough’s case, being less average meant he would either have to throw harder or slower. Being on the lower end of pitch velocities to begin with, trying to throw harder would run the risk of being more average. So he went with the safer and smarter option which puts him near the bottom of the league in fastball velocity.

In Control

The one contingency of Yarbrough’s success is that he has to have great control of his pitches. There are guys like Diego Castillo who can get away with throwing fastballs down the middle, but Yarbrough isn’t one of them. If a major league hitter sees an 85 mph cutter, even with its movement, over the heart of the plate, then it’s more likely than not that he hits it well. Especially if he throws a lot of them over the middle of the plate, it’s easy to expect that he’s not getting his team a win. However, Yarbrough masterfully commands the inner and outer thirds of the plate to his advantage throughout a game.

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When balls are hit, they are not hit as hard on the inner third and especially on the outer third (to a right-handed hitter) as they are in the middle of the plate. Yarbrough’s command even allows him to exploit the top of the zone, which has become a soft spot for hitters in the era of home runs and launch angles.

While being able to control the baseball, he controls the game as well. A 3.5% walk rate (only 20 of 563 batters faced) allows him to be one of the game’s most efficient pitchers with only 15.6 pitches per inning. Nothing comes free with him on the mound. He won’t hand out walks, and he will pitch enough innings to avoid exposing the bullpen to too many innings.

Case For Number Two

Yes, Yarbrough’s good, but does that justify being above Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow in the rotation? In a perfect world, it’s more likely he would be the four starter, but this is not a perfect world, as we all know.

In the weeks leading up to Summer Camp, Yarbrough and Glasnow worked out at the Trop while Snell focused on conditioning in Seattle. This is not bad for Snell; the Rays didn’t expect players to go out of their way to attend those workouts. However, he will not be as stretched out as those who did make it. And with Glasnow missing a couple weeks with the coronavirus, Yarbrough is the best equipped to give innings of the three.

What gives the Rays confidence to start the season this way is that Yarbrough pitched fantastically last year when he was relied on as the two starter. Here are Yarbrough’s stats in his five starts (no openers) when Snell, Glasnow, and Yonny Chirinos were injured: 2.30 ERA, 2.19 FIP, 0.73 WHIP, 27.4 K%, 0.9 BB%, .216 wOBA against. For a broader sample size, he had a 3.60 ERA, 3.39 FIP, and 0.95 WHIP from May through September. April is excluded because his extreme struggles early on (sending him to AAA) do not accurately represent him, and it would skew the results in my opinion. A concern for another slow start could be justified, but a leg injury in 2018’s Spring Training left him playing catch up at the start of the season.

He’s done it before. He’s done it well. And he’s doing it again. Tampa Bay, Ryan Yarbrough is your number two starter. He put in the work to get here, not only in the last two months but in the last two years, and he has earned the privelege of being a frontline starter.

Nicholas Lobraico

High school student, former baseball player. Pitching enthusiast. Rays man in a Yankees land. Follow me on Twitter @LobraicoNick