Ryan Yarbrough: Unorthodox Success

Picture provided by Draysbay from USA today

In today’s landscape a soft tossing, crafty left-handed starter is an unusual commodity in a game filled with more triple digit flamethrowers and wipeout sliders than we’ve ever seen. One would assume a pitcher that lives under the hit speed would have little success, but Ryan Yarbrough is changing that narrative.

Tampa Bay has begun to rely on the southpaw more than ever. With a recent slew of injuries to their starting staff and the trade of opener Ryne Stanek, more guys, like Yarbrough, have since been used as traditional starters and are thriving. Over his last eleven appearances, Yarbrough has a 6-0 record, a 1.43 ERA, with a dazzling 54-4 strikeout to walk ratio holding hitters to a mere .178 batting average. Numbers like that would suggest he has the stuff of a Charlie Morton or a Gerrit Cole, but we’ve seen position players with a better heater than Yarbrough.

Yarbrough was a revelation dating back to last year when he thrived in the bulk/featured pitcher role following an opener, pitching to the tune of a 1.2 whip and a sub 4 ERA, giving his team a chance to win time in and time out, which showed with a win total of 16 in his rookie year. This year, he struggled a bit to open the season, mostly with command, getting in bad counts and allowing more solid contact than he’s accustomed to. His lack of success earned himself a demotion down to AAA Durham in both late April and early May, but he’s been a fixture in the rotation ever since (he did get optioned again during the All Star Break but only to get some innings in while the big league team had a lengthy break).

Like most “crafty” left-handers, Yarbrough’s repertoire features a cutter sitting at 84 mph, a sinker at 88 mph, a changeup at 79 mph and a curveball at 73 mph. No single pitch stands out as above league average, but his healthy mix of all 4 with pinpoint accuracy and the guile to pitch righties inside without the stuff to merit doing so is his recipe to success. His accuracy can be quantifiable through Baseball Savant’s pitch tracking data. He throws an above-average percentage of his strikes on the edge of the strike zone at a clip of 45.2%, where the league average is 39%. Standing at 6’5 whilst throwing from various arm angles, he can be deceptive with his release points on all of his pitches.

Unlike most soft-tossing southpaws he isn’t a ground-ball pitcher. His sinker and cutter are pitched up in the zone more than you think, leading to his fly-ball rate being 57.9%. His goal is to induce weak pop-flys, which plays in today’s era of batters who are looking to hit the ball in the air. To back this up, his average exit velocity is 3 mph below league average with a barrel rate (meaning batters aren’t barreling up his pitches) also below league average. He’s putting up numbers, based by his hitting profile, comparable to the likes of Jose Berrios, Zack Wheeler, and his right-handed counterpart Kyle Hendricks.

Ryan Yarbrough getting the job done without blowing away batters

Post All Star break Yarbrough has truly been the Rays’ best pitcher and has joined fellow workhorse Charlie Morton as a more than reliable starter, once he was given the chance. In his first outing in the second half, he was the featured pitcher behind an opener in Ryne Stanek, and proceeded to carry a combined perfect game into the 9th inning against Baltimore. He faces those same O’s tonight this time as a traditional starter. In a revenge game against Seattle, the team that drafted him and traded him to Tampa, he was headscratch-ingly pulled after 8 & 2/3 innings of 3 hit shutout baseball while striking out 8. HIs most recent outing against Detroit was more of the same, working into the 7th, allowing only 3 hits, 0 runs and striking out 10, a career high. Making little more than league minimum, he has already accumulated 2.0 BWAR, with a 136 ERA+ and a 3.19 FIP on the year for the Rays who’s mantra has always been getting a lot out of a little.

Bottom line, Ryan Yarbrough has been on an incredible run for a most of the year now, especially of late. He’s not a superstar, but he sure is pitching like one, and how dissimilar he is to todays great pitchers is refreshing. He’s putting the league on notice and we here at Diamond Digest have noticed too.

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