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Meet New Rays Southpaw Ryan Yarbrough

Birthdate: 12/31/1991 (25 y, 13 d) Bats/Throws: R/L Height/Weight: 6-5/205

College and Major: Old Dominion University, Communications

Pre-Draft BA Ranking: 407th

Drafted: 2014 Draft - Rd: 4 Overall: 111, Team: Mariners Signed for: $40,000

He and Mallex Smith were teammates at Sante Fe Community College in 2012

Before he was drafted by the Mariners, Yarbrough - a.k.a “Yarby” - was selected by the Brewers in the 20th round of the 2013 draft but did not sign with them. He had attended ODU (Old Dominion) with Justin Verlander’s brother, OF Ben Verlander, who was selected by the Tigers in the 14th round and did wind up signing. When asked what made him come to ODU, besides baseball, Yarby replied “being close to the beach.”

One of the highlights of his ODU career was his defeat of UTSA in a complete game 7 hit outing in which set down 17 batters in a row at one point. He threw 94 pitches, struck out 4, and walked none.

When he re-entered the draft in 2014 he was selected 16 rounds higher, but this didn’t seem to impact his signing bonus much as he only received a mere $40,000 - the only prospect to sign for less than $100,000 in that round. The Mariners were on a tight draft budget, needing to compensate for spending more than the slot value on Gareth Morgan. The Mariners ultimately went $317,100 over budget anyhow.

The 2014 Season

So how did Yarby react to being signed for such a low amount? He went to Pulaski and dominated:

38.2 IP / 25 H / 1 HR / 4 BB / 53 SO / 0.75 Whip / 5.8 H9 / 2.8% BB% / 36.6% K%

Had he pitched the entire season, he likely would have earned a top 20 position within the NWL that season. Among pitchers with more than 30 IP, he finished first in the league in K% (more than 7% higher than the next best total), and simultaneously came in with the 2nd best BB% at 2.8%.

The performance earned him enough recognition to be ranked the 9th best Mariners prospect by BA. They noted that “Scout Devitt Moore hit the jackpot” when he signed Yarbrough. At the time, his arsenal was noted as including the following:

  • 90-93 MPH Fastball which could touch 95 MPH
  • Above-Average Change Up
  • Fringe Average Slurvy Curve

More importantly, they noted that these pitches were particularly effective because of his above-average control.

The 2015 Season

Knowing he could handle himself, the Mariners assigned him to the California League for 2015.

81.1 IP / 86 H / 7 HR / 18 BB / 74 SO / 1.279 Whip / 9.5 H9 / 5.1% BB% / 21.1% K%

Aside from 15.1 innings he spent in LoA and in the AZL, Yarbrough managed to continue to work on his stuff effectively, even if less spectacularly than in 2014. The notes on his stuff included the following:

  • 90-93 MPH Fastball which could touch 95 MPH
  • 79-82 MPH Above-Average Change Up
  • 77-78 MPH Fringe Average Slurvy Curve

In 2015 he struggled with a recurrent groin injury, which is part of the reason some believe he may wind up in the pen. The season was still solid overall, and he managed to remain as high as 5th best Mariners prospect according to Baseball Prospectus. They rated his tools as follows:

Future Tools: 60 fastball, 55 change, 55 command

Baseball America, meanwhile, ranked him 14th in the system, making the following significant statement:

Yarbrough has potential to be a mid-rotation starter if everything comes together and will get a shot at making his Double-A debut in 2016.

It was a significant statement because he was considered as having mid-rotation potential, which is exactly the role Drew Smyly was filling with the Rays.

Could the Southpaw handle what some consider to be the biggest test for up-and-coming pitching prospects?

Most definitely.

The 2016 Season

Yarby joined the Southern League’s Jackson Generals and helped them win a Championship, getting by the Rays Montgomery Biscuits in the process. He pitched well enough to earn the Pitcher of the Year honours in the Southern league and at one point landed on BA’s hot prospect sheet after going 2-0, 0.00, 2 GS, 13 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 11 SO, 1 BB, an clear indication of how dominant he was in some stretches.

His overall season totals were as follows:

128.1 IP / 112 H / 7 HR / 31 BB / 99 SO / 1.114 Whip / 7.9 H9 / 5.9% BB% / 19% K%

Those who want to nit-pick his statistics from 2016 will point to the fact that he was 24 years old, something I don’t think matters in the least, and that he didn’t strike out enough batters to satisfy their cravings for one SO per inning. The age doesn’t really matter for many reasons, but the main one is that it was his first time at the level and he showed no need to repeat.

As for the strikeouts: personally, I’d rather look at how few times hitters were able to square up his pitches. He allowing a mere 7 HR in over 128 innings and that he was among the league leaders in most pitching categories, including:

  • 3rd best Whip (almost identical to Brent Honeywell who had a 1.10 Whip)
  • 7th best ERA (2.95)
  • 8th best average against (.230)
  • 9th best LOB% (74%)
  • 10th lowest BB/9 (2.17) and FIP (3.30, almost identical to Chih-Wei Hu’s 3.28)
  • 13th best K-BB ratio (13%)
  • 14th most IP

Now, don’t ask me how you can be the Southern League’s pitcher of the year and not make the top 20 prospects for that league, but that’s exactly what happened to Yarbrough.

Despite being dominant the majority of his time in the minors and being among the best in most categories, evaluators continue to doubt his overall abilities and effectiveness because he doesn’t consistently throw in the mid-to-upper 90s. You would think that the recent success of Marco Estrada in consecutive seasons - including some dominant starts during the playoffs in both 2015 and 2016 - would change some people’s focus, particularly when it comes to pitchers with above-average change ups.

Indeed, despite their different handedness, Yarbrough and Estrada make an interesting comparison:

Yarbrough and Estrada AA Comparison

Pitcher Level K/9 BB/9 HR/9 K% BB% AVG WHIP BABIP
Pitcher Level K/9 BB/9 HR/9 K% BB% AVG WHIP BABIP
Ryan Yarbrough AA 6.94 2.17 0.49 19.00% 5.90% 0.23 1.11 0.276
Marco Estrada AA 8.11 3.87 0.61 21.30% 10.20% 0.221 1.26 0.274

While Estrada’s K% was slightly higher, the majority of the categories lean in Yarbrough’s favour. With very similar arsenals, yet from opposite sides, both used their change ups effectively. Yarbrough actually has a few more MPH on his fastball, creating a greater differential between that pitch and his change up and curve.

Another area where both are a match is in the unshakeable tenacity with which they pitch. As his 2016 pitching coach, Andrew Lorraine states about Yarbrough

"He's a very intense competitor.” “We have to pry the ball from his hand when he starts, and that's a good quality to have."

Projections and Expectations

Chris Mitchell of Fangraphs made an attempt at projecting the Mariners prospects recently, but he may be too pessimistic:

Although he’s had strong results, Yarborough’s achieved them without striking many batters out — a trait that doesn’t generally portend future success in the big leagues. He’s also 25, which is quite old for a Double-A pitcher. Yarbrough has succeeded in the high minors, which is commendable, but my math doubts he’ll be anything more than a replacement-level arm.

First, Yarbrough pitched his AA season at age 24, not 25. Secondly, I’m not convinced that the strikeout per inning measure is realistic or useful in predicting who will stick in a major league rotation. And Yarbrough has made a habit of exceeding expectations.

What many seem to miss is how hard it is for batters to drive the ball hard against Yarbrough. Lorraine highlighted these strengths:

"I think he's more of a ground-ball pitcher than people give him credit for, but he also can miss a lot of bats," Lorraine said. "He doesn't give up a lot of fly balls. Most of the balls that get hit in the air are mis-hit or he gets it in on guys. I don't think home runs will ever be an issue for him."

"He has a lot of weapons when he's commanding his fastball," Lorraine said. "He can get all kinds of hitters out. There are some guys when you see a matchup you say, 'How's he going to get him out?' But I never get that feeling with Ryan."

Those are the traits that are going to help him adjust well to AAA and MLB pitching. He doesn’t have one thing which batters can zone in on and use as a plan of attack. Each outing is different, and he is the one setting the tone for each AB, not the other way around.

Here’s a decent video highlighting a K that shows us some of his effective downward plane:

And here’s another video showing him against a LHB this time, Jacksonville’s Alex Glenn:

In each video, you can tell that neither hitter is guessing right on the timing. They’re hesitant in their swings, and Yarbrough is able to use his ability to change speeds to his advantage. Combined with the command and control to go inside or outside, Yarbrough has many ways to keep hitters off the bases.

Now that he’s a Rays prospect, he’s been ranked by in the #16 position, ahead of Hunter Wood, and they grade out his pitches as follows:

Scouting grades: Fastball: 55 | Curveball: 45 | Changeup: 55 | Control: 55 | Overall: 45

As they note though, the main questions which remain are whether or not he’ll be able to remain in the rotation, and whether he’ll be able to peak as a #2-#3 starter, or settle in as a #4-#5 starter.

If he can add some strength, maintain velocity and develop a more consistent breaking ball, he has a chance to become a mid-rotation starter.

Since I’m extremely bullish on pitchers with plus change ups, I lean heavily towards the starting role but will address the second question in more depth.

Final Thoughts

As with any prospect, Yarbrough will have question marks until we see him in the Show. However, considering the cost and health issues surrounding Smyly, there’s a lot to like about the returns the Rays obtained in this deal. Central to it all is Yarbrough who could very well continue to exceed expectations and prove doubters wrong.

Within the Rays organization, he’ll join MLB ready arms such as Brent Honeywell, Taylor Guerrieri, Chih-Wei Hu, Jaime Schultz, and Austin Pruitt, providing the Rays with an embarrassment of riches to draw from at the upper level of the minors. The edge he holds over all of them is that he’s a LHP and shouldn’t be restricted in innings now that he’s managed over 120 IP in a season.

I see him as a 2017 call-up, with the timing dependent on injuries and his success in Spring Training/Durham, but making the team out of the gate isn’t out of the question. As the best LHP option within an organization that has had as much success as any other in developing arms, he is well positioned for success.