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Rays’ Ryan Yarbrough Should Consider Adding Cutter to Arsenal

If you read through the recent introduction of Ryan Yarbrough, you’ll note that the few criticisms of his stuff include a sometimes erratic and slurvy curve, and that his FB can sometimes top out at 90-92 MPH. Those criticisms had me digging through some information to see which other pitchers had similar issues and what they did to flip it around and succeed.

When you think plus change up, you think about Blue Jays RHP Marco Estrada. His recent success in consecutive seasons - including some dominant starts during the playoffs in both 2015 and 2016 - should help alter people’s notion that pitchers can’t succeed unless they light up the radar gun. If anything, he’s showing that pitchers with above-average change ups can dominate so long as they have the right complimentary pitches in their arsenal.

I posted the table included below in the introduction piece, but I wanted to use it again to set the stage for this article.

There are some obvious differences between Yarbrough and Estrada. Size and the arm side they use (6’5” vs 6’0” and LHP vs RHP) are the most obvious, yet both use similar speeds on their pitches and both were 24 years old while navigating through AA, so it still makes for 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
http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=sa738545&position=P

Now, from this point onwards, it wasn’t easy for Estrada to establish himself as a starter. He started out in relief, worked his way up to 23 starts in 2012 (age 28), and kept getting bounced back into the pen despite glimpses of success as a starter. So what changed for him when he got to the Blue Jays? Why the sudden dominance and double-digit wins?

In 2015, at 31 years old, Marco Estrada went from fighting for a rotation spot to allowing the fewest H9 in the AL (6.7) for those who qualify, getting Cy young votes in the process (1%). How did he do it?

While examining the use of his pitches and arsenal, the only major change: the cutter.

The Cutter is the Key

Brooks Baseball has a great chart displaying Estrada’s introduction of the cutter anywhere from 10% to 17% of the time from 2015 through 2016, taking away from how often he used his fastball, now averaging approximately 48% to 57% usage rate.

The results? Estrada lowered his WHIP from 1.20 to 1.04, hitters went from managing a .237 BA to a mere .202, and his HR/9 lowered from 1.73 to 1.19. All of this from a pitcher that rarely exceeds 90 MPH with his fastball.

Many will argue that it’s easier to locate a cutter than a curve, and I feel that if Yarbrough were to do the same in the majors, he could get similar results than Estrada has received. Some may argue he has even more potential when you consider his size, extra MPH on the FB, and that he’s a Southpaw.

Estrada isn’t the only pitcher to see great results from introducing a cutter. When you think cutter, you think Mariano Rivera. That one pitch made his career, partially because he could throw it better than anyone else, but it showed everyone how devastating it can be. Roy Halladay is another pitching great that comes to mind since he threw that pitch more than any other for the majority of his career.

But it wouldn’t be prudent to argue for the cutter when thinking he can match its production when thrown from these legends, so let’s see if we can find more usable evidence.

Success with the Cutter: Scott Kazmir

Ex-Rays LHP Scott Kazmir has similarly introduced a cutter in 2013 and revived his career partially due to its success. It helped re-energize a career that many had considered to be over.

In fact, if you look at his charts closely you’ll notice that he stopped using it as often when he went to Houston in 2015 and struggled as a result. His ERA and Whip in OAK were 2.38 and 1.05 respectively, while in Houston the story change to a less respectable 4.17 ERA and 1.391 Whip.

Think it was the trade that did it to him, or the change in stadium? There’s evidence that may dissuade that theory.

In the 2nd half of 2016, while pitching for the LAD, Kazmir wound up struggling quite a bit as he reduced the use of the cutter from a high of 19% to 4% to 6%. His SO9 dropped from 9.8 in the first half to 6.5, and hitters went from a .241 average against him to a .283 average.

While I acknowledge the impact of numerous other issues in his drop in effectiveness, I find the link between the use of the cutter and the simultaneous struggles intriguing.

Can we find any others?

Success with the Cutter: Jeremy Hellickson

Sticking with the ex-Rays model, let’s examine the resurgence of Jeremy Hellickson. After all, he just earned himself a qualifying offer after reviving his career with a stellar 189 inning performance. The changes made? Hellickson re-introduced a cutter that he’d done away with since 2012 - his other outstanding season - and complimented it with a change up.

For a 3 year stretch, between 2013 and 2015, Hellickson managed the following:

  • 2013: 31 GS / 174 IP / 185 H / 50 BB / 135 SO / 5.17 ERA / 1.351 Whip
  • 2014: 13 GS / 63.2 IP / 71 H / 21 BB / 54 SO / 4.52 ERA / 1.445 Whip
  • 2015: 27 GS / 146 IP / 151 H / 43 BB / 121 SO / 4.62 ERA / 1.329 Whip

Over that span, he never used the cutter more than 3% of the time. Here’s what he did in 2012 and 2016, when he used his cutter at least 6% of the time, and sometimes over 15% of the time:

  • 2012: 31 GS / 177 IP / 163 H / 59 BB / 124 SO / 3.10 ERA / 1.254 Whip
  • 2016: 32 GS / 189 IP / 173 H / 45 BB / 154 SO / 3.71 ERA / 1.153 Whip

It could be that the extra pitch mixed within his arsenal made him harder to predict, but it’s evident that when he does throw the cutter, he’s harder to hit.

Case for Introducing the Cutter to Yarbrough

In essence, based on the evidence displayed above, there seems to be a case to be made that the cutter helps increase the effectiveness of pitchers reliant on a plus change up while lacking velocity on their FB.

The problem with promoting Yarbrough to the majors with his current toolset is that MLB hitters theoretically won’t be fooled as often and will jump on mistakes if they’re able to sit on a pitch. Adding an effective cutter should - in theory - help keep hitters off balance and have them guessing more often. There’s a good chance he’d be able to locate a cutter more consistently than a curve, and that he wouldn’t make as many mistakes with it.

Some caution here: it’s not a one-way-fits-all model, every pitcher’s case will be different. There’s nothing wrong with starting in the majors with a plus change up and strong fastball. But if they can have him adopt a cutter, it’s possible he takes his pitching to the next level and gets way more swings and misses and/or awkward hits than he used to.

While it’s great that Yarby has had success right up through AA, I certainly hope they introduce Yarbrough to the cutter. Successfully doing so could improve his performance from a ceiling of a #4 or #5 starter, to a solid #3 - or even #2 - starter.

And if you’re worried about it hurting his elbow down the road, have a read through of an outstanding series of articles put out by Jon Roegele of Beyond the Boxscore in 2012. It goes through the use of pitches and corresponding injury risks.

Essentially, the table included here details how those who have had TJ surgery only used the cutter 0.03% of the time on average 2 years before TJ surgery, 0.08% of the time 1 year before surgery, and 0.25% of the time the year they have surgery. Not only does it indicate minimal increased risk of injury for those who throw the cutter, but it also indicates that those with elbow issues introduced a cutter as they attempted to reduce the wear and tear on their elbows.

Pitchers that had TJ and didn’t use the cutter include: Homer Bailey (chart), Carter Capps (chart), Alex Cobb (chart), Patrick Corbin (chart), Jacob DeGrom (chart), Nathan Eovaldi (chart), Matt Harvey (chart), Jaime Garcia (chart), Josh Johnson (chart), Greg Holland (chart), A.J. Burnett (chart), Wei-Yin Chen (chart), ect...

Some, such as Matt Moore (TJ 2014, chart) and Chris Carpenter (TJ 2007, chart) only started throwing the cutter after they had surgery.

Combined, the data points to the cutter being a much safer option when compared to a slider if looking to bulk up a pitcher’s arsenal. And if you think about it, pitchers that leaned heavily on the cutter, like Rivera and Halladay, rarely had health issues through the bulk of their career.

We’ll see whether or not the Rays do ask him to add a pitch to his repertoire, but if they do and he does have tremendous success with it, he could become a more dominant than anyone anticipated.

I’ve included a video of the Cutter Mechanics below for those interested in learning more about how this pitch works.

Cutter Mechanics