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Rays rookie debut: Utilizing Ryan Yarbrough is a tall order

The lanky lefty has some work to do.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays finally put their “bullpen day” plan to work this past Saturday against the Red Sox. Andrew Kittredge got the start, and he was followed by LHP Ryan Yarbrough who was making his ML debut.

Yarbrough is one of the several multi-inning options in the bullpen. The Rays see him as a starter, but he checks all the boxes for their current pitching plan.

At first glance, you quickly notice just how tall Yarbrough is at 6’5”, and just from watching baseball over the years I’ve gotten the hint that tall lefties seem to work well out of the bullpen. Now we know that Yarbrough isn’t here for a prototypical one inning role, but it’s easy to see why the Rays value him.

Saturday’s performance was not his best, and for those who got their first look at him it certainly didn’t leave the greatest mark. However, there are some things I want to talk about.

Abilities vs. LHB

Yarbrough is not overpowering. He topped out around 92 mph, but he was sitting around 90-91 with his fastball. I think it’s necessary to point out that his lack of velocity won’t exactly impair him working out of the bullpen. Especially against left handed hitters.

Like I mentioned above, Yarbrough has the advantage of already being extremely tall. That alone already makes him a weapon.

Using his height, he’s able to extend pretty far towards the hitter. Combine that with a three-quarters arm angle, and the slight deception that he naturally creates against LHB, and it’s going to be very tough for any lefty to pick him up.

Imagine being lefty Brock Holt in this AB:

We don’t have the Baseball Prospectus pitching tunnel imagery here yet, but I imagine that fastball is hard to pick up. Brock Holt worked a little battle here, but Yarbrough eventually prevailed.

Yeah, I know. The three batters he walked happened to be lefties. His command was very spotty on Saturday, but I think that can be attributed to debut jitters. If this multi-inning role proves to be difficult for him to handle, he could most definitely contribute another way.

Elevation vs RHB

Let’s look at a right-handed matchup.

Xander Bogaerts hit about 37 doubles throughout the opening series, so it’s not all that surprising that he knocked one off Yarbrough. He was able to rope a changeup down the LF line that brought Martinez around to score, and the reverse situation of Holt’s was at play. An easy-to-pickup changeup down the middle.

This changeup in particular looked very flat, and it seemed like that was a story of some of the the other pitches throughout his outing as well.

Here’s what he threw:

What are thooose

First we have a confusing collection of pitches in the middle that are probably cutters, but maybe not. Secondly, there’s a bunch of changeups that appear to have 15 inches of horizontal run, which is a ton, but let’s say that’s accurate.

Here’s the change up from that at bat to Bogaerts, on the right:

This change has big horizontal movement and unexceptional vertical movement. When you throw it with a low arm slot to the middle of the plate to a righty, that horizontal movement is hidden and plays down. When the pitch is up, the changeup is flat.

Overall, I don’t want to dig too deeply into a performance that might become an outlier with time, but I think it’s important that we understand who Yarbrough is: a dude who needs to pound the bottom of the zone a bit more with his off-speed stuff.

The same issue arises here against J.D. Martinez:

With the stuff he has, Yarbrough has no choice but to attack righties down, down, down. That didn’t happen here. While the pitch is in the lower half of the zone, it’s still high enough for a hitter like Martinez to cause some damage.

If Yarbrough is able to fully use hia extension and pound the bottom of the zone I think he’ll be just fine. However, if pitching dangerously to righties becomes a habit, it’ll be tough to see how Yarbrough can handle facing hitters multiple times.

Head in the clouds?

Ryan Yarbrough won’t overpower you, and his first outing may not have exactly impressed you. However, there’s enough there for him to get the job done (as long as the job isn’t too big). Doing so will take intentionality against the opposite hand.

As the first of many test subjects in this bullpen plan the Rays are implementing, Yarbrough could be the first success story. The Rays clearly think he can go through a batting order once or twice, and that’s not really asking for much.

Yarbrough’s ability to mix up his repertoire, deceive hitters, and know where he’s throwing the ball should play for well as the season continues. Keep an eye on him, you might be surprised.

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Thanks to Ian Malinowski who contributed to this article.