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Rays Rookie Debut: Yonny Chirinos, in three plate appearances

What did the deceptive righty have to offer in his major league debut?

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

One of the more anticipated Rays debuts of the upcoming season took place on Sunday, when pitcher Yonny Chirinos made his first major league appearance. Prior to being named Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2017, Chirinos wasn’t a highly-touted prospect, but the 24 year old has succeeded at every level of the minors, and, as we saw Sunday, he has unusual, intriguing stuff.

Chirinos gave up no earned runs over four inings while striking out three Red Sox batters, walking one, and allowing one hit. That sounds like a good line, but he also hit two batters, nearly threw a pitchout to the backstop, and (even when he was around the zone) was sometimes alarmingly far from where Wilson Ramos set his mitt.

Still, Chirinos has a history of control in the minors, so we should probably give him some benefit of the doubt and chalk the wildness up to first-game jitters. Here’s what he threw:

Chirinos’s sinker (FT) averaged 94 mph, and his splitter (CH) and slider (SL) both averaged 86 mph. Pay no atttention to the pitches categorized as four seam fastballs. I don’t know what they were meant to be, but I don’t think they turned out how they were meant.

Scouting from the graph, I’d say that the sinker (decent velocity, decent drop, plenty of armside run) and the split (decent speed differential, very good vertical drop) are strong major league pitches that should give Chirinos the ability to collect groundballs and strikeouts, but that the slider is something of a lame duck, neither especially hard nor having much movement (and all of the movement coming in the hotizontal plane with relation to the sinker). But grab a few grains of salt on that slider critique and hold them for later in the article.

At first blush this looks like a pitcher who can excel for a few innings out of the bullpen but who should probably not be exposed to opposing lineups three and four times, like a true starter would be. That is to say, he should be used exactly how the Rays plan on using him.

Walk with me through three plate appearances:

Sixth inning against Brock Holt

Holt is a lefty, and these graphs are from the catcher’s perspective, so the battter is standing to the right of the box.

  1. The first pitch isn’t pictured, but it is referenced next to the word “in” on the y-axis label. It was a pitch-out, and it was so far wide (and running wider due to its two-seam movement) that Ramos had to lurch to knock it down.
  2. The second pitch was a well-located splitter in the bottom third of the zone. Due to its downward movement, and where Ramos caught it, this pitch looked lower live than it appears ont his graph (which shows where it crossed the front of the plate). Do you remember the last Ray who was able to pound the bottom of the strike zone with a splitter and then pitch off it, rather than simply trying to bury the splitter below the zone? You should. He was pretty good, and the Orioles just gave him a $50 million deal.
  3. Pitch three was supposed to be a sinker at the bottom of the zone running off the plate. Instead it was at the top of the zone. Holt took it, but it was a competitive pitch.
  4. Pitch four actually was where pitch three was supposed to be. It appeared like it might have been on the corner, but the armside movement took it away. Good pitch. Good take on Holt’s part.
  5. Pitch five was the jewel of the sequence, and the reason I’m writing about this plate appearance. After two sinkers running outside off the outside edge, Chirinos started this pitch in the same place, and Holt, having just seen two sinkers outside took it. But rather than a sinker it was a splitter. It fell instead of running, plopping near the bottom corner and being taken for a strike.
  6. Pitch six was a miss, and a bad one. Walk.

The end result was bad, but pitches two through five were very very good, and they gave a preview of how Yonny Chirinos will be able to work this year.

Perhaps the most common, most basic, and still most effective sequences in baseball is a mix of fastballs and sliders on the outside bottom corner to same-handed hitting. This is why LOOGYS have jobs. Fastball on the corner, slider off it. That sequence both diminishes a slugger’s power and threatens to strike him out.

Yonny Chirinos can do that to opposite-handed batters. In this sequence, his sinker, with all of that horizontal movement, looks and acts like a slider, and his splitter, with downward drop and no horizontal movement, looks and acts like a fastball. It’s pitching backward, but not in the way we usually use that term. It’s interesting, and I’m excited to see more of it.

Ninth inning against J.D. Martinez

Remember how I said that Chirinos’s slider didn’t look very good, but said that you should grab some salt? Now’s the time to use it. Either season your food or throw it over your shoulder. Your call.

  1. Slider whiffed at.
  2. Slider fouled.
  3. Slider taken for strike three.

Hmmmm.

Ninth inning against Xander Bogaerts:

  1. Slider whiffed at.
  2. Slider fouled.
  3. Slider taken for a ball.
  4. Slider taken for strike three.

Maybe the slider is better than it looks. Maybe Chirinos hides it well. Maybe it looks like a fastball. There are no interesting pitch interactions to note in these sequences—just a lot of sliders in a row that the Red Sox batters couldn’t really handle.

Conclusion

People haven’t generally called Yonny Chirinos a top prospect, but those who follow the Rays minor leagues closely are excited about him, and from one appearance I can see why. He has interesting stuff.

As with all pitchers who don’t overpower, what he does with that stuff will all come down to command, and in outing number one his command wasn’t good. But if he can harness it, and there’s reason to believe that he can, Chirinos will pick up believers, and fast.

His pitches are not the same as Alex Cobb’s, but I think Cobb is a useful role model for the young Chirinos to follow. Like Cobb, he has three pitches. Like Cobb, one of them is a splitter. Like Cobb, he will need to establish that splitter at the bottom of the zone and mix his other pitches off it. He will need to pitch in non-standard ways.

It’s not the easy way (being able to throw 98 mph with four secondary pitches is the “easy” way), but it is a way. Here’s looking forward to outing number two.