This year the Tampa Bay Rays have turned the traditional idea of how a pitching staff is used on it’s head. The Rays have used starters like Blake Snell, Chris Archer, Nathan Eovaldi, and Tyler Glasnow in standard roles; however, they have also started Ryne Stanek, Sergio Romo, Hunter Wood and others whose usage would make you think they were relievers if they didn’t throw the first pitch for their team.
Sergio Romo put The Opener on the national stage with two consecutive starts against the Los Angeles Angels in May, and the Rays haven’t looked back since. Success on nights where a reliever begins the game are mixed, but for the games the Rays do win, much of the success sits on largely anonymous shoulders.
Ryan Yarbrough’s Bulk
Ryan Yarbrough is the unknown face of the “bulk guy.”
Bulk guy is the term that Yarbrough has promoted in describing the role he’s typically been used. He’s asked to throw the most innings of a pitcher that day and usually though not always is the second pitcher to come into the game.
The lefty is one of 123 pitchers who has thrown at least 100 innings this season. Yarbrough’s 129.2 innings pitched is 82nd most in the majors. If by any number besides games in which he threw the first pitch for his team he would be thought of as a starting pitcher.
In that role, entering the game once the opposition’s best hitters have been thwarted by a non-traditional look (such as high heat or wipe out sliders that mess with the hitter’s eye), Yarbrough has been largely successful for a rookie, regardless of role. His 102 FIP- is tied with the Detroit Tigers’ Michael Fulmer and the Seattle Mariners’ Wade LeBlanc.
Wade LeBlanc has put up a 4.24 FIP and 1.5 fWAR in 141.2 innings.
Michael Fulmer has put up a 4.38 FIP and 1.5 fWAR in 126.0 innings.
Ryan Yarbrough has pitched 129.2 innings with a 4.16 FIP, but ranks 17th to last of the 123 pitchers with 100 or more innings with 0.7 fWAR.
So why is Yarbrough’s fWAR so different?
WAR is a counting stat. LeBlanc has 12.0 more innings. Fulmer has 3.2 fewer innings. A 10% increase for LeBlanc could be explained by volume, but that’s not enough.
The closest pitcher most similar in fWAR and innings pitched belongs to the New York Met’s Steven Matz. Mats has put up an identical 0.7 fWAR, but has a 4.60 FIP (115 FIP-) in 128.2 innings pitched. One less inning pitched, but 13% worse by park adjusted FIP.
To figure out this problem, first one has to get past the numbers shown at Fangraphs.
The FIP shown isn’t the FIP that is used to calculate their brand of WAR. One has to add infield fly balls and the home park’s FIP park factor to reach the right calculation. After factoring in the 21 infield flyballs that Yarbrough has induced improves his 102 FIP- to 99 ifFIP- (in other words, he has been 0.8% better than the average American League pitcher).
It all comes down to replacement level. The other pitchers discussed have been used a starter outside of LeBlanc getting five appearances out of the bullpen, but replacement level is different for starting pitchers and relievers. Overall this makes sense as MLB starters have put up a 4.21 FIP and 101 FIP- while relievers have put up a 4.05 FIP and 98 FIP-.
However in the calculation of fWAR the replacement level for starters is 0.12 WPGAR (Wins Per Game Above Replacement Level) while being worth .03 WPGAR for relievers.
This greatly impacts Yarbrough’s fWAR calculation.
The American League run scoring environment is at 9.87 runs per game. The difference in replacement level is 1.1844 runs per nine innings for a starting pitcher, while a reliever’s replacement level is 0.2961 runs per nine innings. A pitcher who throws the first pitch of a game gets credit for a 0.8883 runs per nine innings thrown.
If Yarbrough threw the first pitch for all 33 of his appearances he would be worth 1.75 fWAR this season instead of the 0.7 he has been credited with. If all 33 appearances were out of the bullpen he would have put up a 0.53 fWAR. It’s cumbersome math.
There is room for debate about how much credit Yarbrough should get for being protected from the third time through the order penalty and not having to face the top of the lineup when he does. Just under four innings per appearance is much closer to starter than reliever in the current day.
Meanwhile, Ryne Stanek (the usual Opener ahead of Yarbrough) shouldn’t be the one benefiting from the starter’s replacement level that sees him credited with 0.8 fWAR with a 3.27 FIP (80 FIP-) over 34.2 innings pitched as a starter.
What does this mean for how Yarbrough is paid?
This is a unique situation that looks like it could spread across the league on some level. Since WAR is a statistic that can be used in arbitration hearing it’s important that the level of credit is given to the right player.
Additionally, there’s an added complication for player arbitration cases. One of the key concerns about The Opener strategy has been how it will impact player arbitration cases a few years from now.
In arbitration, both the team and the player’s agent will make arguments based on player comps and statistics. “Pitchers typically are evaluated using innings pitched and earned run average. Starting pitchers are rewarded for wins, and relievers are rewarded for saves and holds,” according to Matt Swartz’s arbitration model; however, according to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, any publicly available stats can be used in arbitration hearings. Without comps for this kind of pitching role, the importance of all statistics is elevated. This includes all styles of WAR that are publicly available, and in particular fWAR.
Unfortunately for Yarbrough, Stanek and their ilk, fWAR is currently a meaningless stat so long as they participate in The Opener strategy.
This is the tiniest of concerns in the grand scheme of things, as both Yarbrough and Stanek have likely performed better overall in their invented roles than they might have otherwise, with Yarbrough in particular being credited with Wins more often than a rookie with his number of innings pitched might.
Yarbrough should get paid more when all is said and done because Wins have a precedent in arbitration hearings, where WAR typically does not. But should non-traditional statistics come up in his non-traditional arbitration hearing, fWAR is not worthwhile to discuss until it is otherwise fixed.
Ryan Yarbrough’s season has been quite good for a non-heralded prospect. Some of his production can be attributed to giving him the best opportunity to succeed.
Yarbrough isn’t your typical starter, and he isn’t your typical reliever. He’s somewhere in between, but it’s much closer to starter than reliever and fWAR should give him more credit than he has received.