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Is Ryan Yarbrough the new model for pitchers?

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Looking to see if inducing soft contact is indeed more important than ever in the Juiced Ball Era

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I have long been a Ryan Yarbrough skeptic. When he first arrived in the bigs (I’m less of a prospect hound than others, so this was basically my introduction to him), I saw a soft-tossing lefty with a pedestrian strikeout rate and good but not amazing groundball rate and thought This is a guy who will fool some batters for a couple months, but his long-term viability is highly questionable.

When he rode the bulk role to a top-five finish in the Rookie of the Year vote, again I noticed the 4.41 xFIP, the 12.4 percent K-BB rate, and the sub-90 mph fastball and said I don’t want that guy as a key cog of the 2019 rotation.

Well, look how that turned out. Yarbs was the Rays’ second-most valuable pitcher in 2019, tossing 141.2 essential innings, with an improved FIP, xFIP, and K-BB% (for those unfamiliar with this metric, here’s an explainer). He was worth 2.7 fWAR, and he did it despite seeing noticeable drops in velocity from his already speed-deprived pitching repertoire.

So how does he do it? Spoiler alert: Induce weak contact. Among all pitchers in baseball with at least 100 Statcast results in 2019, Yarbrough had the third lowest exit velocity. Bump that number up to even 250 (Yarbrough had 416), and he ranks first, which basically makes him the best starting pitcher at getting the batter to put the ball in play with little velocity. In fact, he allowed an exit velocity a full mph lower than any other qualified starter in baseball (Yarbs at 84.1; Kyle Hendricks at 85.2).

During a season in which baseballs flew out of baseball stadiums like Sammy Sosa pigeons, wouldn’t it make sense that the sultans of soft contact would excel?

Fortunately we have data that helps us test that hypothesis.

If we think this through, it would make sense to break the data into three buckets: 2019 (aka Super Juiced Ball), 2017-2018 (Juiced Ball), 2015 (only full season of data before the typically used mid-2016 date when the ball seemed to get a bit bouncier). Now let’s pause there for a second.

JT Morgan Mandated Caveats Section

There are caveats aplenty here:

  • Because MLB refuses to be 100 percent upfront about this whole ordeal (it’s almost as if they learned nothing from the PED Era), we don’t have perfectly precise data about when different batches of baseballs went out. We’re mostly working off other studies that seem to have found differences, but given the impact any sort of other factors (temperature, wind, elevation, etc.) can have, it remains a bit foggy.
  • There’s also the possibility of an overlap of the “old” baseballs with the “new” baseballs, taking each of those terms in quotations at their face value.
  • Finally, we’re dealing with comparatively small samples here. We have only one season of Super Juiced Ball, and because Statcast data before 2015 wasn’t fully functioning, we also have only one full season with the “old,” supposedly less-homer-friendly, baseball.

Results

So with those caveats in mind, let’s see what the numbers say. To set up this admittedly imperfect study, I compared each pitcher’s ERA rank (min. 400 Statcast “Results”) with his Average Exit Velocity rank from that same bucket (2019, 2017-2018, and 2015).

In theory, if home runs were flying out of stadiums more in 2019 than 2017-18 and more in 2017-18 than 2015, it would follow that it might be most beneficial to induce soft contact in 2019 and matter the least in 2015. In other words, when comparing the correlations between ERA and Exit Velo ranks, the hypothesis would be: 2019 > 2017-18 > 2015.

So, is that how it came out?

ERA-Exit Velocity rank correlations

Timeframe ERA-Exit Velo Correlation
Timeframe ERA-Exit Velo Correlation
2015 0.3272
2017-2018 0.5501
2019 0.4456

Well, it does seem that there is a noticeable jump from 2015 to the rest of the data (remember that mid-2016 is often thought to be when the change was made to the baseballs in use); however, 2019, the truly absurd Year of the Homer, sees less correlation than the previous two seasons of only somewhat crazy home run totals.

So where does that leave us? Probably in the safest zone, which is also the most boring zone, aka the Well, I’m Glad We Looked At That, But I’m Not Sure How Much It Tells Us zone.

It certainly pays to induce soft contact, that’s going to always be true. Whether or not it pays off more with the bouncy ball we call a baseball in 2019 is far more up for dispute.

What isn’t up for dispute is that Ryan Yarbrough is elite at limiting that hard contact. Earlier, it was noted that Yarbs had the lowest average exit velocity among starters in 2019. Add in 2018 (Yarbs’ other full season), keep the results minimum at 400 PA (for the two years combined), and Yarbrough remains at the top of his class, with an average exit velocity of 85.2, three-tenths of a mile per hour ahead of CC Sabathia in second.

There’s a big enough sample there to know that Yarbrough is elite when it comes to limiting velocity off the bat. Whether that specific skill set has more value than ever is still a TBD, but it will be an interesting topic to follow in 2020 when, once again, we get to see how the baseball is acting after a postseason in which the ball was, once again, a main topic of discussion.