When the 2018 Rays lost — well, almost everybody — to some injury or another during camp, it seemed obvious that at least a couple fringe prospects might benefit. Of them, the biggest surprise might have been Yonny Chirinos.
Not a highly touted prospect, the Venezuela native climbed his way through the Rays system without an overpowering heater, surviving on command and guile, posting a K/9 rate that typically hovered around seven and a BB/9 rate he kept under two (sometimes way under). He relied on the natural cutting action of his fastball and sinker, and broke out a slider to righties that flashed good horizontal movement. The finishing touches came in 2017 where, under the tutelage of since-promoted Kyle Snyder in Durham, Chirinos added a splitter. It proved a nice complement to all his other cutting pitches, especially against lefties, and he leaned on it heavily during a breakout ‘17 season, throughout Spring Training 2018, and right onto the big league roster.
A Fast Start
After a successful (scoreless) April Fools Day debut in what would become known as the “bulk guy” role, Chirinos made a series of “bullpen day” starts, going much deeper into the game than most bullpen starters, often lasting into the sixth. By late April, Kevin Cash had seen enough good things to officially named Chirinos the club’s fourth starter.
Unfortunately, just two starts later, Chironos endured his worst outing of the season, going only two innings and giving up three runs on six hits, while striking out two and walking two. This bumped his once-sterling ERA up to 3.71, with a corresponding 3.80/4.43 FIP/xFIP. Even worse, he left that game with a forearm injury that would keep him out until July.
Under the Hood
Despite the flashy start, there were already some warning signs if you were paying attention. Sure, his K-rate was higher than ever (a still-modest 8.1 K/9), but his walk rate was up as well (3.04 BB/9). This was probably because most of his early success came outside the zone, and especially below it, as evidenced by an other-worldly O-Swing % that started around 42% before regressing slowly to around a league average level when he hit the DL. Basically, once hitters stopped routinely chasing bad pitches, the game got harder for Chirinos.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise, as it wasn’t like Chirinos was getting great depth on those pitches anyway. If anything, his best movement was still that horizontal, cutting action minor league scouts had told us to expect.
Now, that is some decent rise on the 4-seamer, which he doesn’t throw often (but maybe he should!). Other than that, you get some flatter, sweeping pitches likely to induce weak contact. Which is exactly who the scouts told us Yonny Chirinos was.
So April 2018 Yonny Chirinos is not who should expect this season. That was an anomaly. As further evidence, it also wasn’t what we saw when Chirinos came back in July.
Post-injury Yonny Chirinos was perfectly serviceable. No longer a starter on a much better Rays team, he worked 63 innings mostly “bulk guy” innings, posting a 3.43/3.38/3.87 ERA/FIP/xFIP. The strikeout rate was back down (to 7.29 K/9) but the walk rate was also back under control (at 2.29 BB/9). Post-injury Yonny was pretty much who you hoped you’d see in The Show if you watched him coming up through the system.
Late season Chirinos also cut back on throwing that new splitter. Whereas early season Yonny threw the split over 30 percent of the time to lefties, post-injury Yonny threw it under 20 percent of the time. Time will tell if that diminished usage lasts or not, or if maybe the injury is scaring him and the Rays staff away from his new toy.
We don’t have a ton of data from Chirinos’s injury-shortened rookie season, but there are two things about him of which we have a pretty good idea, and one we know without a doubt:
- He is probably not the guy who burst on the scene in April 2018.
- He is a guy that has a future as a big leaguer in some capacity.
- Most important of all, he is a guy with options. Both in the role he can fill, and minor league kind.
ZiPS and Steamer both project him to pitch to a 4.27 ERA and somewhere upwards of 100 innings, which sounds like “bulk guy” production.
Yonny Chirinos has a decent shot at making this team, mostly because he’s a pretty good pitcher who can wear a few different hats. He is definitely the kind of pitcher who can help a pretty good team win more games. If he’s on the Opening Day roster again, it will be because he’s earned it.
However, unlike, say, Wilmer Font, Chirinos also still has minor league options. We all know how much the Rays hate to simply cut talent. So if the final spot is close between Chirinos and Font, expect Font to get the nod, and Yonny to wait for his next opportunity in Durham.
But to those of you who bought Yonny shirsy last April, I offer one final bit of advice: have patience. He’ll be back soon enough.