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Ryan Yarbrough: King of the bulk guys

Yarbrough was a super-utility pitcher in 2018

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays famously (or infamously, depending on whom you ask) go into the 2019 season with only three traditional starters. Like they did so successfully in 2018, the team will continue the implementation of openers and bullpen days (no, they’re not the same thing). This time, though, a healthier, deeper and more experienced Rays team hopes to parlay the strategy into a playoff run.

But if the Rays do hope to make that playoff run happen, they’ll not only need innings from traditional starters Blake Snell, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow, they will also rely on quality innings from their non-traditional starters, affectionately now known as ‘bulk guys.’ While a number of guys are competing for one of a few available roles in camp as we speak, Ryan Yarbrough remains the headliner of this group, thanks to his breakout performance in ‘18.

For all intents and purposes, Yarbrough is the Rays 4th ‘starter.’

The Rays made history on May 19th when they started career late inning reliever Sergio Romo against the Anah — Los Angeles Angels. He struck out all three batters he faced and handed the ball to Yarbrough, who would then pitch 6.1 innings of 4 hit, 1 run ball en route to a 5-3 Rays victory. As with most things the Rays do, it was met by the baseball world with a unanimous warm embrace:

Even players around the league clamored for the next level thinking — here’s what Angels third baseman Zack Cozart had to say about it when the historic series came to an end:

“I don’t think that’s good for baseball, in my opinion. It’s definitely weird, not knowing who you’re going to face in your first couple of at-bats. … Usually, you have a starter and you think you’re going to have three at-bats probably. So, you’re going to use the first at-bat and you want to have success, see what he has if you haven’t faced him before, stuff like that.”

That is some pretty high praise.

But it turned out to be much more than an experiment. What many thought was a trick turned out of necessity was a calculated move, one that the Rays had been planning for. Once they stockpiled the right amount of major league caliber arms, they were ready to pull the trigger.

The Rays would go onto pioneer a movement, with the Athletics, Brewers, Rangers, even the Dodgers and Yankees (and others) following suit. The Rays, of course, would use an opener the most and, more often than not, that opener would be followed by Yarbrough.

Yarbrough looked to be on the outside looking in going into camp last year. While it’s unfair to insinuate that injuries were his only path to major league innings, it is fair to say that those injuries likely accelerated his major league career. When the likes of Brent Honeywell, Jose de Leon and Nathan Eovaldi all went down, it was Yarbrough who was on the 25 man roster on opening day.

And he made the best of his opportunity, turning in 147.1 quality innings of 106 ERA+ baseball, appearing in 38 games, including 6 starts (of the traditional variety). But can he repeat this level of success in 2019?

Looking at his WAR value is makes this tricky, since those systems see him as a reliever rather than what he actually is — a starter who pitches in relief. Since relievers generally have better metrics than starters (due to max efforts and shorter stints), Yarbrough’s overall numbers look rather unimpressive as a whole compared to the high bar set by his peers.

But compared to other starters, we can paint a somewhat clearer of what his actual value may be:

MLB starting pitchers with similar metrics as Ryan Yarbrough

Yarbrough 38 6 147.1 3.91 4.19 4.41 0.7
Kevin Gausman 31 31 183.3 3.92 4.32 4.19 2.3
Jake Arrieta 31 31 172.2 3.96 4.26 4.06 2.0
Sean Newcomb 30 30 163.1 3.96 4.13 4.33 1.9
Jose Urena 31 31 174.0 3.98 4.17 4.32 1.8
Jose Quintana 32 32 174.1 4.03 4.33 4.18 1.4

As this table illustrates, Yarbrough stacks up to many average (2.0 fWAR) major league starters in terms of run prevention and fielding independent pitching. While his body of work is a little smaller, he’s clearly dinged due to the lack of starts.

In the following table, we can see the difference between Yarbrough and starters who had the same ‘18 in fWAR, especially in terms of FIP, which is the basis of fWAR for pitchers. Again, because Yarbrough is technically a reliever, his value gets penalized, even though his metrics stand out a little more.

MLB starting pitchers with similar WAR as Ryan Yarbrough

Yarbrough 38 6 147.1 3.91 4.19 4.41 0.7
Julio Teheran 31 31 175.2 3.94 4.83 4.72 0.7
Clayton Richard 27 27 158.2 5.33 4.68 4.24 0.7
Carlos Rodon 20 20 120.2 4.18 4.95 5.40 0.7

As you can see, Yarbrough is clearly closer to the guys in the top table than he is to the bottom table.

WAR value aside, Yarbrough’s 2018 success was a product of his ability to limit hard contact. His 26.9% hard hit rate ranked 11th best in all of baseball (just ahead of A’s all-star closer Blake Treinen) and his average exit velocity, at 85.5 MPH, was tied for 24th best (with National League Cy Young Award winner Jacob DeGrom).

In order for him to repeat his success in ‘19, he’ll need to continue to induce soft contact. If he wants to improve, however, he’ll need to find a way to miss more bats, as his 20.4 K% and his 20.7 whiff% were below the league average. While he’s not going to do it by blowing guys away with his bottom of the league fastball velocity, there is hope here — he posted high strikeout rates in all levels of the minors, including a near 25% mark for Durham in 2017.

The projections don’t exactly believe in his progression, though, as Steamer predicts his ERA to inflate over a half a run.

Ryan Yarbrough Steamer Projections

Yarbrough 36 16 110.0 4.45 4.61 4.68 0.7

If Yarbrough can find continued success in ‘19, he will prove extremely valuable for the Rays. Even if the WAR numbers don’t necessarily show it, Ryan Yarbrough is a solid major league starter.