Ryan Yarbrough is continuously evolving.
Back during the 2018 season he improved the balance of his pitch mix by slowing down his slider, and getting it to sweep more, and now he’s adjusted that pitch mix again. He’s slowed his cutter down, increased its cut and drop, and he’s thrown it more often.
And it’s working.
On July 14, he was three outs away from partnering with Ryne Stanek for the first ever combined perfect game, and yesterday, he was pulled for a right-handed pitcher while one out away from a complete game shutout.
Yarbrough missed part of spring training because of a leg injury, and so arrived at the start of the season not fully stretched out. He struggled through April, with an ERA over 8, and bounced between Durham and Tampa Bay as the Rays tried to get him right and ready to shoulder a starter’s workload.
On May 23 he was promoted back to the big leagues, and he came back a different pitcher.
In the 16.2 innings before May 23, Yarbrough produced an 8.10 ERA, with a 4.77 FIP and a 4.69 xFIP. In the 73.1 innings since, he’s produced a 2.95 ERA with a 3.28 FIP and a 4.06 xFIP.
Here’s the breakdown of what he threw.
Ryan Yarbrough Pitch Mix
During the unsuccessful start of the 2019 season, Yarbough became four-seam fastball heavy, throwing significantly more than he had in 2018. But after returning from the minors, he reversed that, throwing less four-seamers than he ever had before. The slack was taken up by his changeup (with regard to the early part of the season, at least) and by his cutter.
What’s interesting, though, is that the 2019 cutter is different than the 2018 cutter. That’s most visible by looking at the pitch speeds.
Ryan Yarbrough Pitch Speed
The new cutter knocked about two miles per hour off the 2018 version. It’s also gained about two more inches of horizontal run to the gloveside, as compared to 2019.
If you paid attention to the tables above, you might also have noted that Yarbrough’s slider has slowed down even more, and has continued to do so over the course of the season. By doing so it’s actually picked up some more sweep as well, adding an extra inch of horizontal movement in the second half of the season.
A cutter in the mid 80s? A slider in the low 70s? Aren’t breaking balls usually better when they’re thrown hard, and have a lot of break relative to their speed? Can these really be major league pitches?
Well, yes, it seems like they are.
Yarbrough’s changeup, too, has dropped a marginal amount in speed from where it started, and that’s the key to how we should think about his two breaking pitches—they’re a change of pace, and ultimately, they are consistently increasing separation from his fastball.
He’s just going slower and slower, with all of his pitches at distinct speed points.
Yes, Ryan Yarbrough is throwing his fastball slightly less hard in 2018 than he did in 2019, but over the course of the season he’s managed to throw every one of his secondary pitches with greater velocity separation from his fastball overall than he’s been able to in the past.
Throwing a sub-90 mph fastball is a hard way to make a living in the major leagues, but Ryan Yarbrough makes up for it with his pinpoint command, and also, apparently, with a willingness to continually improve and evolve himself as a pitcher.
After early season struggles and a stint in Triple-A, Yarbrough has de-emphasized that fastball and leaned instead on a new, slower cutter, while continuing to slow his already-glacial slider even further.
With an increase in velocity separation from the fastball on all of his pitches, he’s been able to keep hitters off balance, and be the starting pitcher/bulk guy the Rays have needed, while the rest of their rotation suffered from a series of injuries.
Yarbrough is legit, and a becoming more so seemingly every day.