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Is Ryan Yarbrough a starting pitcher yet?

It’s time for another Rays Roundtable.

Tampa Bay Rays v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Yesterday, Ryan Yarbrough went above and beyond the call of duty: 8.2 IP with 0 BB and 0 ER, with only three hits allowed on 99 pitches.

Then Rays manager Kevin Cash did the unthinkable... and pulled his starter one out away from a complete game shut out, robbing the sophomore “reliever / bulk guy” from achieving a relatively rare feat: the complete game shutout.

The Rays have not had a pitcher throw a shutout since Matt Andriese (!) shutout the Athletics on May 14, 2016. Last season no pitcher had more than one CGSO in baseball, but eighteen had one. This year twenty pitchers have one shutout (Cleveland’s Shane Bieber has two).

Many might dwell on Cash’s decision and whether it was right to pull Yarbrough today, but instead I think we need to focus on the more important thing: Ryan Yarbrough the pitcher.

It’s time for another roundtable!

Is Ryan Yarbrough ready to take on a traditional starting pitcher role for the Rays?

JT Morgan: Yes, for now.

Ryan Yarbrough has proven that he is a MLB quality arm that can get outs 2+ times through the order; however, how the Rays should use him is a completely different question. That all depends on the roster surrounding him.

With the injured list filled up with starters he likely should be used as a starter until the situation changes. If the roster was at full strength he’s the sixth best option behind Snell, Morton, Glasnow, McKay, and Chirinos.

In Yarbrough’s short career he has been significantly better the first two times through the order with a .287 wOBA allowed and 3.74 FIP/4.25 xFIP. Third plus time through the order that has jumped to a .346 wOBA allowed and 5.25 FIP/4.78 xFIP.

When the roster and situation allows you should look to limit Yarbrough’s exposure a third time through the lineup. This is where putting him behind an opener has a real effect, where you can have him face weaker batters a third time through and get to 20-24 batters before having to face a teams better bats a third time. It will also get you later into the game when a decision looks clearer.

Danny Russell: Yes, without a doubt.

To be honest, I’m tired of going down this road. Matt Andriese and Jake Faria had their workloads played with until they became ineffective. Ryan Yarbrough is a once-every-five, dependable arm capable of throwing 100-pitches.

He was solid following The Opener and happy to play the part when the Rays were forced via injury to promote him before it would have been required, but I believe he’s shown he doesn’t need protecting anymore.

That doesn’t mean the Rays won’t try it again, the Yankees and Red Sox offenses are potent and right handed enough, and Yarbrough comfortable enough, that he may come out of the bullpen again — but the Rays don’t need to anymore if, say, the bullpen is taxed like it was entering this series.

But if it’s a more left handed lineup like the Dodgers? Let ‘em eat. Yarbrough is a starter.

Ian Malinowski: Yes, for now.

Last night, I sat down to write about how Ryan Yarbrough is good. I was going to say that he should be recognized around the league as a legitimate “starting pitcher” whether or not he always pitches the first inning of games. That coming in after an opener in no way cheapens his accomplishment. Rays fans already know this. He’s been good, and consistently good for the better part of two seasons now.

But while checking my facts on his consistency, I noticed something Rays fans may not already know, which is that Ryan Yarbrough is continuously evolving.

Ryan Yarbrough has proven himself as a capable starting pitcher on the best run prevention unit in baseball. That’s obvious. But if the question is about whether he deserves to stop pitching behind an opener, and consistently take the first inning himself, then all I can say is that I think that’s the wrong question.

Inherent in that question is an implication that a bulk guy (or the less used but more elegant term “headliner”) is somehow less than a traditional starter. That’s hogwash, arising from lazy analysis. A starter is someone who pitches every five days and is good enough to work deep into games, turning a lineup over multiple times. Ryan Yarbrough does that. He’s a starter RIGHT NOW (and should be acclaimed and paid as one).

There’s a less charged form of the question that’s about the details of splits, and matchups, and rotation quality, and bullpen load.

The purpose of the opener strategy is to gain the upper hand in the first inning matchups (where the matchup advantage is usually tilted toward the hitting team), and to then maintain that advantage for later in the game, so that as the lineup turns over each time, the headliner doesn’t immediately have to face the best hitters.

The strategy works when:

  1. There are enough quality bullpen arms to use a good reliever in the first game and still have good relievers ready for high leverage later.
  2. The opener is a better matchup for the top of the opposing order (due to either handedness or max-effort velocity) than the headliner.

In reality, it’s only really advisable to use an opener two times in five days, especially if you want the opener to pitch multiple innings, as Andrew Kittredge is capable of doing. The Rays could do it more often if they limited openers to one inning, but then they’re leaving innings on the table, and that’s not something they can afford right now.

So is Ryan Yarbrough a better bulk guy than Jalen Beeks and Austin Pruitt? Yup! With those two penciled in the “rotation” Yarbrough should start right now.

Is he a good matchup against lefty-heavy tops of lineups like he faced yesterday? Absolutely! Give him the first.

Should Yarbrough start every game, regardless of matchup, because he’s pitched so well of late? Pump those breaks.

Even good pitchers benefit from managers who think about their matchups.

Ashley MacLennan: Yes, I absolutely believe Yarbrough has proven he can be a starting pitcher.

He can carry the innings, and this weekend he definitely showed us that he can go deep into a game. Whether or not Yarbrough is the kind of pitcher who is meant to be a long-term starter, that I can’t say. He does have a solid mix of different pitches, which he uses with enough variety that he could keep batters on their toes late into games. I just have to wonder if someone who has long been considered a reliever or a bulk innings guy is also someone that the Rays specifically are likely to lean on as a starter.

Of course, right now they don’t have much choice but to try new and different things, and I think at least in the short term they’d be wise to consider using Yarbrough in a more traditional starter role. He’s proven he can be both, so why not use him as he’s needed?

Brian Menendez: Yes, he’s a starter.

I think we’ve all known for a while now that Yarbrough is a major league starter.

Where the optics get skewed is that, in a vacuum, he’s anywhere from the 6th to 8th best starter on the 40 man roster, but we know things don’t always work in said vacuum. Right now, he’s probably the 3rd or 4th best (depending on how you feel about McKay), and even in that role, he’s still better than what a lot of MLB teams are running out.

As a fan, manager or executive, you have to enjoy having the depth that allows a pitcher of his quality to have such a fluid role. Objectively, Yarbrough is a quality MLB starter both now and later. Even if his usage depends on however many better options the Rays have at any given moment.

Scott Grauer: I think so.

As Ian pointed out, one of the reasons an opener is used is to win a handedness matchup against the top of the opposing order. Last season, Yarbrough had a noticeable platoon split (.757 OPS against righties, .649 OPS against lefties) that isn’t present this season. If he’s made changes to fare better against right-handed hitters, then he should get a chance to face those righties in the first inning.

But as several others have touched on, context specifically to the Rays may change the answer. Assuming full health, he may not be one of the top five starter options for the team. At the moment, though, he is one of their best options to pitch deep into games, and the openers could probably be saved for other bulk pitchers.

Darby Robinson: The question about whether Yarbrough is or can be a traditional starting pitcher is fairly easy for me to answer: YES!

When I look around the league, there are many teams who would be like a thirsty man in the desert and Yarbrough is a giant glass of Perrier for their rotation. In his brief but impactful Rays career, Yarby has done everything asked of him with the same calm, even-keeled manner. He’s performed well out of the bullpen, he’s been the preeminent Bulk-Guy, and he’s done well as a traditional starter. The question isn’t can Yarbrough be a starter, it’s whether that’s the best role for him on this team at this time.

For now, with injuries to other traditional starters Blake Snell, Yonny Chirinos, and Tyler Glasnow, the Rays need somebody to step up in the rotation and give that bullpen some rest.

Over his last 6 appearances, Yarbrough has made 2 traditional starts and 4 Bulk “starts” with the line of: 35.1 IP, 21 H, 2 BB, 31 K, 1.78 ERA and 2.73 FIP.

The key to being a good traditional starter is trust in being able to turn that lineup over a 3rd time. For Yarbrough’s career, his wOBA against each time through the order:


1st - .268
2nd - .266
3rd - 2.60

Bulk Guy

1st - .273
2nd - .314
3rd - .375

A lot of small samples play into this, so the numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Overall, though, they showcase a pitcher who can turn a lineup over 2x and has also earned the trust of the team to get the ball against opposing lineups a 3rd time as well.

However, I do not believe in closing doors to strategies, and if there is a particularly tough match-up, utilizing the Opener strategy to help put the Rays in the best possible place to win the game, the Rays should take it.

In Seattle, Kevin Cash decided against using any Openers, and he did so to manage the bullpen more efficiently. Seeing which bullpen arms are needed each day, trying to stretch and get more innings from the “starter”. This was a good opportunity, especially against a team with a less than intimidating batting order. As the season goes on, when much tougher lineups are faced, utilizing the Opener again with Yarbrough could be the best call, and I am behind that.

Until then, Ryan Yarbrough is a starting pitcher. He’s a good starting pitcher. He’s been a starting pitcher, even when he toes the rubber for the first time in the 2nd or 3rd inning. I believe he can and should be a person who steps up into the more traditional role while the Rays rotation is at its most depleted.