From a fan perspective Ryan Yarbrough was an afterthought, a secondary prospect received in the Drew Smyly trade with the Seattle Mariners.
Yarbrough grew up with the Tampa Bay Rays as his local club, being born in Lakeland and going to high school at All Saints Academy in Winter Haven. Despite a limited history the Rays have had some of the most electric left handed pitchers in all of baseball from Scott Kazmir, David Price, Matt Moore, to the present version in Blake Snell. Yarbrough has little in common with them.
Nevertheless, Yarbrough has gone from unheralded minor leaguer to a player throwing important innings for one of the best teams in baseball. He has done whatever is asked, whether it’s throwing one or two innings out of the bullpen, or being the bulk guy following the opener, or working as a traditional starter.
And now he’s atop the Rays rotation.
How does Yarbrough get it done?
Fastballs around the league keep getting faster, but Yarbrough gets by with a fastball that averaged only 88.51 mph in 2019. Even starting pitchers will typically have an offspeed pitch that is thrown that hard. He’s the embodiment of the crafty lefty.
By traditional metrics it’s hard to argue with the results.
Since his debut in 2018 Yarbrough has a 27-12 record with a 3.94 ERA in 294.1 innings. In a league with eye popping strikeout rates Yarbrough has posted solid even if unspectacular numbers with a 7.43 k/9 (20.8%) that is just below average, but has posted a sparkling 2.17 BB/9 (5.9%) that roughly 2% better than average.
Of pitchers who have thrown at least 200 innings since the beginning of 2018 Yarbrough leads the league in weakest average exit velocity allowed at 84.8 mph just ahead of CC Sabathia (85.2 mph) and Kyle Hendricks (85.2 mph).
At one time Sabathia was the flame thrower, but learned to live with much reduced stuff at the end of his career and still threw a tad over 90 mph with his fastball. He’s not the perfect comparison.
Hendricks likewise is different in that he has gotten it done as a right hander, averaging a tough under 88 mph with his fastball. That’s a bit tougher a row to hoe. And yet Hendricks has been one of the most effective pitchers in the league since 2015. He’s done it as a starter and getting roughly 3-4 more outs per outing than Yarbrough, but the way these two get the job done is close to identical.
Hendricks is now the No. 1 for the Cubs, ahead of Yu Darvish. Yarbrough is not about to receive such a crown with three Cy Young types around him in Charlie Morton (3rd in 2019), Blake Snell (2018’s winner), and Tyler Glasnow (1.27 ERA in 2019 prior to injury), but in 2020 he’s emerged as the most trustworthy arm.
Let’s not forget, Ryan Yarbrough saved the 2019 season
This might seem like hyperbole at first and it likely is to some degree, but when Tyler Glasnow went to the Injured List in May, Yarbrough was recalled and provided depth that was competent.
That might not seem like a high bar, but when you look around the league it’s rare that teams have five competent major league starting pitchers much less when injuries strike the rotation.
In 23 appearances after Glasnow went to the Injured List, you could argue that Yarbrough was the most important pitcher for the Rays outside of Charlie Morton. He threw 125.0 innings for an average of just over 5.0 innings per outing while putting up a 3.60 ERA/3.39 FIP/4.18 xFIP. That’s phenomenal for a call up.
In an alternate Rays timeline, or one that the Rays aren’t willing to be creative, Yarbrough doesn’t get the opportunity to show he can be a major league pitcher as early as he did, but pitchers get injured. It’s their thing.
Move forward to 2020, and everything Yarbrough did Saturday — on his way to 5.1 scoreless innings when many starters are providing two to four innings — is what he’s shown he’s capable of from the jump.
The Rays have placed Ryan Yarbrough in a position to succeed throughout his development, and now he’s not only reached a starter’s form, but maintained it in the age of COVID, a difficult time that for pitching that is derailing baseball’s best starters.
That’s a hell of an afterthought.