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Slippin’ Jimmy Yacabonis into the Bullpen

Rays taking another dice roll on a reliever passed over with explosive and exciting stuff

Pittsburgh Pirates v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Rays made a fairly quiet but extremely Rays-y move yesterday, claiming RHP Jimmy Yacabonis off waivers from the Miami Marlins.

Yacabonis has bounced around the league in his first 5 years in the majors. There’s good reasons for that. His stuff is incredible and eye-popping and every team is gonna believe “we can fix this”. He is available to be fixed because his command is still very poor and finds an awful lot of barrels.

The Slider-Sinker combo has worked well for Andrew Kittridge, who built himself into an All-Star closer. Yacabonis’ slider is a pitch he has been unable to command but could be a truly devastating weapon.

It’s not as good as Chaz Roe’s slider — nobody throws a slider as unique as Roe did — but it compares well in terms of well above average to elite levels of movement and spin.

Overall, his sinker pairs well, and Yacabonis has commanded it much better.

The slider comes in lower 80s, while his sinker is mid-90s heat, around 10-12 MPH difference and both with top tier horizontal break (just breaking in different directions). That pairing can be devastating since the batter has to make a choice in both speed and direction of two pitches coming out and going in two very different directions:

But wait, you’ve heard that story before. All Rays fans know that same paragraph. A reliever with a unique arm slot, pitch, spin, or all of the above who has struggled to find command yet gets dropped and the Rays take a free roll shot at helping them find their true potential.

Just this past offseason the Rays made an under-the-radar move picking up Jason Adam from the Cubs. Adam had huge K rates, but it came with bad command and massive walk rates. Rays saw the potential, they saw the ceiling, and Kyle Snyder and his pitching lab went to work with Adam to unlock what was always there: a potential elite relief ace. Jason Adam has been at an All-Star level of performance this year, and his command/walk rates have been easily the best of his young career.

To paraphrase Moneyball, if Yacabonis has all this great stuff to be a good pitcher, why doesn’t he pitch good?

Similar to Adam, it could be making some workable tweaks to his sequencing or mechanics. New philosophies and new plans can sometimes do wonders to unleash true potential. But what if I were to tell you the breakout might have already been happening well before the Rays do anything in the lab with him?

Yacabonis signed with the Marlins in the offseason, and started in Triple-A. He’s been putting together his best season yet, with a career-high 35% K rate. After being called up to the Marlins in June, those Ks continued at 33%, but something else was working: he stopped walking people.

First 7 appearances with the Marlins, Yacabonis went 7.1 IP 5 H 2 ER 2 BB 14 K (2.45 ERA 1.89 FIP). But on the year, Jimmy Yacabonis has a supremely gross 6.75 ERA and 5.69 FIP. Here’s where reliever small sample sizes cut both ways.

His season stats look terrible because his last two appearances were just awful for the Marlins: 2.0 IP 7 H 5 ER 3 BB 1 K. After those last two disastrous appearances, Yacabonis went on the IL with a groin strain. He then returned for a rehab assignment, pitched once, and got DFA’d. 5 days later here we are picked up by the Rays.

The Rays aren’t really taking much of a risk picking up Yacabonis. They had an open roster spot, and Yacabonis raw stuff and his 2022 makeup are painting a very tempting picture that there’s a whole other level that Jimmy could be reaching. He was added to the major league roster today, with the corresponding move being optioning Ralph Garza Jr.

There’s no guarantee this will work out and that Jimmy Yacabonis will become the next Chaz Roe, or Jason Adam, or Andrew Kittridge. Heck, there’s a chance he is here a blink of an eye and then gone just as quickly. That’s the volatile life of a major league reliever.

But the Rays know this game well. When you have the chance to take free rolls on potential jackpot bets, you take as many as you can and with the trade of Brett Phillips to the Orioles there was an open slot on the 40-man roster. The only way to find or develop the next Jason Adam or Andrew Kittridge is to try.

Jimmy Yacabonis has the skills and the stuff to be the game’s next great reliever. I’m excited to see that dice roll.