PORT CHARLOTTE — Maybe this is his time. Maybe, after all the years, innings, and games when someone started ahead of him, this is the moment that the world begins to appreciate Ryan Yarbrough.
Oh, we’ve occasionally called his name. We’ve cheered at the end of outings and we’ve noted the dependability. But have we really appreciated all that Yarbrough has done the past three seasons?
For instance, he’s thrown more innings than any Tampa Bay pitcher since 2018. And that’s not just because he was healthy. He averaged more innings per start than the guy who won a Cy Young (Blake Snell), the guy who made an All-Star team (Charlie Morton) and the guy who started Game 1 of a World Series (Tyler Glasnow).
His career winning percentage (.636) is a tick above David Price as the highest in Rays history for pitchers with at least 40 decisions.
And — if you’re still not convinced — Statcast says Yarbrough has consistently induced weaker contact than every single pitcher with at least 300 innings pitched since 2018. Every. Single. Pitcher.
All this for a guy whose average fastball was 87.4 mph last season.
“I love what Yarbs does. It’s way harder to go out there and have the confidence that he has in his stuff when you only throw 88-89-90,” said Rays pitcher Chris Archer. “But he has just as much confidence, if not more, than anybody. You love to see him out there on the mound just fighting.”
The Statcast numbers are intriguing and require a little more explanation. While he has the lowest percentage of hard-hit balls (26.3 percent) and the lowest exit velocity (84.9 mph) of MLB starters since 2018, that doesn’t necessarily mean Yarbrough is a dominant pitcher. He strikes out fewer batters than other Rays starters, which means more balls are put in play, which means more hits and, ultimately, more runs.
In some ways, that’s the beauty of Yarbrough’s success. He’s not blowing hitters away, so he’s learned to keep them off balance. Location is critical because any Yarbrough pitch that is center-cut is more likely to get crushed than a similar-located pitch from Glasnow at 98 mph.
And yet his career ERA (3.94) is nearly 10 percent better than the average MLB pitcher in that span.
“It’s just a product of how I attack hitters with the cutters up and in, changeups, mixing up speeds,” Yarbrough explained. “Doing things where guys just can’t get comfortable in there and have to take awkward swings. Just attacking guys to where they have to defend themselves at the plate. The weak contact isn’t something I’m out there searching for, it just happens when I execute my game plan.”
Just to be clear, it’s not like Yarbrough, 29, is reinventing pitching. Left-handers who get away with less velocity and more movement have been in the game forever. He’s been doing this since he was in high school at All Saints Academy in Winter Haven and his lack of velocity kept him from being drafted or even getting Division I offers. He ended up going to Santa Fe College in Gainesville before transferring to Old Dominion.
Along the way, Yarborough has followed guys like former pitcher Mark Buehrle and current White Sox lefty Dallas Keuchel to better understand how to set up hitters. And he spent time with Morton the past two seasons, watching how he prepared between starts.
Yarbrough is one of maybe a dozen pitchers in the game who uses four pitches consistently, instead of relying on three or even two. As a rookie, he threw his fastball about 32 percent of the time but, by last year, was down to 23 percent.
“He’s probably the biggest outlier of the whole pitching staff when you look at the difference of arm angles or stuff,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “He just has such a great idea of what he wants to do, he has a knack for missing barrels, whether it’s off the end or running in on guys’ hands.”
The Rays thought enough of Yarbrough’s potential to acquire him from the Mariners in the Drew Smyly trade in 2017 and helped his development by carefully monitoring his usage. He was one of the original bulk pitchers in 2018 — he usually benefitted from following a high-velocity guy after the first two innings — and he’s faced the Orioles twice as much as the Yankees in his career.
But the Rays have gradually relied on him more and more, using him as a conventional starter in 18 of his last 20 appearances. Now, with Morton and Snell gone, Yarbrough’s reliability could be in even greater demand.
“It’s amazing how there’s just not a ton of hard-hit balls,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Everything just gets off the barrel, cuts in, slips away, whatever it is. He’s just really talented.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.