A Rays pitcher whose work is unremarkable in every way except the results

John Romano | Tampa Bay right-hander Yonny Chirinos is not an analytics darling, but the team seems to win when he’s on the mound.
In his first start since being recalled from Triple-A Durham, Rays righthander Yonny Chirinos threw 5-2/3 innings of one-run ball in a 4-2 victory against the Twins to complete a sweep on Thursday at Tropicana Field.
In his first start since being recalled from Triple-A Durham, Rays righthander Yonny Chirinos threw 5-2/3 innings of one-run ball in a 4-2 victory against the Twins to complete a sweep on Thursday at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published June 8|Updated June 9

ST. PETERSBURG — The radar gun is not impressed with Yonny Chirinos.

For that matter, neither are the advanced analytics. And the mathematical relationship between strike-throwing and success is positively aghast when confronted with the numbers Chirinos routinely posts.

But you know who does appreciate the Rays right-hander?

The people who understand just how hard it is to live on the edge in Major League Baseball with a fastball that tops out around 93 mph and off-speed pitches that wouldn’t necessarily receive high grades on scouting reports.

“If you look at it from two spectrums, you have guys with all power and no art, and then a guy like Yonny who brings some art to the table,” said Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder. “He allows an elite defense to play, he works quickly, he has a lot of those qualities that pitching coaches have appreciated for a long time.

“He has swing-and-miss ability at times, but it’s a different profile from (power pitchers). And it is something I appreciate; it can be nice to watch.”

If you want an example, look no further than Thursday afternoon’s game. Minnesota pitcher Bailey Ober looked impressive from the first inning. He got twice as many swings-and-misses as Chirinos, he struck out almost twice as many batters, and he gave up fewer hits.

And when it was over, Chirinos and the Rays had won the game, 4-2.

Chirinos, 29, doesn’t overwhelm hitters and doesn’t get them to chase many pitches, either. He just keeps them off-balance enough with an assortment of similar-looking pitches that leaves opponents muttering on the way back to the dugout.

The Twins put 18 balls in play against Chirinos in his five-plus innings on Thursday. Of those 18 batted balls, exactly half were classified as hard-hit (95 mph exit velocity or higher) and five were 100 mph or more. That’s what Snyder is talking about when he says Chirinos allows Tampa Bay’s elite defense to play.

“It’s a lot of late movement,” manager Kevin Cash said. “He’s really leaned hard on his slider lately, but generally speaking when he’s got the sinker going with that slider and the occasional split(finger), it’s a lot for a hitter to process. He’s got balls darting every which way at the bottom of the zone.”

As much as they respect what Chirinos can do, the Rays are not oblivious to his shortcomings. They sent him to Triple-A Durham on May 17, despite a 2-1 record and 2.79 ERA. Part of the reasoning is he was in the bottom one percentile of strikeouts in MLB, and his ratio of 21.8 percent of called/swinging strikes was 359th of 361 pitchers with at least 20 innings of work in 2023.

In other words, there was a good chance that his success was based, at least in part, on good fortune.

Snyder said he had spoken to Chirinos in the past about adding a four-seam fastball at the top of the zone to go with his assortment of sinkers and splitfinger fastballs. According to StatCast, he threw the four-seamer only four times among his 65 pitches on Thursday, but it helped to change the eye level of hitters and give them something extra to worry about.

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“He used his four-seam (Thursday) and threw his split off of that. It sort of creates a diamond in movement, and there’s an opportunity for him to create more swinging strikes with that,” Snyder said. “Maybe we can reduce a little of his margin for error, but it’s still going to be an action game with him.”

With Josh Fleming on the injured list with elbow inflammation, it appears as if Chirinos has a chance to stick around in the Rays’ rotation for a while. Whether that means starting, like he did against the Twins, or pitching in a bulk role behind an opener is still to be determined.

Chirinos, who went more than two years without an MLB appearance after having Tommy John surgery in 2020 and later fracturing his elbow during rehab, would seem to have an opportunity to establish himself again in Tampa Bay’s rotation, since Fleming had only come out of the bullpen after Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs went down with injuries.

“I try not to think about that,” Chirinos said through team interpreter Manny Navarro. “I just try to go out there and compete and give 100 percent. The game is going to dictate how long I’m going to be here.”

For the record, Chirinos lowered his 2023 ERA to 2.60 on Thursday. With 31 starts and more than 275 innings in the big leagues, he has an 18-11 record and a 3.42 career ERA. That’s a better winning percentage than Blake Snell had with the Rays. It’s a better ERA than Chris Archer and Alex Cobb.

Not bad for an unremarkable pitcher.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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