Keeping it in The Yarb - A Deep Dive on Ryan Yarbrough
Stock photo courtesy of Brian Blanco/Getty Images North America
I officially have the itch. I couldn’t bear existing through another week of 2020 without writing about baseball. It has been too long, so I decided to spend this weekend with my head buried in sabermetrics. This Deep Dive may be of a slightly different feel, but is just as comprehensive as my debut article, in which I analyzed the potential for Pablo Lopez to have a breakout season in 2020.
My Deep Dives are not written to try and persuade you into buying or not buying a particular player at their various ADP's, but rather to acknowledge and effectively bring to light what I perceive as important data regarding a player's performance profile to allow Fantasy Baseball managers make their own decisions on a particular player. Nevertheless, this article should provide an intriguing and insightful gaze into the depths of what is Ryan Yarbrough, or as I have come to nickname him – The Suppressor.
Let’s break ground.
In 2018, Yarbrough had a very strong rookie campaign, in which all signs pointed toward an immediate statistical breakout at the highest level of professional baseball. Across 147.1 IP, he posted a 3.91 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 12.4% K-BB%, 128 K, 4.19 FIP, 4.12 SIERA, and 16 W. Not the shiniest of breakouts, somewhat lacking the gaudy strikeout upside that a lot of younger talents possess throughout the league, but nevertheless a breakthrough in pitching etiquette and devious intelligence. He developed a particular persona on the mound, fully embodied it, and utilized his craftiness to post above-league-average metrics, despite being well below-league-average in pitch velocities.
Fast forward to 2019, and Yarbrough managed to achieve a strikingly similar level of performance to the likes of his 2018 season, while substantially improving upon himself as a pitcher. He threw six less innings (141.1 IP), likely at the mercy of Tampa Bay’s inconsistent implementation strategies for their pitchers, but was persistently able to post an impressive sophomore line of a 4.13 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 17.2% K-BB%, 117 K, 3.55 FIP, 4.11 SIERA, and 11 W. As can be seen in the table below, one major positive to take away from 2019 was his reduction in FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. Despite a microscopic increase in ERA, the peripheral improvements that he made as a pitcher are what matter most in his development.
We must remind ourselves that player development is not always linear, so when a pitcher makes significant strides year-to-year – that is something special that not every professional baseball player can achieve. Just for kicks, I threw in his BaseballSavant "Statcast Sliders" profile.
Within his first two seasons pitching in the big leagues, Yarbs has already proven to be exceptional at limiting hard contact. The Suppressor has finished in the Top-1% of the league for Exit Velocity (EV), and in the Top-4% in Hard Hit% over the past season, which proves to me that he already has an advanced understanding of how to utilize his unique arsenal to get hitters out.
Yarbrough has been able to achieve all of this while maintaining a league-average Barrel% rate of 7.0%. The even better news is that barrel rate comes with an xBarrel% of 5.8%, providing even more evidence that he outperformed what a lot of his surface stats would seemingly suggest.
He had a Zone% of 42.7%, so I if that can be lowered then I believe he will find even more success limiting quality of contact. Let’s take a deeper dive into the underlying factors that have contributed to Ryan Yarbrough’s continued success as a left-handed pitcher in the AL East. Here's a good comp that I am sure some individuals are going to enjoy.
For Ryan Yarbrough, the end result of 2019 was a 4.13 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 3.55 FIP, 4.11 SIERA, and a 17.2% K-BB%. There were two months that effectively “ballooned” his ERA to 4.13. Those months were April (8.10 ERA) and September (7.52 ERA). In April, Yarbrough really only got hurt by Brandon Belt and Steven Duggar of the Giants (4 ER), as well as by Adalberto Mondesi and Billy Hamilton of the Royals (7 ER). In September, he was really only hurt by Hanser Alberto of the Orioles (7 ER), J.D. Martinez of the Red Sox (6 ER), and Albert Pujols of the Angels (6 ER). The Suppressor experienced 5 of the 8 total starts in which he gave up 4+ ER during the first and last months of the season. The remaining 3 starts were against the Twins, Angels, and Red Sox respectively. Take it for what it is worth.
Home / Away
On the surface, Yarbrough has performed significantly better away from Tropicana Field, given that there is a slight innings pitched bias toward Away appearances by 26.8 IP. That worm-burnin’ turf is one of the first things that comes to mind. In Home appearances at Tropicana, he accrued a 5.46 ERA in contrast to a 3.21 ERA on the road. This comes down to him walking a couple more batters at home (11), compiling fewer strikeouts (49), which ultimately led to a higher WHIP (1.25) and number of ER that cross the plate when the damage occurred. In contrast, when Yarbrough pitched on the road, he limited base runners with fewer walks (9) and more strikeouts (68), which resulted in a much lower WHIP of 0.82. Splits will be splits, but they do usually assist in telling at least a minor fraction of his overall story.
Oddly enough, there was a 72.8 IP margin between LHB and RHB faced, heavily favoring right-handed at-bats (107:34.2 IP). I guess this isn’t that odd, considering the fact that approximately 10% of humans are left-handed, but this is still a very wide range in IP to try and accurately compare performance against each type of batter.
So, we can engage with these splits, but have to be careful not to overindulge in their substance quite yet. Yarbrough found greater success pitching against RHB’s (4.04 ERA) than versus LHB’s (4.41 ERA) in 2019. The main take away from this section is the rate at which he walked LHB’s per inning pitched, which was 0.26 BB/IP in contrast to 0.10 BB/IP to RHB’s. The increased walk rate to LHB’s most likely accounted for a lot of the extra damage that occurred on the base paths during these at-bats.
Improvements on Command
Reducing Free Passes
Arguably the most significant stride that Yarbrough made in 2019 was improving his overall command, as this led to an inherent decrease in the number of walks he issued in contrast to previous seasons. He walked 30 less batters, bringing his BB/9 down from 3.05 in ’18, to 1.27 in ’19. This binned him into the 98th percentile for BB% among pitchers throughout the MLB. Walks absolutely kill pitchers. The man is helping himself by focusing on controlling what he can control.
Anytime a pitcher reduces their walk rate by over one-half throughout one season, they have my undivided attention. In congruence with his increased ability to limit the number of free passes issued to first base, Yarbrough was able to decrease his WHIP from 1.29 to an elite mark of 1.00 in 2019, beneficial to you regardless of league type.
Given his above-average ability to limit the number of batters who reached first base, it can be observed that a significant reduction in his strand rate has occurred, falling from 74.1% down to 62.8% – but not because he is giving up more hits that clear the bases before the inning ends, but because he did an exceptional job at limiting the amount of opportunities for a hitter to reach base via the free pass.
Having played baseball for the majority of my lifetime, I can confidently say that the two most adverse actions that can indirectly derail the result of any pitching performance in any baseball game are 1) issuing walks and 2) suffering defensive errors (though out of the pitcher's control). The former being a plate appearance (PA) result that is entirely controllable by the pitcher himself – thus the stellar leap in pitching performance for Ryan Yarbrough.
With a reduction in Yarbrough’s walk rate came considerable growth in his ability to limit the amount of batters reaching base by any means, which can be observed by the decline in his xwOBA (.316 -> .293) and xwOBAcon (.362 -> .349) metrics. As he continues to improve at limiting the quality and hardness of contact, we should see these expected stats drop even further – that is if he can more or less repeat what he did last season and accrue even less walks. Minimizing walks obviously leads to less runners on base, which leads to less overall damage when damage is done, theoretically resulting in lowered FIP, xFIP, and SIERA.
Plate Discipline Improvements
Consequently, Yarbs was able to tidy up those K-BB% (12.4 -> 17.2%) and K/9 (2.56 -> 5.85) rates to look more appealing for some strikeout upside. If you check out the table below, it is very apparent that he also made strides in his plate discipline profile, which underlyingly supports the direct increases in K-BB% and K/9.
It is also worth noting that Yarbrough superseded the league-average Edge% (39%) by a wide margin, posting a 44.3% rate. I am a very large proponent of a pitcher’s ability to command their pitches in the shadow zone, as objective success is derived from still throwing a lot of strikes, but not over the heart of the plate. Take a look at the “Swing Take Profile” for Yarbrough, as it confirms that he is working predominantly within the shadow zone over 43% of the time. Much less damage is accrued when you live on the edge.
Before we dive into Yarbrough’s arsenal, there is one more point I would like to address regarding his increased ability to gain swings and misses on pitches thrown within the zone (Z-Swing-Miss%). This idea stems from preliminary research I have conducted an attempt to identify which performance metrics have the greatest effect on the outcome of a pitcher’s xBA. My research has found a direct linear correlation (r2 = 0.35 for ’19, r2 = 0.40 for ’18, r2 = 0.43 for ‘17) between Z-Swing-Miss% and xBA (Min. 75 PA). I included the plot for 2019 below. It is important to remember these results are preliminary.
Therefore, if a pitcher increases their ability to induce swings and misses on pitches thrown in the zone, then that pitcher could likely experience positive regression in their xBA. Yarbrough increased his Z-Swing-Miss% from 14.8% to 17.4% but saw his xBA actually increase from .253 to .258. Since this relationship isn’t overwhelmingly strong, I can see how a tiny negative shift in xBA (+0.05) could occur given the intrinsic complexity of baseball.
So, if The Suppressor can maintain or increase the number of swings and misses he receives on pitches thrown in the zone, I can hypothesize that we will see a resulting decrease in his xBA (and all that comes with it). Not going to go deep into the weeds here, there will be another article to address this research. Purely experimental at this point.
Arsenal - Pitch by Pitch
It always is an encouraging sign to see a pitcher fail to fall into contentment with the successes that they have rendered from the current state of their arsenal. The moment that a pitcher becomes complacent about the effectiveness of his pitches and the architecture of his mix, is usually about the same moment that hitters begin to figure out their every move. Without any doubt, the essential deprecation of an ugly four-seam from his arsenal was one of the more intelligent executive decisions he has made, as
He most likely realized that he could just throw the same exact pitch on a slightly tilted axis to both achieve near-maximum velocity and some vertical movement, though horizontal movement needs to be improved upon. Yarbrough made a conscious effort to adjust the pitch frequencies within his mix to accommodate various types of hitters, as this can be supported by a monumental shift in his primary offering – evolving from sinker to cutter.
In doing so, Yarbrough was able to mold his cutter to not only become one that possesses above-average vertical movement (+6.0%), but to also be a primary pitch thrown 36.7% of the time in place of a straight and narrow four-seam. This bump in usage (+7.8%) alone led to significant improvement for his cutter, rising from a 5.8 to a respectable 10.9 pVAL.
Unfortunately, his cutter has had far-below-average horizontal movement (-34.0%) and has been poorly located, but on the flip side, I am a very firm believer in the Rays pitching development staff to identify these weaknesses and make the necessary adjustments where necessary. Axis and spin efficiency adjustments are very attainable with the advanced technology that exists today. It is also safe to say that he is throwing this pitch in the zone way too often, as a 54.5% Zone% indicates a nagging lack of command of this pitch which can be clearly seen in the texture map below.
Yarbrough will have to improve on edging this pitch within the shadow zone, both front-and-back-dooring it while staying away from the heart of the plate. On the bright side, he did have a 17.6% called strike rate with the cutter, which beautifully aligns with his apparent plan to attack the zone early (65.5% F-Strike%) and often.
Maybe just not quite as often. Even with a poor movement profile and Zone%, Yarbrough was still able to hold batters to a .246 xBA, .377 xSLG, .267 xwOBA, .329 xwOBAcon, and a 46.7% contact rate with his cutter. If he can learn to edge this pitch around the edges of the zone in 2020, The Suppressor will be even better than ever. Watch him freeze one of the best power hitters in the game. (GIFs on Mobile Device - You can use fingers to center the video!)
This is Yarbrough’s golden pitch. The slightest tick in usage (+0.6%) to 25.6% didn’t necessarily account for the admirable success that his changeup experienced in 2019, as it should be predominantly attributed to the efforts that he made to increase his command of this pitch, primarily when he was ahead in the count. Offseason work, plus Rays pitching development, equals strides like this one. Yarbrough managed to effectively locate his changeup in the lower shadow zones (see texture map below), showing that commandability plays a vast role in the increase of overall pitch value, as his changeup skyrocketed from a -4.0 to an 11.1 pVAL.
It is always impressive when a pitcher can turn his worst pitch into his best pitch within just one season. These are the types of improvements I look for, because another breakthrough could be just around the corner. You wouldn’t think so, but in 2019 he posted an 18.6% SwStr% with his changeup. This was good for 10th overall in changeup SwStr% among pitchers with a minimum of 500 changeups thrown. This is a big deal. He sits well above Paddack and Pablo Lopez’s SwStr% rates on their changeups.
Quick digression – if you take a look at the “Pitcher Plinko” chart below, it is easy to take away the fact that Yarbrough was a machine at staying ahead in the count and not falling far behind the hitter. This goes for his overall performance, not just for the changeup. I love when a pitcher can stay out of 2-0, 2-1, and 3-1 counts. This is a major reason for Yarbrough’s success in 2019.
Back to the changeup for a minute. It’s gorgeous. It really is. I am 100% a sucker for dominant changeups. You want to know why? Because they flat out can be the most dominant pitch in baseball when thrown and used correctly. They also are the ultimate groundball inducer, as an increase in Yarb’s changeup success naturally caused a subsequent increase in his overall groundball rate (+5.8%), rising from 38.0 to 43.8%. As a result, it also was great to see him give up less flyballs and bring that GB/FB rate up to 1.22. He is still considered to be a "flyball pitcher", as I would love to see this trend come to screeching halt by increasing the usage of his deadly changeup.
It is to be noted that he only gave up 3 less HR in 6 less innings pitched than in 2018, so those issues still somewhat persist though he did decrease net HR production in the end (0.95 HR/9). But I believe that his HR struggles were due largely in part to the combination of the juiced ball and the poor command of his cutter – 2020 could be a whole new year for home runs, nobody knows. The key takeaway – anytime a pitcher surpasses a 40.0% groundball rate and posts these types of peripherals in an already pro-home run environment, they are at the very least worth your further research.
Ryan Yarbrough’s sinker has persistently been the worst pitch in his arsenal, earning a totally warranted decrease in usage (-8.1%) in 2019, going from being the pitch he has thrown most often to the pitch that he nearly throws least often (with exception to his curveball). Batters smacked this pitch to a tune of a .356 xBA, .560 xSLG, .410 xwOBA, .459 xwOBAcon, and 59.1% Zone%. When a pitch has a Barrel% of 11.5%, you know that it is time to start making changes. Also, when your sinker's BA zone profile looks like this, just let it go.
Apart from deprecating the four-seamer from his arsenal, demoting his sinker from being used as his primary pitch was the other best decision that he has made to benefit the success of his pitch mix. I know that I like to use these Texture Maps from BaseballSavant a lot, but they really help lay the visual foundation so we can understand the entire story of why a pitcher is lacking or having success with a certain pitch. Also, I watched approximately 50 of Yarbrough's strikeout videos, and couldn't find a single one displaying the sinker. Makes sense.
As you can see by the heat map, Yarbs has been hanging his sinkers out over the heart of the plate for hitters to mash. The heavy concentration of red lies right in a hitter's wheelhouse. He is simply catching too much of the plate, as a 24.2% called strike rate entirely is too high for a secondary pitch. I’d like to see him decrease the usage of the sinker even more in 2020, whilst exposing its effectiveness to hitters less often and in more unique situations. Hitters have caught on to his average sinker over time, so the fact that Yarbrough is making the efforts to acknowledge the necessary changes he needs to make to his arsenal and usage patterns is a win in itself.
We saw Yarbrough bump the usage of his curveball ever so slightly in 2019 (+2.4%) to 13.5%, while it actually fared slightly worse than in 2018. This is not much of a curveball right now, as it possesses 9.9% less vertical movement compared to the league-average, though it has increased by 2.1% over the past season. All we can ask for is year-to-year improvement, right?
Yarbrough’s curveball may not be the prettiest pitch, but it has certainly done its part in limiting damage thus far, posting a .135 xBA, .197 xSLG, .182 xwOBA, .226 xwOBAcon, and a 14.0% SwStr%. Not bad, not bad at all. But much like his cutter, he needs to locate this pitch lower in the shadow zone and less over the heart of the plate. That mass of red over the heart of the plate needs to take a trip south for the summer. This may be the year he figures out the true inclusion of his curveball.
3-D Pitch Map Data
One major concern of mine regarding Ryan Yarbrough’s release point consistency considers the very real possibility that his four pitches may not appear to be strongly tunneled to the batter after twice or more times through the batting order. In essence, I believe that this is a primary reason factoring into why Yarbrough has already become a two-times-at-most through the order type of pitcher so early on in his career – I do not believe that it is exclusively due to the Rays manipulating him in wonky ways throughout the season, but is more so due to the idea that hitters can read him like a book on their third time through the order.
Pitchers can tip which pitch they are about to throw to the batter by having this vast of a variance in their release points. As a pitcher, you want the height of your release point for each pitch to be as closely clustered together as possible, so each pitch appears to start at the same point of origin. This in effect links directly to tunneling ability.
Let me show you what I mean.
The above “3-D Pitch Map” displays Ryan Yarbrough’s release heights for each pitch that he threw in a single game versus the Red Sox on September 22, 2019. If you remember from earlier in the article, this was one of the games he got torched by J.D. Martinez. As you can see, the clustering of his release points is very poor. Per BaseballSavant, the average release heights for each pitch in his arsenal can be viewed in the table below, along with another 3-D Pitch Map displaying his average release points by each pitch.
The fact that there is over ½ ft variance in the release point of his cutter to his sinker is concerning. This is a big deal, and is very noticeable to major league hitters. You don't need a set of trashcan lids to debunk this one.
It’s not all bad, though. This lack of tunneling ability reinforces that a major opportunity for Yarbrough to improve the deceptiveness of his deliveries is presenting itself to him – whether he makes the conscious effort to work on it remains to be seen in 2020.
This is very intriguing from a mechanical and pitch design point-of-view. It may be tough for fans watching the game in person, or on television, to be able to tell what is actually going on here. I almost can guarantee that professional hitters pick up on these subtle differences in release point by the second and third times through the order, simply because I’ve personally witnessed it happen at levels much lower than the MiLB or MLB. This is a mechanical flaw that Yarbrough needs to address and improve upon if we want to ever get more than 150 quality IP from him in a full season.
On that note, 162-games is a very long season, as a pitcher you want to have as many advantages as possible against the hitters that you’ll face numerous times throughout the year. The ability to tunnel is what makes pitchers like DeGrom, Scherzer, Cole, and Verlander so consistently elite three or even four times through the order. For a pitcher who throws at a near maximum of ~88.0 mph, Yarbrough has made excellent progress throughout his first two seasons in the MLB. If he continues to embody his pitching persona and sticks with that lights-out changeup, I think we are in store for an even more profitable year from Yarbrough than the two previous.
This was a lengthy one, thanks for reading!
*All statistical datasets were extracted from BaseballSavant.com, Fangraphs.com, and Alex Chamberlain’s Beta Pitch Leaderboard Tool at Tableau.com.
*All included images, visuals, and graphics were extracted from BaseballSavant.com as labeled.
*Data for scatter plot portraying Z-Swing-Miss% vs. xBA was extracted from BaseballSavant.com, and was projected for visualization in R-Studio. Ask me for code if you want confirmation.
*All data tables were created by me, utilizing data extracted from the above sources.