Yarbrough dubbed 'king of weak contact'

March 21st, 2021

started and finished his outing strong in the Rays’ 11-1 loss to the Braves on Sunday afternoon at Charlotte Sports Park. He retired the first four hitters he faced and the last four in order, albeit with six runs, five hits, a third-inning exit and a fourth-inning reentry in between.

The fact that manager Kevin Cash walked out to the mound to remove Yarbrough twice in the same game was a good reminder: This is just Spring Training, and these results ultimately do not matter. What does matter is what Yarbrough has done for the Rays over the past three years and what they believe he will continue to do as a big part of their rotation this season.

The 29-year-old doesn’t possess the overpowering arsenal of Opening Day starter Tyler Glasnow or some of the other young arms on Tampa Bay’s roster, but he succeeds in a different way. Over the past three years, Yarbrough has led the Rays in innings (344 2/3) despite making only 29 starts during that span and being introduced as a bulk-innings pitcher in 2018.

Since his debut in 2018, no pitcher with at least 300 innings has recorded a lower average exit velocity than Yarbrough’s 84.6 mph mark, according to Statcast. Last year, he led the Majors with an average exit velocity of 82.6 mph. Only Max Fried, his mound opponent on Sunday, and Kenta Maeda posted lower hard-hit rates than his 25.1 percent mark.

Rays infielder Joey Wendle likes to joke with Yarbrough that, whenever he lines up behind the lefty, it always seems to be a busy day in the field. But he’s not complaining.

“I love it, because it seems like even though I get a lot of balls, it doesn't seem like any of them are hit particularly hard,” Wendle said. “He's the king of getting weak contact and pitching late into games because he's getting that contact early in the count.”

In a lot of ways, Yarbrough is the perfect embodiment of the Rays’ pitching principles. He gets ahead in the count, as he threw first-pitch strikes to 67.2 percent of the batters he faced last year. He pounds the zone, with 68.4 percent of his pitches last season going for strikes. And he works quickly, averaging 15 pitches per inning, making him the sixth-most efficient pitcher among those with at least 50 innings last year.

He also accepted his role pitching after an opener as a rookie and in 2019 before graduating to more traditional usage as a starter last season. Right-hander Chris Archer said Yarbrough’s success in that unconventional role made him more open to considering pitching after an opener in his return to the Rays, and he’s a huge admirer of the lefty’s style on the mound, as well.

“Every team kind of has a guy or two that gives their other pitchers some contrast,” Archer said. “We have some flamethrowers, but without contrast, people start to time that up. So if you have a [Luis] Patiño followed by a Yarbrough followed by Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo, those are different looks, but that contrast in the middle can really mess with a team. So, 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. But he has just as much confidence, if not more than anybody, and you love to see him there on the mound just fighting.”

Yarbrough is a change of pace in a game increasingly full of tall, hard-throwing right-handers, sure. His fastball averaged only 87.3 mph last season, and he threw it less than his cutter or changeup. Teams must prepare for him in an entirely different way than they get ready for Glasnow, for instance.

Yarbrough has used that to his advantage, going 28-16 with a 3.94 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP over the past three years. But it is not just what Yarbrough does differently that’s made him effective, Cash said.

“The reason Yarbs is good is because his stuff's good. He can really pitch,” Cash said. “His changeup’s been a weapon that he can throw at any point, any count. I don't know if the numbers back this up, but I always feel like the cutter has been the equalizer for him to the right-handed hitter. For years we've heard how they don't see it. It gets on hitters really, really quick, and it's backed up by what he's done with the lack of hard hits over his career.”

In that regard, Yarbrough could look with some satisfaction at the things he did on Sunday that did matter. His pitches moved well. He threw strikes. Aside from Dansby Swanson’s third-inning homer, the hits he gave up weren’t hit all that hard. What else would you expect from the king of weak contact?

“I feel like, if anything, that's all you really look for is just to see how guys are reacting to the pitches you're throwing. And even though they had a couple hits that way [on weakly hit balls], it's just part of the game,” Yarbrough said. “But to kind of see how comfortable they are in the at-bat and stuff like that, or how I go about how I throw my game specifically, really encouraging to kind of see those results."