Growing up a Randy Johnson is quite the longshot.
For starters, you have to throw with your left hand, which means you’re either a natural born lefty, a 1/10 chance to begin with, or you learned to be a southpaw from a young age due to injury, the Billy Wagner special, or just because being a LHP raises your minuscule odds at a spot in the Majors, ask Madison Bumgarner.
Then you have to be a tall guy, and with tall I mean gigantic: at around 6 ft 8 Randy was a behemoth on the mound coming at you from the skies. Enough said, the average man sits in the 6–6.2 ft range so, as probability rules apply, that 1/10 plummets down after being combined with your suboptimal shot at NBA stature.
If that wasn’t enough, you also need baseball skills, the good ones: forget about your slow pitch softball parachutes, to match up with the Big Unit your arm must be a gas station, pumping 100 mph heat and demonic sliders in, out and all over the place, going as far as hitting poor animals passing by.
As it turns out, we’ll probably never see another Randy Johnson. Sure, high octane lefties are more common now than in the past, Blake Snell and Shane McClanahan to name a couple, but the man is an Hall of Famer, one that started to throw strikes only at almost 30 and carved up a magnificent career when everyone already called him off, a strikeout machine that has a perfect game to his name, a country hardball gunslinger who wasn’t fazed by anything.
Sometimes, when you can’t have the original, a makeshift version has to do. Tampa Bay knows it well, better than anyone: Snell was the ace of a team that got so close to winning it all, with the man himself getting a much discussed early heave ho to then be shipped to San Diego because of TB’s disdain for salaries greater than league minimum; McClanahan is the new cowboy, not really a marksman per se but a fireballer with elite arm strength and a disgusting slider, a gun for hire that has entrenched one of the rotation spots in Tropicana.
Wait a second, there’s another lefty on the Rays rotation though, and I’m not talking about Josh Fleming: the man is tall, a decent 6 ft 5, is a lefty and is good at baseball, he must be so if he’s still in Tampa in his fourth year and not in some other team’s 40 man roster.
Time to shine a light on one of my favorite pitchers in MLB, none other than the Small Unit himself, Ryan Yarbrough!
Ok, bad jokes aside, Yarbs is not Randy by any stretch of the imagination: while the latter looked like a Sergio Leone character, one that speaks few and kills aplenty, Ryan is more one of the guys from The Office, albeit one that could look down at John Krasinski and co.
There’s also a small stuff unbalance: Yarbrough is a certified junkballer, he cuts it, sinks it, changes and curves all while reaching 90 mph only when using someone else on MLB The Show.
But hey, Ryan is a pretty darn good pitcher too, a strange one though:
He is almost impossible to be hit hard! When he does…it’s absolutely crushed. He doesn’t walk anybody! Well…he also strikes out far below league average. He gets a ton of chases! Great, batters are not whiffing though.
Yarbrough is one of a kind, a master of soft contact such as your standard groundballer while giving up a ton of flyballs: he plays with fire, relying on location and deception to get flyouts instead of bombs he’s prone to allow the home run ball, already at 20 this season, but he’s also one of the gnarliest hurlers to square up in all of baseball as nothing comes straight out of his hand:
Ryan’s arsenal is for all sizes and shapes: his primary pitch is a cutter, designed to go in to RHBs and jam them, the lack of spin makes it so that hitters are getting under it more often than not although when they get it, it goes far (10 HR allowed). Against righties he pairs it up with a fading changeup, a slow dandy that he deposits low and away, while he reserves a good amount of curveballs and sinkers to LHB.
While the variety of pitches has always been the same, Yarbrough tinkered with their usages all throughout his career:
Once a sinkerballer, cutting into righties and changing against lefties, Yarbrough proceeded to incrementally dial down his sinker usage to this year’s low, barely over 10%. To account for that he added even more cutters to the mix and relied even more on his curveball, an offering that comes against both righties and lefties and has the best results among all of Ryan’s pitches, both in XStats and Whiff%.
What hasn’t changed though is Yarbs’ penchant at avoiding hard hits: since his early days as a bulk guy in Tampa, coming in the 2nd inning after the opener, his strange windup and moving parts made him a tough AB, one that ended in soft airborne contact. In each of his four season Ryan placed in the 95th percentile or better in AvgEV, HardHit% and, except for 2018, BB%, a soft tossing strike-throwing innings eater relying on his outfield defense to snatch outs in the air.
What’s going on though? Yarbrough is having his worst season to date, both in ERA, FIP and other indicators, his 20 HR allowed are more than he’s ever given up and he’s being barreled more than in the past, but his stuff is the same and there are no changes in his ability of devouring hard hits (less than 27%, league leader) and eliciting soft contact (23% Soft, tops all MLB).
There are a couple of issues for Tampa’s Small Unit, one that is a long time coming and another that is fresh off this season.
From the latter, let’s look at Yarbs’ pitch profile:
What jumps out are two pitches: his curveball drops far less than average and he’s using it in optimal manner, throwing it for strikes at around 71 mph he freezes batters on the outside corner or makes them swing over it for a rare K. This slow teardrop is Yarbrough’s best pitch per Run Value, the only one in the negatives. The other uncommon offering in his repertoire is a changeup that moves much more than average, and is also much slower. Oh, it’s also his worst pitch at a terrible 10 RV stemming from 7 HR allowed and abysmal peripherals.
Yarbrough is fighting to get his change in tune, and he’s losing the battle so far:
Usually a balanced pitcher, Ryan is having LOOGY splits in 2021, limiting lefties with his curveball but allowing a 5+ ERA to righties, 19 of his 20 bombs to RHB and a WHIP over 1.2, not good considering walks are not in the equation for him.
That all comes down to a simple yet troubling consideration: Yarbs is not locating his changeup.
While the idea is getting hitters to chase, Yarbrough is simply not throwing enough changeups in the zone to entice righties to swing, and that brings more full counts, more stress pitches, more cutters he throws in the zone for hitters to sit on and mash:
It could also be that Yarbs doesn’t know his pitch that well: his changeup never moved that much so, if he’s still aiming at his old spots, that’s why he’s missing. Movement is good to have, it helps in fooling hitters, but it’s nothing if the pitcher can’t understand his own pitches’ shapes and set his sights accordingly, see Luis Castillo.
The other concern for Yarbrough is related to his mechanics, most notably to his release point(s):
In all his funkiness, Ryan is telling you what’s coming before the ball leaves his hand: his sinker comes out from almost 6ft while his cutter averages 4.9ft, more than a foot of difference in avg release height! His changeup and curveball shoot out from 5.2–5.3ft, half a foot higher than his preferred cutter, and, while it may sound negligible, MLB hitters are pretty good at looking for windows, spins and releases to then make that split-second choice of swinging or not at a pitch.
That’s something he always had, but the range of avg release heights has only expanded from a closer window in 2018 to now, too discernible to comfort, almost as if he’s forcing his cutter in by dropping his arm while searching for more movement in his breaking stuff releasing it higher and earlier.
For a junkballer there’s nothing more important than fooling a hitter’s decisions by hiding pitches, using tunneling and spin mirroring to the last inch delaying their opposite trajectories as much as possible to get a batter to swing over a change/curve or get into his kitchen by means of a cutter. Yarbrough is being deceptive as usual in throwing his arms and legs all around the mound but at release the masquerade drops and his real colors, rather pitches, show up too early to be confounded with one another.
As the regular season is leaning towards the end, many playoff spots are still available to a plateau of teams, and among them the AL East is arguably the most uncertain Division: Boston, once a lock to close on top, is collapsing before our eyes due to a rotation that overperformed to say the least and now is coming back to Earth waiting for Chris Sale to give a final, maybe decisive, push; the Yankees are not getting much out of their Trade Deadline acquisitions with Gallo barely hitting, Rizzo on the COVID list and Heaney in batting practice mode; Toronto is on the rise, with the return of George Springer atop of a lineup that battles with the White Sox for best in baseball.
Tampa Bay is dragging, winning some in division but also losing a couple of blowouts, a Josh Fleming 10-run massacre lately. With Rich Hill eating innings for the Mets there’s a lot being asked from the youngsters in the Rays’ rotation, and both McClanahan and Patino, the latter part of the return in the Snell trade, are being more than serviceable.
What TB would need is a Big Unit, and they have something close to it: Tyler Glasnow is an ace, a stuff monster that harnessed his heater/curveball combination, added a devastating slider and proceeded to cut walks and hits while striking out every soul that comes to the plate. Bad news is, we won’t see him for some time due to the always feared Tommy John surgery, and that leaves Tampa hanging on a thread made of young but inexperienced studs and back of the rotation contributors.
Among the latter, Ryan Yarbrough needs to step up and arise to the #2/3 starter he can be, according to all his career numbers and peripherals: he’s better than a 4.5 ERA and he can’t keep allowing more than 1.5 HR/9. All he needs to do is get on top of his changeup’s movement and iron up his release point, easier said than done.
Now that the August waiver trades are off the table, there’s not much help a team can get outside of Free Agents, and all that’s left are journeymen, spot starters and the mythical creature that is Edwin Jackson. Justin Verlander, or another highly paid veteran stalwart for that matter, is not going to come through the doors of Tropicana’s home clubhouse and change the narrative.
It’s up to those who are already there or down in the Minors, watch out for Shane Baz and/or Drew Strotman, to get the job done and send Tampa Bay to at least a win-and-in Wild Card game, and if anything has to go the right way, it goes through Ryan Yarbrough.
While he profiles as a filler-ish rotation piece, a salad-thrower in the immortal words of Dennis Eckersley, Yarbs has to get his act together and provide all his mettle and experience to a starting rotation that is all but devoid of it.
He’s not the Big Unit, not even close, but there’s nothing bad in being a Small Unit. There’s a difference between a random starter and a dependable middle-rotation hurler, and in a Division that is a battlefield every win counts more than anywhere else.
All stats and graphs from Baseball Savant, data updated to August 12th.