The pitching anomaly that is Ryan Yarbrough

Ryan Yarbrough defies what it means to be a starting pitcher in MLB, but it wasn't by accident. (Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

There are certain things in life that cann ot be understood.

Even the best research cannot truly crack the code of certain things, and one of those things is Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Ryan Yarbrough.

The left-hander has been a staple in Tampa Bay’s rotation since coming up as a 26-year old in 2018, but what has seemed to puzzle baseball fans is his performance on the mound.

Yarbs doesn’t blow pitches by hitters. His fastball sits in the low-90s and as a left-hander would, he has plus breaking pitches that induce weak contact. 

He pitches to contact and his career ERA and FIP have both sat around the 4.00 range, but he has been one of a select few pitchers who was introduced to the league in front of an opener.

Yarbrough, a lanky left-hander, is the byproduct of “The Opener”, a strategy the Rays have perfected unlike any other team in MLB. (Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

For those who don’t know about the opener, it’s a strategy the Rays perfected starting in 2018, where a relief pitch comes in to pitch the first inning or two of the game and then a traditional starter comes in to pitch the bulk of the innings in the game.

Yarbrough has thrived with an opener in front of him throughout his career and in the 87 games he’s pitched in, not including Friday’s start against the Phillies, 52 of those have come as a reliever.

He’s started just 35 games in his career thus far, and in those 35 starts before Friday, Yarbrough is 5-14 with a 4.60 ERA, giving up 100 earned runs in 195.2 innings pitched. Opponents hit .253 with a .714 OPS and 104 OPS+ when Yarbrough starts.

However, in those 52 “relief” outings, Yarbrough is 25-5 with a 3.39 ERA, giving up 76 earned runs in 201.2 innings pitched. His K/9 ratio as a reliever is 7.9 compared to 6.9 as a starter, and opponents hit .234 with a .682 OPS and a 94 OPS+ off him in relief.

It’s one of those things where when we talk about it and post about it on social media, it isn’t in any way a slight at Yarbrough’s ability on the mound. 

With a career ERA over a run lower as a reliever compared to a starter, Ryan Yarbrough has become a diamond in the rough for Tampa Bay. (Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

The statistics back up the claim that he’s much better with an opener in front of him on start day then as a traditional starter.

Whenever a baseball media outlet talks about it and shows the splits, it’s insane to think that’s the case, but it is. However, let’s try to make sense of why this is the case. 

Back in his rookie season in 2018, Yarbrough pitched in 38 games. Of those 38 games, 32 came as a reliever and just six were as a traditional starter. In 2019, of the 28 games Yarbrough pitched in, half came as a traditional starter and half as a reliever. 

Combine those two years together, and of Yarbrough’s first 66 appearances, 48 came in relief. He got used to the opener concept, so as a result, it’s taken him a significant amount of time to adjust to pitching as a traditional starter.

Yarbrough might not ever be able to fully adjust to that traditional starter role and an opener might be what he needs to continue to succeed, but time will tell. 

All we can infer right now is that one is just more comfortable than the other, so Ryan Yarbrough will continue to be an anomaly among pitchers in MLB not by accident, but by design.