Editor’s Note: We are grateful for the opportunity to have sat down and chatted with Tampa Bay Rays do-it-all pitcher, Ryan Yarbrough. The native Floridian who grew up rooting for the Rays as a kid took a circuitous path back to Florida and has been a tremendous asset for the Rays on the mound, an important presence in the Tampa community, and a very happy partner for his newlywed wife, Nicole (and vice versa!). Ryan burst on the MLB scene two years ago, often serving as the durable multi-inning reliever that followed their opener, and he won 16 games, finishing in the top five for AL ROY. Whether his role this year is a more traditional starter or a flexible starter/reliever hybrid, ‘Yarbs’ career thus far indicates that he is primed for success in either role. He has uncommon command of his five-pitch repertoire and is among the hardest pitchers in baseball for batters to square up. The tall easy-going left-hander is a thinking man’s pitcher who is constantly learning and honing his craft.
The calendar has turned to March, and if you’re a baseball fan or a ball player, that means Spring Training. For Tampa Rays’ pitcher Ryan Yarbrough it’s a favorite time of the year:
“It’s always exciting when you’re able to see everyone again after all those months off, and you a little itchy to get back on the field. So anytime you can get back out here and have games start again is always a blast.”
Coming into his third year with the Tampa Bay Rays, who won 96 games last year and made the MLB Playoffs as a Wild Card team, the lanky southpaw is looking forward to building on that success in 2020.
The Tampa Bay Rays organization has long had the reputation as an organization for being both creative – in doing the most with less financial resources than many of their opponents, in their use of openers, in their mix-and-match pitching and defensive substitution patterns – and scrappy, but its important to recognize that there’s also a ton of talent there, both on the hitting and pitching side. As Yarbrough confirms, “From the outside looking in, you see how analytical we are and all the creative things we do on the field, but I don’t think anybody really appreciates how much talent we really have on the team.”
The Rays have an extremely talented young core, and it starts with a pitching staff that has the potential to be among the best in baseball. In addition to Yarbrough, that includes former Cy Young award winner, Blake Snell, established elite pitcher, “Freaking” Charlie Morton, up-and-coming young stud, Tyler Glasnow, as well as an assortment of lethal bullpen arms. On the hitting side, there’s a lot to be excited about too, starting with young hitters like Austin Meadows, Wily Adames, and Brandon Lowe, as well as veteran defensive glue-guys like Kevin Kiermaier. And they’ve added to it with a number of potentially sneaky-good off-season acquisitions:
“I think last year we had a great team, and we got a taste of the playoffs. That’s on everyone’s minds, even though you try not to think too far ahead. But we are getting back some players who missed some time last year who were having great years. Guys like Tyler Glasnow. Having him healthy for a whole year is going to be scary. He’s an incredible player. And then we brought in some guys, like [the power-hitting] Hunter Renfroe and Yoshi Tsutsugo (from Japan). These guys, from the first few games you see them in camp, you can tell they’re just great ballplayers, and we’re really excited to see how its going to all develop on the field when we start playing regular season games. We’re very excited about it.”
In addition, the consensus number one prospect in the game, 19 year-old shortstop, Wander Franco, is waiting in the wings. And its not just Franco. Their minor leagues are ranked #2 in baseball by MLB Pipeline.
Yarbrough appreciates the organization, from the GM and Front Office to Manager Kevin Cash and pitching coach Kevin Snyder:
“They put us in these great positions to have success. They understand what kind of players we are and they relay that to us and how we can best help the team, and they put in in good spots to go out to succeed. And as you can tell, we go out there and win some ballgames and made the playoffs last year. It was a great year, and we’re trying to do the same this year.”
The AL East – with the Yankees, Red Sox, and up-and-coming Blue Jays, is perennially one of the toughest divisions in baseball. But these Rays look to be a presence at the upper echelon that intends to keep making noise.
Ryan Yarbrough burst on the scene as a rookie in 2018, winning 16 games that year, in a non-traditional role that he continued last year – bulk reliever post-opener. That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it has been an important role in which he has won a lot of games and pitched extremely well.
Ever creative, the Rays were the first team to consistently employ “an opener,” i.e., a relief pitcher that would start the game who would pitch only the first inning. Yarbrough filled the role of being the pitcher that followed the opener. Sometimes, he would pitch a few innings, like a reliever, and other times, he would pitch six or seven innings, like a starter. He excelled in that role, finishing the 2018 season with a 16-6 won-loss record, a 3.91 ERA, and a 1.290 WHIP.
Last year, Yarbrough was employed in a similar role. After a rough start to the year, which resulted in him being sent down to the minors in late April for a brief period, Yarbrough returned and was one of the more dominant pitchers in baseball for much of the second half of the 2019 season.
Coming into 2020, on a pitching staff that headlines Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, and Tyler Glasnow, Yarbs would love to pitch in the traditional starter role. But, ever the team player, he will do what the team needs, if he is needed in a more versatile role: “I think we’re still figuring that out as Spring goes along to see what is best. Personally, I’m coming in and competing to try to prove to them that I can be that traditional starter, but at the same time we’ll see how the team looks at the end of Spring and how everything shakes out and go from there.”
Yarbrough took a circuitous route back home to Florida. Growing up in Lakeland, he was a Rays fan as a kid and fondly remembers going to games all the time with his father: “That was the Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, BJ Upton, Scott Kazmir, Scott Shields Rays – when they were dominant and went to the World Series in 2008.”
He started college at Santa Fe Community College and then transferred to Old Dominion. He was drafted by Seattle and then ultimately traded to his hometown Rays. For Ryan, being traded to his hometown team was simply magical:
“Nicole and I are both from Florida, and then I go and get drafted by the team that is probably the physically farthest away from Florida over in Seattle, and then I get traded back to the team that is the closest possible to home. It’s kind of crazy how the world works like that.”
Yarborough isn’t the type of pitcher that can dominate by throwing 100 MPH, but if you look at analytics that focus who look at statistics like “soft contact,” that is an area in which he is elite.
On his pitching approach and style, Yarbrough himself explains:
“Coming out of high school and even out of Santa Fe, I wasn’t getting a lot of looks because a lot of people are looking for elite velo[city], but one thing I’ve always been good at – and how I’ve built my career as a pitcher – is being able to execute pitches, keep guys off balance, mix speeds, and mix pitches to get that soft contact.”
He has been lucky to have been coached and mentored by people along the way who knew what it meant to pitch and recognized what he could do on the mound.
“When I got recruited to Old Dominion from Santa Fe, they called me in and told me ‘Hey, this is what we can do for you. You have this in you’ and I bought in. I’d never really gotten a look at for the Draft before, and they really got me there, and I got drafted my Junior Year. I didn’t think I was quite ready, so I went back, and I was blessed to get the opportunity to be drafted again, by Seattle, and was able to get molded by professional coaches who really understood what I needed to do to get to the big leagues. Then I was traded from Seattle after AA and came over to the Rays Organization, and they were able to focus in on what I do really well and just focus on fine-tuning that, and the rest in kind of history. They have helped me so much in terms of understanding how I can be successful as a pitcher.”
Among the group of people he identified as key to his success are his parents, college coaches like Johnny Wiggs at Santa Fe Community, who was also a left-handed pitcher, his pitching coach at Old Dominion, Tim Levine, who played professionally, as well as Minor League coaches like Andrew Lorraine with Seattle and his current pitching coach, Kyle Snyder.
Last year, his Tampa Bay teammate Charlie Morton was a huge help, as well: “He was that next step for me of ‘Hey you can have success, but what are the little things you can do on and off the field that can make you better and more consistent.'”
And Ryan has always been ready and willing to soak it up and learn:
“You have to sit down with yourself and know who you are and who you’re not. I’m not one of those guys who is going to throw 100, so the question you have to ask yourself is what am I going to do to have this career and be able to be the best at it, and for me, I realized, its really getting that soft contact and really being aggressive and attacking guys.”
Yarbrough has spent a lot of time studying how pitchers that he views himself as similar to in terms of how they approach their craft (i.e., lefties who aren’t overpowering, but have good command and control and can keep hitters off balance with an assortment of plus pitches).
He grew up admiring left-handers like Tom Glavine and Mark Buehrle, and today watches and learns from the approach of Atlanta left-hander Dallas Keuchel. a guy now who is similar who has had a really good career so far is Dallas Keuchel. And he’s not bashful about picking the brains of his fellow pitchers when the opportunity presents:
“There is so much talent in MLB. It’s just a matter of who can consistently reach that talent. Obviously it’s not easy to have those really long MLB careers. So when you see those guys, if you can ask them or watch them to see, what they do, because they’re obviously doing something different to give themselves that edge. It can be very eye-opening and help me to improve.”
Yarbrough also uses analytics “a little bit” but describes himself as “one of those guys who if I know too many numbers if can really change my thought process and make me try to do too much, instead of focusing on executing one pitch at a time.” He focuses on some key concepts that come from analytics but he is more focused on pitch execution and approach: “I really try to focus on what I need to know and then let everything take care of itself.”
Yarbrough lives with his wife, Nicole, in the Tampa area. They are now looking to buy a house there and to make Tampa their permanent home.
Both Ryan and Nicole grew up in Florida. Ryan in Lakeland and Nicole in Orlando. But sometimes you have to go far away to meet the girl next door. They met in Virginia, at college, where they both played sports. Ryan played baseball and Nicole played lacrosse.
He and Nicole recently got married last November and “its been a blast so far.”
One of the things they are navigating together off-the-field – as we all do – is balancing life when the work schedule is tough. In particular, in Ryan’s case, the challenge is that he’s ballplayer who travels a lot and has a work schedule that eats into most evenings:
“Our lifestyle isn’t easy on our spouses. First and foremost, Nicole is incredible and supportive, and we are fortunate enough that she is able to travel with me and come to away games and really be part of this journey with me. Because it is something special to be able to play the game you love for a living. So she loves to travel and to support me on the road.
The fact that Nicole is a big fan of the sport and comes from a baseball family, helps. Her Dad played in college, her Uncle played professionally, and her brother plays in college now at University of Cincinnati, so she understands the lifestyle. Ryan and Nicole are also really intentional and creative about the time they spend together:
“At home, we really try to spend all our mornings together. With so many games in the evenings, that is our time together to try to relax and enjoy each other. We normally go to different coffee shops in the mornings in Tampa and St. Pete, so we have morning dates usually instead of evening dates. We also love to spend time with our chocolate lab Cooper, who keeps us on our toes.”
Giving back to their local community is something that’s important to both Ryan and Nicole:
“I think its something important to us to help out as much as possible. Especially having this kind of platform, to be able to use it to give back. My wife, every Sunday night during the season in St. Pete helps out by volunteering at a homeless shelter and helps to give clothes and supplies away. We also really enjoy – with the help of the Rays – going to visit children’s hospitals and really sit down and visit with the kids who are going through a rough time and to help to try to bring a smile to their faces. We really get a lot of joy out of that.”
As another Spring Training day draws to a close, the 2020 regular season beckons.
Ryan Yarbrough looks to be ready to shine in Tampa Bay.
— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) June 11, 2018
Photo Credit(s): Ryan Yarbrough and Excel Sports Management (cover and body pictures, with permission), AP Photo/Julio Cortez (Ryan kissing Nicole)