The previous regime of Orioles baseball decision-makers liked to move their players around a lot. The “Norfolk shuttle” became a running joke within the local media and fanbase. The first, and perhaps most frequent, rider of that shuttle this season was Jimmy Yacabonis, who was called up on seven different occasions in 2018 alone. Following his final promotion, in September, the 26-year-old right-hander finally seemed to find his groove, and he may now have a shot to become a crucial piece of a forward-thinking O’s rotation.
Starting a game was a new experience for Yacabonis. The Orioles drafted him as a reliever out of Saint Joseph’s University back in 2013. Between his debut in short-season Aberdeen that summer and the completion of the 2017 season with the Tides, the New Jersey native had appeared in 190 minor league baseball games, all out of the bullpen. Then, there was a change of plans.
Jon Meoli from the Baltimore Sun has the full story. In short: As spring training approached, there was a ton of uncertainty, both inside and outside of the organization, regarding the Orioles starting pitching depth. Given his physical frame and pitching repertoire, Yacabonis was deemed to be an ideal candidate to switch from bullpen to rotation.
The plan made some sense. Yacabonis had worked his way to the majors in 2017, appearing in 14 games as a reliever, but it did not inspire much confidence. He had an xFIP of 6.65 over 20.2 innings to go along with abysmal 3.48 K/9 and 6.10 BB/9 rates. His high-effort delivery was part of the reason he had a fastball in the mid-90s, but it could also be why he was so erratic. Stretching him out might force him to slow things down and reign in his precision a tad.
Down to Norfolk he went to be extended into a starter capable of going (eventually) five or more innings. He had modest success until a run from May 17 through June 9 in which he started five games, threw 23.2 innings and allowed just two runs on 12 hits, six walks, and 19 strikeouts. All told, he had a 3.38 ERA in April, 3.10 ERA in May and 3.00 ERA in June as a minor leaguer. He was impressive, albeit in relatively abbreviated outings for a typical starter.
Unfortunately, things did not go as well when he was called up to Baltimore. From the start of the season through August 25, Yacabonis pitched in six games for the Orioles, including four starts. In those games, he coughed up 18 runs on 25 hits, nine walks, five home runs and 16 strikeouts across just 19.1 innings. Opponents were hitting .313/.389/.563 and his MLB ERA for the year was all the way up at 8.38. Perhaps, it seemed, the conversion to starter was misguided after all.
Those struggles continued back down to Norfolk, where Yacabonis made his final start of the season on August 30, allowing four runs in just 2.2 innings of work.
Despite the trouble he had experienced throughout the season in the bigs, the Orioles promoted him up once more as part of their September roster expansion.
It turned out to be a stroke of genius to bring Yacabonis back into the fold. He put together his best month of the season, throwing 20.2 innings over six appearances (three starts) while serving up just six earned runs, which converts to a 2.61 ERA. Those numbers are buoyed by his final three outings of the year, all of which were starts (11.1 innings, one earned run, seven hits, seven walks, seven strikeouts).
No one is going to mistake Yacabonis for a Cy Young candidate, but he showed that he can be productive. He can get major league hitters out, but that success comes in a specific scenario. Lucky for the righty, now may be the best time in baseball history to have this exact ability.
It’s an extremely small sample size, but if the Orioles are going to make any one of their pitchers into a Rays-style “opener”, Yacabonis is the obvious pick. In the seven games he started with the Orioles this season, opposing hitters batted .172/.226/.259 the first time they faced him. Likewise, pitches 1-25 produced much better outcomes (.153/.286/.288) than the offerings that followed. Same goes for the first (1.29 ERA) and second (1.12 ERA) innings when compared to the third (8.00 ERA) frame and beyond.
Yacabonis’s struggles as a starter should come as a surprise to no one. He was a reliever in college and throughout the pros with a fastball-first approach that relied on good velocity, slight movement and a good-enough slider. A real third pitch never developed, and it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. That does not sound like the package of a pitcher that can get major league hitters out multiple times in a game.
For Yacabonis, that can be a feature of his game rather than a bug. “Openers” have become a viable strategy for MLB teams. The Rays rode that model to a 90-win season. The Athletics tried (and failed) to implement the plan in a real live playoff game. Given the current construction of rosters, it’s not viable to employ nothing but openers and bullpen-style pitchers, but it could work for the Orioles once or twice a week.
It sure looked like Buck Showalter had started to figure out how to best utilize Yacabonis as the 2018 season came to a close. Showalter won’t be back next year and neither will his boss, Dan Duquette. But Yacabonis has done more than enough to show off the extent of his abilities. What the next manager and coaching staff do with that information remains up in the air.
Monday: Austin Wynns