It’s that time of year in sunny Sarasota. The sound of mitts popping and the deciding whether Orioles pitcher X should work out as a starter or a reliever. This year one of those pitchers in question is Jimmy Yacabonis.
Manager Brandon Hyde has opted to stretch Yacabonis out after he made a total of 28 starts in 2018 (7 in Baltimore, 21 in Norfolk). Hyde said, “We’re going to stretch him out and then as our roster kind of comes into play the last couple weeks of spring training, then we’ll make the determination if he’s going to be a long guy in the ‘pen or a starter. We’re going to see how our rotation looks at that point.” According to MASN’s Roch Kubatko, Hyde is “open to using Yacabonis in the rotation or as a long reliever and will continue to stretch him out. There’s no indication that the Orioles want him starting in the majors or Triple-A Norfolk rather than be used out of the bullpen.”
This is consistent with the Orioles’ change in direction with Yacabonis last year, when they made him a starter for the first time in his professional career. Hyde and the new front office clearly think that Yacabonis provides more value when stretched out.
Do the available statistics give us any indication if this is the appropriate way of handling Jimmy Yacabonis? He has pitched 60.2 innings at the major league level, a very small sample size. But It is still worth noting that his ERA as a starter in 28.1 innings is 4.76, better than his 5.29 mark as a reliever in 32.1 innings. Those limited split stats get interesting when digging deeper. Despite the lower ERA as a starter, his batting average against and slugging percentage against were better out of the bullpen. The cuprit appears to be walks; he allowed ten more free passes when pitching out of the bullpen. While there could be many causes to control issues when entering a game as a reliever, it is impossible for us to diagnose the cause with the data available to us.
A look at Yacabonis’ minor league numbers provides a larger sample size. A good apples-to-apples comparison would be his 2017 and 2018 minor league stats. Both are at the AAA level but all appearances in 2017 were in relief and all in 2018 were in the starting rotation. His 2017 performance at Norfolk was stellar. Over 61.1 innings covering 41 games he pitched to an ERA of 1.32 and a WHIP of 0.95. In 21 starts (76 innings) last season, his ERA rose to 4.26 and his WHIP to 1.22. While his strikeout and walk numbers were similar, he gave up more hits and home runs as a starter. There is some learning curve expected when transitioning to the starting rotation, but Yacabonis seemed to fare better out of the bullpen in the minor leagues.
There are several other indicators that could speak to whether Yacabonis will be more valuable as a starter or reliever. First, is his velocity when stretched out as a starter good enough? During his 20.2 MLB innings in 2017 when he worked the entire season out of the bullpen, his fastball averaged 95.4 MPH. His velocity fell to 93.8 in 2018 when he was working as a starter all season. An increased workload can be expected to have an impact on velocity, but last year’s average fastball is still good enough to succeed at the highest level.
Yacabonis’ pitch arsenal features three pitches. 66% of his offerings over his MLB career have been fastballs. He has thrown a slider 28% of the time and mixed in a changeup 5% of the time. This week he said that he will start working on his change up later in camp so that he “can throw it in situations when I need it.” This confirms that he sees himself as essentially a fastball-slider pitcher who sprinkles in a changeup infrequently. Most effective starters have at least three pitches, so it would behoove him to become more comfortable with that third pitch.
Starting pitchers need to be effective against both right and left-handed batters, so can Yacabonis defend himself against lefties? He has fared better against righties at every level, but the gap in his minor league split stats over the years is not drastic. In Norfolk last season he held right-handed batters to an average of .209 and left-handers to .227. Unfortunately, this gap widens substantially when looking at his performance in the majors. In his 60.2 career innings, he has allowed a .289/.417/.437 slash line to lefties and a .229/.316/.439 to righties. He needs to be better against left-handed batters if he wants to be anything more than a matchup pitcher.
How does Yacabonis do after his first time through the order? Like many pitchers, he has more success on his first trip through the opponent’s lineup. His ERA the first time through the order as a major league starter and reliever are 1.10 and 4.18 respectively. Those numbers hike to 10.32 and 12.46 when seeing hitters for a second time in a contest. While again stressing how small this major league sample size is, it is concerning for his prospects as a starter.
Putting all of these statistics aside, it makes more sense for the Orioles to stretch Jimmy Yacabonis out as a starter. It is easier to transition him from a starter’s workload to a reliever’s as opposed to the other way around. Starting pitching is more valuable and there are many competitors for the available bullpen spots.
No matter his role, Yacabonis needs to improve at the major league level if he wants to make an impression on the new regime. While the stats have been diced up several ways in this post, the overall career MLB numbers are not good: 5.04 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, and 6.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
Do you think Jimmy Yacabonis will be more successful in 2019 and beyond as member of the Orioles’ rotation or bullpen?
Will Jimmy Yacabonis be more successful as a starter or reliever?
This poll is closed