Late this winter into early spring, I unveiled my annual series on the best individual pitches in baseball. To qualify for letter grades during this exercise, individual pitchers had to qualify for the ERA title (i.e., pitch the equivalent of an inning per game).

The number of ERA qualifiers decreases each season, even in last year’s 60-game Covid-shortened campaign. Only 40 hurlers made the cut. During the 2021 season’s early stages, I figured I’d go back and grade out the repertoires of the 31 starting pitchers who hurled between 54 and 59 2/3 innings in 2020. We’ll go through each pitch and identify the additional “A”/”A+” grade recipients.

First, a little refresher on the methodology. Pitchers are graded on their ability to miss bats and manage contact with their individual offerings. An average pitch gets a “B” grade, and grades diverge up or down from that average based on pitch-specific performance relative to league norms in those two areas. In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, any pitch thrown at least 100 times, with at least 15 balls put into play qualified for a letter grade.

The changeup, in my humble opinion (and according to the numbers), is the game’s most effective pitch. Qualifying changeups recorded an Average Adjusted Contact Score (the level of production the pitch “should have” allowed based on exit speed/launch angle of all batted balls, with 100 equal to league average and the lower numbers the better) of 80.6 in 2020, the best of all pitches. Changeups recorded the second best swing-and-miss rate of all pitches at 16.5% (just behind sliders at 17.2%). 2020 ERA qualifiers threw their changeups 21.5% of the time. It finished a close second to the sinker in pitch-specific grounder rate (47.2%). Look here for my previous article on the 2020 ERA qualifiers with “A” grade changeups of better, led by the White Sox’ Lucas Giolito.

I’ve been a huge fan of the Tampa Bay Rays’ Ryan Yarbrough for quite a while now. I called him “The Most Underrated Pitcher In Baseball” in this space in January 2020. He’s just kept chugging along since then.


Yarbrough was a fourth-round pick of the Seattle Mariners in 2014, and was sent to the Rays in the 2016-17 offseason in one of the few Jerry DiPoto deals that haven’t worked out for the M’s. Drew Smyly never pitched a game for them, but it cost Yarbrough, Mallex Smith and a minor leaguer to house the rehabbing lefty on the Mariner roster for a spell.

Meanwhile, Yarbrough went to Tampa and became one of the best contact managers in the game. In 2018, 2019 and 2020, Yarbrough held opposing hitters to average exit velocities of over two full standard deviations lower than league average. And he’s done so with a well below average fastball, velocity-wise. While the industry is throwing harder and harder, he’s a throwback-type crafty lefty who keeps them honest with his fastball and gets them out with his secondary pitches.

His “out” pitch has varied throughout his brief career. He’s alternately leaned more on his curve, cutter, and now his changeup.

Among 2020 ERA qualifiers, only Giolito (57 Adjusted Contact Score, 24.2% whiff rate) received an “A+” grade, while Kenta Maeda (74, 25.9%), Dallas Keuchel (40, 15.3%) and Matthew Boyd (85, 25.7%) received “A’s”.

Yarbrough, who pitched 55 2/3 innings in 2020 to fall just short of ERA title qualification, slots in nicely with that group with a pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score of 57 and a whiff rate of 18.4%. The former mark tied for second with Giolito among the 29 ERA qualifiers with qualifying changeups, and the latter ranked 9th, at the high end of the average range.

It is imperative for Yarbrough to possess above-average secondary pitches due to the relatively pedestrian nature of his fastball (87.6 mph average velocity in 2020). His average changeup velocity of 78.8 mph was slower than that of all but two pitchers (Patrick Corbin and Keuchel) who tossed 54 or more innings last season.

He spotted the pitch masterfully, however, getting outs at both the top and bottom of the strike zone. He notched a 44.2% grounder rate on his change, not far off of the ERA qualifiers’ average. What set him apart was his 13.5% pop up rate on the pitch, far above the industry standard.

Stylistically, what the pitch lacks in velocity, it possesses in horizontal movement. Its average 9.7 inches of horizontal movement was tied for 2nd (with Marco Gonzales and Mike Minor, behind only Jesus Luzardo) among all pitchers with 54 or more innings pitched. His average vertical movement of 2.1 inches was well below average.

Yarbrough’s change didn’t look like the other “A” grade recipients, which had more vertical and less horizontal movement than average, though they also featured relatively low velocities.

Click here to see the changeup pitch grades for the 20 qualifying pitchers who hurled between 54 and 59 2/3 innings in 2020.

The three main jobs of a pitcher are to maximize strikeouts, minimize walks, and manage contact. Yarbrough is a master of the latter two skills, though he isn’t great at the former, which is likely the most important.

He will need to walk an increasingly fine line to remain successful in the current three-true-outcome environment. He’s posted strong Adjusted Contact Scores of 87, 72 and 86 the last three full seasons, and “Tru” ERA- (my contact-based ERA/FIP proxy) marks of 89, 68 and 85.

Problem is, the lower his K rate drifts, the more pressure that will be applied to his contact management skill to maintain his overall performance. And there is considerable risk here.

His average fastball velocity has trended down throughout his career, to 87.6 mph in 2020 and 86.1 mph in his first two starts of 2021. Fastball usage has drifted down throughout the game; Yarbrough threw his sinker only 23.4% of the time in 2020, less than his 30.0% changeup rate that ranked behind only Zach Davies and Giolito among ERA qualifiers. At what point does a changeup cease being a changeup and become the pitch hitters focus upon?

But such is the life of the crafty lefty. You need to continually change your stripes to survive, let alone thrive. Yarbrough has been a moving target for years now, and has managed to stay one step ahead of hitters in the AL East—no small feat. Let’s see what he has in store for us next.