Ryan Yarbrough was in Maddux territory. He’d thrown just 89 pitches as he walked to the mound to begin the top of the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners on Sunday with his Tampa Bay Rays leading 1-0, having allowed just three hits and no walks against eight strikeouts. The 27-year-old southpaw had two lefties waiting to face him, neither of whom had reached base that afternoon.
The inning started about as well as it could have, as Yarbrough took just 10 pitches to induce weak ground balls out of Mallex Smith and J.P. Crawford. He was now at 99 pitches and one out away from just the 18th complete-game shutout thrown in the majors this season. But as soon as Yarbrough got the ball back from the infield after Crawford’s groundout, he turned to see Rays manager Kevin Cash exiting the dugout and walking toward him. He tried to sneak in a word of protest before Cash got to the mound, but it was no use. His day was over.
“Obviously, a little angry,” Yarbrough said to reporters after the game, according to MLB.com. “But I think [Cash] would want me to be. I think he would want me to want to finish it. I don’t think I have any ill-will about it or anything.”
In the moment, Yarbrough did little to conceal the way he felt about the decision. Here’s the moment he sees Cash walking his way:
And here he is walking off the mound:
From Cash’s perspective, the move was a well-reasoned one. Tampa Bay was ahead by just one run, and the hitter on deck at the time, Domingo Santana, is plenty capable of doing enough damage to a mistake to make that lead evaporate. With the Rays possessing just a 1 1/2 game lead in the second Wild Card playoff spot, there was little margin for error in the big picture, too.
Instead of leaving his starter in for a 27th out, he handed the ball to Emilio Pagan, a right-handed reliever with a 2.01 ERA this season. That move triggered Mariners manager Scott Servais to replace Santana with pinch-hitter Omar Narvaez, who rolled over on the second pitch he saw and grounded out to the second baseman. The Rays won the game and clinched a sweep. At the end of the day, that’s the entire point. To quote Yarbrough himself: “[W]e’ll have a happy flight and go to San Diego.”
And yet, it’s still easy to feel for Yarbrough for not receiving the opportunity to close the game out. In recent seasons, managers have shown less and less reverence for the way their decisions affect possible individual achievements for their players, cutting plenty of no-hit bids short if they feel it is in the best interest of the pitcher’s health or the team’s chances of winning the game. Yarbrough wasn’t in line for the kind of clout a no-no would give someone — the only history on the line was being the first Rays pitcher since May 2016 to throw a complete game. But a shutout is still a rare phenomenon these days, the kind of achievement that requires the stars to align for someone to even have the opportunity to chase it. He must be dominant, of course, but he also must be efficient with his pitches.
When Yarbrough began the ninth inning on Sunday, it seemed as though everything was right where it needed to be for him to finish the game. He did exactly what he’d hoped to do, but even then, it didn’t matter, and it was never going to. From the MLB.com story:
“The thought process, simply in that inning, is that we knew Santana was coming up third … [we] liked the better matchup with Pagan,” Cash said. “Very difficult decision, given obviously with what Yarbs provided for us. But [we] felt like that was to give us the best chance to win.”
That sort of ruthless decision-making doesn’t sound like it’s out of line from the way many modern managers would go about their business, but there’s something about lifting a pitcher from a bases-empty, two-out situation in the ninth inning of a shutout bid that seems particularly cold. Using Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, I looked up every instance since 2000 in which a pitcher threw exactly 8.2 innings and allowed zero runs, searching for another example of a manager employing this tactic. I went through the box scores of each game that the search turned up and created this table.
|Name||Date||Score||Last batter||Runners on|
|Bryan Mitchell||9-24-2018||5-0||Walk||1st, 2nd, 3rd|
|Kevin Gausman||7-29-2017||4-0||Single||1st, 2nd|
|J.A. Happ||5-10-2016||4-0||Walk||1st, 2nd|
|Matt Wisler||10-4-2015||2-0||Walk||1st, 3rd|
|David Price||4-6-2015||4-0||Single||1st, 2nd|
|Carlos Carrasco||9-7-2014||2-0||Single||1st, 2nd|
|Matt Garza||4-12-2012||8-0||Reach on error||2nd|
|Guillermo Moscoso||9-7-2011||7-0||Reach on error||2nd, 3rd|
|Cliff Lee||8-31-2011||3-0||HBP||1st, 2nd, 3rd|
|Colby Lewis||7-15-2011||4-0||Single||1st, 2nd|
|Ricky Romero||5-13-2011||2-0||Single||1st, 2nd|
|Hiroki Kuroda||4-9-2010||4-0||Single,||1st, 2nd|
|Carlos Zambrano||9-10-2010||4-0||Reach on error||1st, 3rd|
|John Lackey||6-29-2008||1-0||Walk||1st, 2nd|
|Scott Olsen||5-6-2008||3-0||Walk||1st, 2nd, 3rd|
|Ryan Madson||6-29-2006||4-0||Single||1st, 2nd|
|Taylor Buchholz||4-22-2006||3-0||Single||1st, 2nd|
|Rich Harden||7-20-2004||0-0||Walk||1st, 2nd|
|Odalis Perez||4-30-2003||4-0||Single||1st, 2nd|
|A.J. Burnett||6-3-2001||0-0||Intentional walk||1st, 2nd|
Over the past 20 seasons, 42 pitchers have thrown exactly 8.2 innings without allowing a run. Before Yarbrough, just three of those exited the game immediately following an out, and nobody in this sample had left the game with bases empty. Five doubles, 19 singles, 10 walks, three errors, and a hit batter ended the days of the other 38 pitchers, which makes sense. Traditionally speaking, if a manager sends his starter back out for the ninth inning, he does so with a message that he can go until he allows a baserunner, or allows someone to reach scoring position.
As far as the past two decades of baseball go, there is no precedent for lifting a pitcher in the situation in which Cash removed Yarbrough, who also happened to have the fourth-lowest pitch count of the 42 pitchers on that list, was one of just 17 to allow three hits or fewer, and was one of just 10 to finish with zero walks. In recent memory, very few pitchers have thrown better than Yarbrough for as long as he threw without being allowed to finish.
Yarbrough, of course, knows to expect unconventional tactics when it comes to the Rays managing their pitchers. Those tactics have paved the way for him to throw the fourth-most innings of any Tampa Bay pitcher this season despite starting just six games. When he has been able to start, however, he’s excelled, holding a 3.16 ERA with 32 strikeouts and just four walks in 42.2 innings in those six appearances. He’s been solid in multi-inning appearances in games he enters in the middle of as well, helping him rack up 2 WAR in his second big league season. As frustrated as Yarbrough may have been on Sunday, he frustrated Mariners hitters even more. He made it as difficult as possible for Cash to make the decision he did. That’s a fight both parties will welcome any day.
Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.