The Tampa Bay Rays brought a few new buzz phrases into the 2018-19 baseball offseason, stemming from their strategy in 2018, namely “the opener” and “bullpen days.” The concept of a “bullpen day,” using multiple relievers in a game instead of a conventional starter, is actually not new, but it’s much more commonly used now due to the tactics of Kevin Cash and the Tampa Bay staff.
Recently, with the 2019 season just underway, a new description has made its way into the baseball lexicon, one that first surfaced last summer: ‘Bulk Reliever’.
The most well known ‘bulk arm’ on the Tampa Bay staff is LHP Ryan Yarbrough, due to his 16 wins in just six starts last season. But a young right-hander is emerging as well in the Rays clubhouse, or, perhaps more accurately, re-emerging. Next time you get hit with that short-notice project at work, you’ll think of RHP Yonny Chirinos. He turned some heads on Sunday, March 31 vs. Houston with a seven-inning victory that featured six strikeouts and no walks.
The 25-year old Venezuelan allowed just two hits on the day, one of them a solo homer off the bat of Jake Marisnick in the third inning that temporarily tied the game at 1-1. Initially projected as a bulk reliever in a similar vein to Yarbrough, Chirinos may have staked a claim to an expanded role with his early season performance against one of the World Series favorites in 2019. The Rays took a 3-1 victory and an impressive opening series win by that same 3-1 tally. What did the day mean to Yonny Chirinos? It was his first MLB win as a starter, the longest start of his career and it matched the longest appearance of his career, a relief outing last season.
Chirinos rose up through the Rays farm system after signing with the club as an 18-year old in the summer of 2012. He has now grown into a prototype power frame, measuring at 6’2, 240 lbs. Chirinos’ big league debut last season provided glimpses of upside, and he was actually named as a starter last April before a forearm strain interrupted his season and, ironically, led to the ascent of Yarbrough.
He returned in late July and finished at 6-5 in 18 appearances. Five of those wins came after August 1, allowing Chirinos to carry momentum into the offseason. Sunday’s start was just his ninth in the major leagues. What worked so well? Let’s take a look.
Anatomy Of A Win
The newly acquired Rays catcher, Mike Zunino, worked with Chirinos for the first time in a regular season game and cited his sinker, splitter and slider as plus pitches. According to Brooks Baseball, he leaned on his sinker for more than half of his 88 pitches, at nearly 58%. As mentioned by Zunino, Chirinos’ splitter was lively as well, and he used it just under 24% of the time. He threw his slider in almost all of the remaining pitches (17%) and recorded just one four-seam fastball. Chirinos was clearly feeling his sinker, as it sat consistently in the 94-95 mph range and touched 96 mph in the second inning. He totaled 60 strikes on his 88-pitch line.
Overall, there were no major jams to speak of all afternoon at Tropicana Field.
— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) March 31, 2019
Chirinos set down the first eight in a row before Marisnick’s two-out homer in the 3rd on a 90.1 MPH slider. His offense quickly regained the lead in the bottom of that inning on a two-run Austin Meadows blast, and Chirinos retired eight consecutive batters before Marisnick returned with an infield hit with one out in the 6th—the second and final hit allowed on the day. However, he was quickly erased on the basepaths, as George Springer couldn’t catch up to a 94 mph sinker and a “strike ’em out, throw ’em out” double play ended the brief threat. A 1-2-3 seventh inning finished the day, as Chirinos routinely dispatched the dangerous 2-3-4 trio of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa, striking out Altuve on a sinker and two splitters to start the inning (all swinging).
Chirinos was originally supposed to come out of the bullpen on Sunday for his usual bulk reliever role following an opener, but he was named as a conventional starter on Saturday night to cover some early season bullpen fatigue. We, as fantasy owners, are always looking to link up to an emerging arm, especially in April when so much is still unknown and many story lines have yet to develop (see 2018: Juan Soto and Miguel Andujar).
It is probably premature to slot Chirinos in behind Blake Snell–Charlie Morton–Tyler Glasnow in the Rays rotation. However, even a return to the bullpen can carry some value for you as you get your season going. I hold two shares of Chirinos, one in a points league where wins carry strong weight, and the other in an automated Best Ball format with others here at Pitcher List.
Bear in mind that Tampa’s bulk relievers will often be in line for wins as they bridge the middle innings and cash in (no pun intended) when the Rays’ offense takes a lead. Yarbrough’s 16-win season in 2018 is Exhibit A in this scenario. In fact, the Yarbrough-Chirinos tandem is one of the key reasons I picked Tampa Bay to claim an AL Wild Card spot in our preseason Pitcher List prediction column.
We always see talent finding its way to the forefront over the course of a long 162-game season, so it would not surprise me to see Chirinos making his way into a conventional rotation spot. If that happens, the returns could be significant as he continues to build innings and refine his arsenal.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter).