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Jimmy Yacabonis' first Orioles start Thursday a reward for unconventional commitment to his transition

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

The last time Jimmy Yacabonis came to Baltimore to pitch with the Orioles, he didn't seem — or feel — much like a starting pitcher.

He was on an in-between pitch count to build him up from the reliever workload that was all he'd known as a pro. He'd just made his second relief appearance in the majors and was sent down with manager Buck Showalter’s derisive directive to "work on his command and backing up third base" after a mental lapse that day last month.

But in the interim back at Triple-A Norfolk, Yacabonis has been a legitimate starter, from his pitch limits and his handling to his mindset about the whole plan. That he got the chance to show his progress as Thursday's starter and not a reliever, pitching four innings of two-run ball with five strikeouts before hitting his pitch count in an eventual 4-2 loss to the Seattle Mariners, gives all the credence this experiment needs to show it's for real.

"I can understand from an outsider's point of view how it would seem like maybe I would be a starter in the long run — because that's what it seems like for me, too," Yacabonis said. "They like the progress that I'm getting down there and the work that I'm getting down there."

Once the organization let the plan take course, which included Yacabonis making seven starts with disruption, everything seemed to take hold. He had a 1.99 ERA with a 0.884 WHIP in that span, and a 3.14 ERA overall this season.

There will be no bigger test than Thursday against the Seattle Mariners, but that the pitching-starved Orioles are handing him such an opportunity is as much a product of that reality as the organization's vision for Yacabonis.

Vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson helped create a consensus for the plan with Showalter, executive vice president Dan Duquette, farm director Brian Graham and pitching coach Roger McDowell. Anderson said Yacabonis mentioned the possibility last season, and the fact that the 26-year-old right-hander "has maybe the best fastball in the organization" in many of their estimations helped.

"But, he also had struggled with command," Anderson said. "You don't really get a lot of practice as a reliever, especially coming to the big leagues a few times. If you have that type of fastball, you see his body — he's got super broad shoulders, a long body, long arms, big hands. But the most critical thing is that he wanted to do it."

It's been a big adjustment for Yacabonis, who hasn't started since high school. At the beginning of this year, the circumstances made it hard to get into it.

"The first month or so, I was out there throwing 60 pitches, and if I walked a guy, I wasn't going to get through the fourth," Yacabonis said. "I was going to throw three and change." He understood it was for his own good, but said "that was kind of the most frustrating thing for me."

"I felt like I was a starter, but I didn't feel like I was a starter until I started going five innings with a 70-pitch cap," Yacabonis said.

There were some longer outings before his last major league relief appearance, but his current workload is a sweet spot for a variety of reasons. For Anderson, it's a way to manage Yacabonis’ arm during such a drastic transition, even with some rest already scheduled for later this season to ensure he gets through his first year as a starter healthy.

And to the organization, it distinguishes Yacabonis from some of the other relievers the Orioles have done this with in recent years — namely Tanner Scott and Jesus Liranzo last year at Double-A Bowie.

While it never took for Liranzo, Scott used the three-inning starts he was handed for game action, then developed a plus slider and worked on his delivery during the bullpen sessions between starts.

But that was mostly done with the goal of making them better relievers. Showalter said it can be both, but the team's needs are always for starting pitchers. Anderson said the two plans are not the same, and that "we need starting pitching.”

"He's delivered so far," Anderson said.

Part of that is because of the benefits this schedule brings. Yacabonis is thrilled with what he's able to do in between starts, from the extra pitches in bullpen sessions to the long toss programs.

Anderson said the first thing Yacabonis told him was how much he liked pitching out of the windup, something he didn't do as a reliever but has helped his slider and changeup play up. It's also challenged Yacabonis to throw more strikes and attack hitters, something Showalter has pushed him to do whenever he's gotten the chance.

"If you look at what he was missing, it initially gave him a chance to use all of his pitches and become a well-rounded pitcher because he's not going to up here and sit and throw high fastballs by people," Showalter said.

"A lot of the things he needed to work on were not going to be able to be worked on coming in pitching one inning in a one-run game in Triple-A, whether it be holding runners, secondary pitches, whether it be dealing with some of the challenges that pitchers have, regardless of whether you're a starter or reliever."

Yacabonis has taken his pitch limitations as almost a game within the game.

"That has helped huge," he said. "When I found out I had a 70-pitch count and I could only go five innings, between those two things, I was like, I have no choice — I have to be efficient with my pitches. If I can get through a game, five innings in Norfolk, regardless that means that I'm under 70 pitches, that means I did my job. That means I was efficient with my pitches."

The Orioles undertook this knowing Yacabonis still had relieving as a fallback option. That much was made clear when they called him up twice to relieve in a pinch this season.

But after that, leaving him in Norfolk to truly become a starter was a consensus, too, Anderson said.

"Let's let this guy develop," Anderson said. "Let's not disrupt him and bring him up for an inning or two, and keep him on schedule. Because if we ever need a starter, that would be certainly more beneficial than bringing a guy up for an inning or two and sending him back down. It was done with the intention of developing Jimmy, and taking care of him simultaneously, the best way that we could."

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