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Orioles Q&A: Jimmy Yacabonis on transitioning to 2019 and why he feels so many pitchers will improve

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Save for the experienced trio of Alex Cobb, Dylan Bundy and Andrew Cashner at the top of the Orioles' rotation, and the relief core of Mychal Givens, Richard Bleier and now Nate Karns, essentially every pitcher the Orioles have in spring training fits a certain mold.

They aren't necessarily young, but they're young in terms of major league experience. They all have some, and not all of it has been good. But they made it this far, and the task of the new coaching staff is to see how many of these types of pitchers they can help outperform their projections and reach a level that allows them to sustain success in the big leagues.

For few is this more true than for Jimmy Yacabonis, the minor league closer-turned-starter from a season ago who has spent this camp, in his mind, addressing some of the more glaring problems that have kept him on the shuttle back and forth to Triple-A Norfolk. He's unsure of a role at this point entering his scheduled relief appearance Thursday against the Minnesota Twins, but spent his year in the rotation last year between Norfolk and Baltimore learning how to pitch in a way that had never been required to as a closer.

And with some new practices and voices in his ear, led by pitching coach Doug Brocail, Yacabonis has spent the last month using the tools in place and the confidence that's being instilled in him by the coaching staff to unlock what he believes will be keys to a sustained major league role this year.

Our conversation Wednesday was meant to be a chronology of sorts on the work and instruction that went into taking the 26-year-old right-hander to the next level. It got off track in a good way, and turned into an honest, enlightening look at the way one Orioles pitcher is taking the two things that the new regime under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde have supplied in short order — modern development tools and unwavering confidence in the players to be themselves and be their best — to try to turn one of the best arms in the organization into a consistent major league one.

You mentioned to me around report date that you'd been here for a weekend already, so if Tuesday was the report date, you'd been here and thrown a bullpen already that weekend. Can you tell at that point that what's happening with you, coaching-wise, instruction-wise, feel-wise, is going to be different than what you're used to?

For sure. I feel like there's more to be said about — I don't know how to put it. It's almost like key words or key phrases, maybe, that Broc is really good at. It's something that resonates with me. He'll say a couple words here and there and something will click for me.

But I think some of the biggest things are the [Edgertronic] high-speed camera, honestly.

What makes it so for you?

For me? Basically, from the slot that I throw from, when I have the high-speed camera I can see when my fingers stay on top of the ball, and that's when I know I get the true action on the ball. Like, the other day when I was throwing, I was messing with new mechanics, so that's why my [velocity] was down. I was opening up and wasn't using my legs. My arm was kind of dragging behind me my last outing. I threw in the bullpen yesterday and kind of just went back to where I was in Clearwater [on Feb. 28 against the Philadelphia Phillies], and it's really cool, because Broc was even like, 'Dude, I know that you were trying something new. It's fine. That's what spring training is for. That's fine.' And yesterday, when I threw in the bullpen, he said, 'I knew you were trying something new. You didn't even have to tell me.'

He's awesome too, because he's just been so straight up with us about how much he has our backs, too. He says, 'If you go out there and show me that you're giving 100 percent and give everything you've got, I'm there to have your back.' That's reassuring for us.

Did you have the camera on you that first bullpen?

My first bullpen, I didn't. Being up inside and throwing inside in Philly all offseason, it's kind of different because you don't have cleats on, don't have a dirt mound. One of the biggest things, obviously, when you pitch is to keep that back leg that you have against the rubber, to keep it grounded. If you come off that back leg, you're throwing all arm, you know why I mean? You're getting no push off your back hip.

My first couple outings, my first couple bullpens, I felt like I wasn't grounded. My rhythm wasn't there. And that was going to come naturally. And Broc helped me with that. He was like, 'All right, stay back until your front foot lands. Once your front foot lands, then go. Don't just drift forward and let your hips go and not use legs.'

I think I actually have pictures from those days because it was striking.

He was literally holding me back.

Is that something you realize early you're going to get? I'm sure he called in the offseason and you're getting to know him. Is that something you realized early, that this is going to be a guy who's going to help?

For sure. And the way that the Orioles moved with hiring Elias and Hyde, too. I knew they were going to hire someone who would be super influential and good at developing guys, but I had no idea it'd be to the extent of how good Broc is at it.

That's the main thing, I think — having somebody to give you confidence to do your work. If you don't have confidence in what you do, it's not that you're going through the motions, but you're not necessarily sure if you're doing something right. You know what I mean? Now, if you do something right, it's like, 'That's good. Keep doing that.'

Around that time was probably when you had your meeting with them, too. Were you interested to know what the plan was, or if they had a plan for you, given that this time last year you weren't a starter?

Kind of. I mean, the role really isn't so important to me as just how to use my stuff effectively. That was pretty much what they wanted to get at, how to use your stuff effectively. Maybe how to maybe switch percentage-usage. Maybe in different counts, throw a different pitch. It just went to go show, like, what zones are the most effective pitches for that pitch. Does that make sense?

Absolutely.

I would never know that. Like last year, when I threw 2-0 sliders, it was — I'm just making numbers up, but guys hit like .120 off it. I would never know that unless I sat down and someone told me that.

Is that a new frontier too in that you weren't even really throwing anything but your fastball with regularity, so last year was something where you got confident with those pitches and now, you feel confident throwing a slider and throwing a changeup and it's learning when to throw it more effectively?

I don't know what they really see me as, if they see me as a starter or reliever, but regardless, last year doing that as a starter without a doubt helped me become overall a better pitcher. Even if I end up back in the bullpen, I think that my off-speed pitches are going to be there. I think that just made me a better pitcher and gave me more confidence with my pitches. That was huge last year, doing the whole starting thing.

But back to the high-speed cameras. The first time I was ever on one was this offseason In Philly, and I noticed that inside it's different. We had the high-speed camera, but it wasn't as good as the one we got here. And like I said before, it's hard to stay grounded inside. We have sneakers on, it's a turf mound. Everything's different. Then, once we got out here and I realized how to keep my weight back and kind of get down the mound without drifting, I noticed from the high speed camera, I noticed a completely different position with my hand.

If I'm rushing, I'm coming through my two-seam [fastball], my hips go forward, my arm drags, and my two-seam is out like that. [Yacabonis shows his top fingers more on the side of the ball than over it.]

It still gets great action, it's still super late, but it's not nearly as hard. And [my release is] not out in front. When I keep my weight back, push off this back leg, my hand is actually here [on top of the ball]. I'm ripping through out front. That was one of the biggest things I noticed — when I got my lower half in sync, on the high-speed camera, everything that was coming through was not only the same tunnel, but my fingers were always on top of the ball. When I used to get in trouble, I would always miss arm-side. All my misses were arm-side.

Is this an instant feedback type of thing, where it's not like you're looking at it but you can see it quickly? I know there was one day when you threw a bullpen or maybe live and the next day you said you had to go watch the slow-motion video. Is this something that's built into the routine now?

For me, it's very, very instant feedback. I used Rapsodo, [a camera and radar system] in the offseason, and that goes pitch-to-pitch. There's a green light behind the catcher in the offseason. You set it up, throw a pitch, it turns red, you wait for it to turn green and it goes pitch-by-pitch. There's a guy literally standing next to you with an iPad and he tells you spin-axis, height, height-release, all that stuff — velocity. The high-speed camera is more so — I feel like honestly, when you're throwing on the high-speed camera, you feel what's going on when you're doing it, but you can't comprehend it when you see the actual video. Does that make sense? You have to get the feel.

Obviously, I have way better feel for my pitches this year than I did last year, and going forward. But if you can feel what the right one was, and the next day, or whenever they upload it to the program within the next two or three hours, you go look at the ones that you left. Like if I leave one arm-side, I literally see my fingers like this [on the side of the ball] and I can see my arm dragging. My arm will back here [behind my body]. Where, on the high-speed camera, if I get through one, I know what that good one feels like. My hand is out here [in front]. I can see this part of my body. With the high-speed camera, I think it's just essential for developing a feel, because you know which one is right and which one is wrong.

Because you can get away with a lot of stuff. There's a lot of different ways to throw a baseball. You can get away with stuff without necessarily maximizing your potential to throw the ball as hard as you can. Like the other night, when I pitched against the Yankees. I didn't have my best stuff. I couldn't locate anything, pretty much. I was just throwing sinkers, and I got out of it because I relied on my movement and my velocity. I was relying on my movement just to get the ball down and get ground balls.

When I went back and looked at the video, I was like, 'My mechanics were horse-[crap] that day.' I look back like, 'What was I doing?' But at the same time, another guy might have that kind of outing and said that was a good job. I got through it.

But in reality, if you go and look at a high-speed camera if there was one that was on you during the game, it would look nothing like my last bullpen. Absolutely nothing. And that's that feel that I'm trying to explain, but it's hard to explain in words. That's that feel where, this is the right way, and I think one of the biggest things too with the high-speed camera is once you get that feel, it allows you to go back to it.

All the good pitchers — like last year, [Max] Scherzer had a pitch that was just a goof. He like slipped and fell and threw the ball into where the on-deck batter hits. I don't know if you remember that.

I remember.

The next pitch was like 96 [mph], painted on the outside corner. That's the type of thing that the high-speed camera is going to allow guys in our organization to comprehend. That's the feel. You can get back to that that quick. It's pitch-to-pitch. That's what I'm starting to develop, too, and realizing what the high-speed camera does, where even if I throw one here and it releases out the side, I remember from the high-speed camera that my hand was on the side of the ball there and it gets that kind of action and it's ball-to-ball. But if I can get my fingers on top more — I can just picture it in my head from watching so much video. I keep my hand flat and I keep my hand there on my changeup, that's going to keep it on my plate.

So there's two things that come out of that, and this is all really fascinating. We can talk about this as long as you want. ... But you're someone who, I know [former manager Buck Showalter] would always talk about how you had the size to start and your hands are enormous. Have you learned what's behind the way your ball moves, not just with hand movement and how your delivery affects it, but literally how your hands and how you naturally grip a baseball makes it move the way that it does? Or did you already know that?

I kind of always knew I had good life at the plate, but with the hand positioning and whatnot, I feel like — just from natural throwing, I've always realized that I had arm-side run. My whole life, I've noticed that whenever I throw the ball, most of the time it's going to run to the right. But with the cameras and the way that [it moves]... it's hard to explain.

I feel like I can almost make it run, sink. I never really threw a four-seam before, but with the stuff they have us doing with spin-axis and stuff, and the way things are running, I might start incorporating that, too. There's all kinds of things that you can add to your repertoire or sharpen up just from straight instruction, from video, and from the high-speed cameras.

I didn't know if it was like, for instance, [Richard] Bleier or Zack [Britton], their ball just moves the way that it moves and that's just how it's been.

That's kind of the way I've been, too. ... My two-seam is just a natural arm-action, natural grip. I go right on the seams. That's just a natural grip. But more so than anything, honestly, the changeup, I think is one of the biggest feel pitches and one of the biggest pitches when it comes to the hands. A lot of people don't realize that when you throw a changeup — I throw a fastball with these two fingers [index and middle] and my thumb. If I throw a changeup, I've got to somehow take velocity off the ball but keep the same arm action. My first instinct was to go like this and throw it with these two [index and middle again], but I never realized that the more pressure right here [on the middle finger], it's going to make that ball cut. So, if you put pressure on this inside finger, you're going to make it cut. My whole life, I thought the changeup was thrown with these two fingers.

This offseason, I did a lot of research, watched some video on Greg Maddux, some other guys. They apply pressure through the ball through these two fingers, their ring finger and their thumb. Applying that type of pressure through the ball right there gives you way more consistent action. If you keep these two light, I usually keep my pinky down, keep that one light and this one light and put pressure on the ball through [your thumb and ring finger] and keep that same arm action, you can rip it. And you consistently can see the ball trying to move like that.

But with the high-speed camera, too, if I throw one that's good and I feel it and I rip it through and it comes off that ring finger, then I can throw another one, then maybe I release a little bit earlier and it comes out the side of my hand, I can see it. It's ball-to-ball. That's another huge thing too with the changeup, and slider too, because you want to keep your fingers on top of the ball. That's one thing that I realized is huge, coming through the ball.

I talked to Mark Trumbo after he faced you in the simulated game, and I know that this something that doesn't take a new set of coaches to say you should throw it over and let the stuff do the work. Does all this your learning about the way your moves, and hot zones and cold zones and how your ball naturally goes to places that it's hard to hit it, is all that going to ultimately benefit the one thing that will take you to the next level, which is being able to just trust it and throw it in the zone?

I really do think so, and I think that the biggest thing was that last year, becoming a starter and being put into those situations where it's fight or flight. You better either produce, or you're gone. And you better hold your own, or you're going to be shot. Being able to slow the game down, I think — I understand that my pitches are going to move and they're going to move to spots that are probably harder for the hitter to hit, and it's harder to move when balls have life at the plate, but the most important thing is being able to slow the game down and control the timing of the game, because once you let that go awry, then your pitches at the plate mean nothing.

So they gave you that advice on a day that wasn't game-like, is command like that something that can come and go for reasons as simple as the environment like that?

When I got here, my motion wasn't nearly as good as it is here today, right now. And we were talking about it how every single day, you're working on it. It's not like you just come in one day and you're lights out and the next day you come in and you're lights out. You've got to come in and perfect it. I'll definitely attribute that more to just the days of baseball and the way it works.

Have you had moments where, in games, you're talking about how you have the one pitch you rip through and a couple that you don't. Can you catch yourself taking a breath and saying, 'All right, here's what this one has got to be.' Is that something you did before, or had to learn how to do on the fly?

I had to learn how to do it on the fly, absolutely. Last year, I learned to do that on the fly. When I was in a pressure situation, I learned how to almost take my foot off the gas pedal and just try to hit a spot. I've noticed more so this year, that I even feel it more. If I get behind a guy, I know I've got to throw a quality strike here, and I know what that feels like. I can tell on release point, when I'm releasing it, whether it's going to be where I want it to go or not.

That's something that I've never honestly felt before, and it's something that's coming with time, and it's coming with the technology, with the cameras and just Broc being there and talking to me. The other guys, too, like [minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt]. There are a lot of new eyes seeing you, and maybe they have a suggestion. Or maybe it's a guy who in the past didn't have as much voice in the organization, now he can say what he wants to say now that he sees me. It's all different aspects since it's a new regime and there are new eyes everywhere.

It's not only the help from the technology and the high-speed camera, but having new eyes, people who haven't seen me throw before.

Let's take this to the here and now. Is there an ideal for what your role is, or your 2019 season looks like in your mind as we sit right now?

In my mind, as of right now, I almost see myself as that pitcher that can almost do everything, kind of like a Swiss Army knife, whether they want me to spot-start here, come out of the bullpen long, come in for an inning and set up, come in and close a game if the closer is down for the day. Honestly, at this point in my career, I feel like I can do anything.

Having those guys behind me and telling me that I can do it and giving me the confidence in my stuff. Being able to face Mark and [Chris Davis] the other day and them telling me, 'Dude, you've just got to attack the zone. You've got really good [stuff]. It's hard to pick up. Your off-speed looks good, everything has life as it's getting to the plate.' That gives me more confidence. Realistically, I don't know what I'm going to be. I don't know where I'm going to end up. I'm hoping I make the team. I'm definitely going to put my best foot forward, and putting the work in to make the team, but for the 2019 season, it's kind of like I said — I'm going to go in with the mentality of the Swiss Army knife kind of thing. Whatever they want me to do.

Do you think your willingness to do that could make it so even if they see you as somebody who could start, that it's not like you have to start and get the innings in Norfolk. You can start and pitch in the bullpen if there are off days in between. Is that a credit to your case?

I don't want to sit here and say, 'I need to be a reliever,' or 'I need to be a starter,' and that's the end-all, be-all. That's one of the biggest things that I think last year that I did, because last year was my first time starting since 2010, since I was in high school. It was eight years since I started. Being able to show that I could hold my own and persevere though a season of starting, it continues to show my versatility.

It's almost like a guy like a Jace [Peterson] or a [Stevie] Wilkerson. They can play multiple positions, so that just adds that much more versatility to them. That's kind of the way I thought about it last year. If I can do it this year and hold my own as a starter, that'll just show them I have that much more versatility, because I was closer my whole career. Being able to show that kind of versatility is just going to add value.

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