The Blue Jays Take a Chance on Kirby Yates

A day after signing Tyler Chatwood to solidify their options out of the bullpen, the Toronto Blue Jays made a much bigger splash by signing Kirby Yates to a one-year contract worth $5.5 million and an additional $4.5 million in potential performance bonuses. Yates’ addition may have been overshadowed just a few hours later by the massive contract Toronto signed with George Springer, but adding Yates to the bullpen has the potential to make a significant upgrade to a team weakness. Between 2018 and 2019, Yates was the best reliever in baseball. He posted a 1.67 ERA backed by a 1.93 FIP. He was the only qualified reliever during that two-year span to have a FIP below two, he accumulated a league-leading 5.2 wins, and racked up 53 saves as the Padres’ closer.

Unfortunately, bone chips in his right elbow limited him to six appearances and just 4 1/3 innings in 2020. The uncertainty surrounding his health paired with his advanced age — he’ll turn 34 in March — explains why his deal seems like a bargain for a pitcher who was just recently one of the game’s premiere relievers. His $5.5 million guarantee falls short of the $8 million average annual value our readers estimated as part of our top 50 free agent exercise, but it’s right around what Craig Edwards thought, though with one less year on the deal. Still, after his outstanding 2019, this one-year pact has to be seen as a bit of a let down for Yates.

Yates was positive after undergoing his arthroscopic surgery. “Everything went really smooth. Everything was very positive,” he told the media in August. It’s likely that Yates’ elbow issues are behind him now that he’s recovered from his surgery. Regaining the level of success he enjoyed during that magnificent two-year span may prove more difficult, but he still has the pitches to be an outstanding reliever for the Jays.

Yates’ dominance in 2018 and ‘19 was built upon a deadly splitter that was introduced well into his career. He didn’t start throwing it until 2017 and refined it over the next two years into one of the most dominant pitches in baseball. The pitch is so deceptive that he’s able to generate an outrageous 57.8% swing rate with it, one of the highest swing rates against a changeup or splitter in the game. And when opposing batters offer at it, they miss nearly 40% of the time. If they happen to make contact with the diving pitch, they pound it into the ground over 60% of the time.

Yates’ splitter is so good, he’s completely abandoned his slider and become a two-pitch pitcher. His breaking ball wasn’t that bad, though it was a bit inconsistent. A knock-on benefit of focusing his repertoire on two pitches is that his fastball has become much more effective. His fastball’s whiff rate was actually just barely higher than his splitter’s in 2019. He doesn’t have outstanding velocity on his heater, but it does have a really interesting movement profile. It has an average spin rate, but nearly all the spin he imparts on the pitch contributes to its movement. It has a decent amount of ride but it also fades like a sinker. In 2019, his four-seamer had the seventh most horizontal movement among all four-seam fastballs thrown at least 100 times.

If he’s healthy, Yates’ fastball-splitter combo should provide a lethal weapon for the Blue Jays to deploy in the ninth inning. In 2020, Toronto’s bullpen was just barely below average by league-adjusted FIP and ranked 11th in the American League. Their incumbent closer, Ken Giles, was beset by elbow issues and underwent Tommy John surgery at the end of the season. To replace Giles, the Blue Jays turned to Anthony Bass, Rafael Dolis, and Jordan Romano. Bass was merely serviceable and a free agent anyway. Dolis and Romano are both with the team still and showed some promise last year — both had ERAs under two and FIPs right around three. But if the Jays are serious about building on their surprise 2020 playoff berth, they needed to bulk up their bullpen.

Adding Yates is a bit of a gamble but one that comes without a significant investment. With the addition of George Springer and his $150 million contract, improving their bullpen at a reasonable price was likely a priority for the Blue Jays in order to give them room to add elsewhere. With Romano and Dolis providing adequate insurance should Yates’ elbow falter, the Blue Jays look like they have their bullpen nearly set.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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3 years ago

The contract may be an indicator of what they are expecting out of Yates. At 5.5M plus incentives for a single season can lend to the thinking that Yates is still very risky. There still needs to be an emphasis on how this is a single season; whether they come back together depends on Yates’ performance being in the middle of great and bad (‘just right’). I wouldn’t be surprised if Yates is more a solid arm trying to recover from a bad season than 100% their new closer. Romano had electric stuff in his small sample. I think it should be more closely contested if Romano’s breakout was real even if Yates returns to form.