The Second Coming of Kirby Yates

Kirby Yates
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Yates had all but closed the door on the NL East, but he couldn’t quite get the latch to click. Tasked with preserving a 4–1 lead on the road against the Phillies, Yates set down Alec Bohm and Bryson Stott without much undue fuss, but Brandon Marsh just would not go away.

Yates has two punches to throw: a hard-fading four-seam fastball, and a splitter that drops out of the air like a goose that’s run into a power line. Down 2–0 to Marsh, he threw one blow after another: fastball up, splitter down. Marsh kept parrying the ball away — five foul balls in a row. Finally, the 36-year-old righthander ground the ball into his mitt and initiated the herky-jerky delivery that once made him one of the best relief pitchers in baseball, stabbing his arm down behind his right leg before bringing it up and around as he leapt forward off the rubber. Another splitter — and finally, Marsh swung over this one.

Yates picked up the save. The Braves, for the sixth year in a row, were NL East champions.

Four years ago, it would’ve only seemed natural that Yates would be the one to save a decisive game for the best team in baseball. In 2019, he was the All-Star closer for the Padres, and pointing out his accolades — he led the NL in saves and picked up some down-ballot Cy Young votes — understate how good he was that season. That year, Yates perfected that fastball-splitter combination and was close to unhittable. He struck out 41.3% of opponents, compared to a walk rate of just 5.3%. His eye-popping 1.19 ERA was backed up, thanks to that K/BB ratio and the fact that he allowed just two home runs all season, by an even more impressive 1.30 FIP.

It took Yates some time to refine his game to the point where he could close out big league games. An unsigned third-day pick out of high school, he missed what would have been his first two pro seasons after having Tommy John surgery, then became a workhorse reliever at Yavapai College, an Arizona community college that’s produced some 21 big leaguers, including Curt Schilling, Ken Giles, and Kole Calhoun. Yates went undrafted out of Yavapai and signed with the Rays as an amateur free agent in June 2009. It took him until 2014 to reach the majors, and within two and a half years of his debut, he had bounced from Tampa Bay to Cleveland to the Yankees to the Angels. Finally, in April 2017, the Padres claimed him off waivers.

His first year in San Diego, Yates started showing the hellacious arm-side movement that would make him an All-Star, but opponents slugged .656 off his slider. So in 2018, he essentially junked it, throwing either his fastball or splitter about 95% of the time. By the season’s end, he was closing games for the Padres. A year after that, he was the best closer in baseball.

“I think [the fastball and splitter] complement each other really well,” he told me before Wednesday’s game. “I think with my low arm slot, when I throw a four-seamer, it has carry and rides a little bit, so there’s a separation between the two. When they’re both on, hitters have to pick one and try to go hit that. If they’re caught in between, it’s usually a tough path for them. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, so if I throw the right pitch, usually it’s going to work.”

Yates’ reign at the top of the game was short-lived. In 2020, he made just six mostly ineffective appearances, allowing nearly as many earned runs in 4 1/3 innings (six) as he had the previous year in 60 2/3 innings (eight). On August 14, 2020, pitching for the first time in a week, Yates struck out Daulton Varsho, his first batter of the game, on a wild pitch. He then left the game with elbow discomfort and missed the rest of the season with bone chips in his elbow.

That winter, Yates signed an incentive-laden contract with the Blue Jays, but he never threw a meaningful pitch for Toronto, undergoing his second Tommy John surgery just before Opening Day, the day before he turned 34. “I spent my 34th birthday walking through the airport in a sling and cast,” he said.

Another creative contract — two years, backloaded, with a team option for a third — brought him to Atlanta, where he rehabbed for most of the 2022 season before finally getting back into game action last August.

“I made it back last year, but to be completely honest, the way I felt last year pitching, I didn’t know what this year would hold, how effective I’d be, or how long I’d be able to pitch,” he said. “Just based on the way the elbow was… obviously I had to go back on the IL. So that’s a telltale sign I didn’t feel great. Even at the beginning of [2023], it was still kind of a question mark.”

That 2019 campaign doesn’t seem like it’s particularly far in the past. Yates’ last All-Star appearance was the same year as Cody Bellinger’s, and teams were still tripping over themselves this past offseason to give the former MVP a chance to return to form. Yates’ actual layoff, in terms of regular-season action, was a hair under two years. But he doesn’t count his brief attempts to pitch in 2020 and ’22 as particularly meaningful, and his matter-of-fact appraisal of his injury layoff shows how treacherous his road back to the top really was.

“I didn’t pitch for three years, really,” he said. “I had bits and pieces of it, but last year I wasn’t ever myself. This is the first time where I felt like myself.

“The best analogy I can use is: If you’ve read a book that you know, and three years later you get asked questions about that book, you understand the premise and what the book’s about, but there’s a lot of little details that you probably need to read the book again to figure out,” he said. “So I think I’m in the process of reading that book again.”

Yates says he spent the first part of the season building up arm strength, and he took the mound hoping merely to get through each performance. But in the past six or seven weeks, he feels like he’s finally been able to execute a game plan.

Kirby Yates in 2023
G IP SO BB ERA AVG OBP SLG WPA
Through 7/26 38 38 1/3 52 22 3.52 .188 .307 .370 -0.38
Since 7/28 19 18 1/3 24 12 0.98 .088 .268 .140 0.42

Once Yates got back to re-reading his book, it’s remarkable how closely his repertoire now maps onto what he was doing in 2019, even after three lost seasons plus a couple more months of getting comfortable in his own skin again. He’s throwing his fastball and splitter in just about the same proportions, with the same movement and velocity to within an inch of break and a couple tenths of a mile per hour.

Kirby Yates’ Repertoire, Before and After Injury
Fastball Splitter
Year Usage Velo V-Mov (in.) H-Mov (in.) wOBA Usage Velo V-Mov (in.) H-Mov (in.) wOBA
2019 57.0 93.5 17.3 14.2 .294 42.1 86.3 37.6 13.6 .200
2023 53.4 93.6 17.5 13.6 .307 44.9 86.1 37.4 12.5 .236
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

“I think the stuff has been there,” Yates said. “I won’t say the entire time, but especially in the second half of the season, the stuff has definitely been there. I honestly think I’m throwing a little harder this year than I have in the past.”

There’s one chapter left for Yates to rewrite before he returns to his full 2019 form, and he’s fully aware of it.

“When I was really good, what separated me was my command,” he says. “I didn’t walk guys. I rarely put myself into bad counts, and even when I did, I could get myself right back in the count with either pitch. Honestly, I think that’s the only thing that hasn’t truly come back.”

Kirby Yates’ Command, Before and After Injury
Year BB% Rank Zone% Rank Z-Contact% Rank O-Swing% Rank
2019 5.3 17th 48.1 105th 76.0 11th 32.8 35th
2023 14.5 156th 45.4 151st 81.6 56th 29.3 83rd
Rank out of 158 qualified relievers in 2019 and 161 in 2023

Sure enough, Yates’ command, once one of his greatest strengths, is now a relative weakness. His walk rate is the most concerning number (incidentally, it’s also tanking his FIP), but Yates is also giving up more contact on pitches inside the strike zone and getting fewer hitters to chase outside it. He is confident his command will return as well.

“I just think it’s time off,” he said. “It’s that book, it’s really trying to get the little details that made you so good in the past and trying to relearn those. And the only way, honestly, is to go out there and suck and kind of re-evaluate yourself.”

That constant self-evaluation is particularly important to Yates because his out pitch, his splitter, isn’t the kind of thing he can just grip and rip.

“My mechanics have to be pretty good for it to be good,” he said. “When I have sloppy mechanics or I can’t repeat my delivery, it gets flat and doesn’t have the same sharp bite. Early in the year, I was throwing splits like I’d never really thrown before. They didn’t do anything. So I had to go out there and suck a few times so I could make the necessary adjustments.

“It’s still a battle,” he added. “I’m not sitting here saying that I’m 100% a finished product and I’m back to where I was or as good as I think I can be coming back to this yet. It’s still a work in progress. But I think I’m in a good spot now. I’m confident that I can go out every night and put up a zero or help us win.”

Throughout our conversation, I kept thinking that Yates seemed very patient and forbearing for someone who made his major league debut at 27, didn’t peak until he was in his early 30s, and (for all intents and purposes) missed his age-33–35 seasons recovering from his second Tommy John surgery. Ballplayers live such unusual lives that it’s sometimes hard to empathize with them, but what Yates has gone through the past four years is all too familiar. I wanted to talk to him not just because I enjoyed watching him when he was at his best with the Padres, but because I was curious how he’d processed that three-year rebuilding process at an age when most pitchers are starting to contemplate retirement.

“Maybe missing three years puts three years on the back end of it, so I have a chance to pitch until I’m 40,” he said. “If I had been pitching these three years, that’s a lot more games, a lot more wear and tear. I don’t feel any different than I did four years ago. I’m older, but I don’t necessarily feel older, you know what I mean? I’m still able to do this at the same level.”

As he’s rounded into form, Yates has found himself taking on a larger role, spelling Raisel Iglesias and A.J. Minter for occasional lower-pressure save opportunities. He has five saves on the year, three of which have come in September and two in the past week. All of that — the injury rehab, relearning himself, pitching through uncertain mechanics and flat splitters — is in the pursuit of one end that is now startlingly proximate. Yates has suited up in the regular season for two playoff teams (the 2020 Padres and last year’s Braves) but still, at age 36, has yet to throw a pitch in October. That postseason debut is now a near-certainty.

“There’s definitely high expectations. They demand a lot out of you,” he said of the Braves. “But in return, this is what you get, right? You get a team that’s really good and has a chance to win the World Series. And as a guy in my position, a guy my age, that’s pretty important to me right now.”

About 20 minutes after Yates struck out Marsh to clinch the division title, I went to see him again. The visiting clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park isn’t very big to begin with, and the screens erected to protect the lockers from champagne spray had pushed the Braves’ players, coaches and support staff, along with reporters and cameramen on hand to record the event — a few dozen people in all — into a claustrophobic corridor that ran through the middle third of the room. The air was so thick with champagne spray and cigar smoke it was hard to breathe without coughing.

Yates is only 5-foot-10, so I was worried I’d have trouble finding him in the forest of identically dressed ballplayers. But there he was, standing in the middle of the room by a tub of ice and beer, holding an unopened bottle of champagne in his fist. His clothes, hair, and beard were soaked. Not wanting to intrude too much more on the moment, I asked him only one question: How did it feel to be the one to get that last out?

“It’s weird how everything works out,” Yates responded. He paused for a moment and looked away. “Like we talked about earlier, the last three years have been odd and weird and difficult. But to just have the ball, to have the opportunity to go out and experience this, made it all worth it.”

I excused myself, and Yates went back to unscrewing the muselet from his champagne bottle. In three weeks, he’ll pitch in the postseason for the first time, finally feeling like himself again.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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tz
8 months ago

I first came to this site for the saberanalytics.

I stayed for the writing.

Case in point…this article.

TKDCmember
8 months ago
Reply to  tz

This site has had many many great writers over the years, including a few that came in with established reputations, but it’s good to see they are still bringing in new talent, and I’d put Michael firmly on that list.

He’s his own writer, but also definitely Jeff Sullivan-esque (my favorite former FG writer).