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Kirby Yates has the perfect dog... and splitter

The emergent Padres have an emergent closer.

MLB: San Diego Padres-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There are two things that are basically perfect about Kirby Yates and his tenure in San Diego. The first would be his Statcast batted ball profile, which is laughably perfect:

The second is his dog, who I followed religiously during his time with the Yankees:

Other than following his dog, most of his Yankees career was rather pedestrian. The stuff was fine, but a 5.23 ERA is not something to get too jazzed about, and the Yankees basically thought the same. Little did they know, they would be victims of their own success.

As was evidenced in my last piece on James Paxton, and as I have written extensively, the Yankees have been at the forefront of the pitch-backwards revolution, and have tasked nearly all of their non-fastball-first pitchers with choosing a secondary pitch to throw nearly as often as their primary. He took the slider approach, which was a lackluster pitch with just a 11.97% whiff rate in 2016, so he shopped for a new one. What he decided on, according to Ken Davidoff of the New York Post, was rather interesting:

“‘Maybe I should change my out pitch from the slider.’ The splitter was the solution, he determined, and he started picking the brains of Yankees who threw a splitter like Nathan Eovaldi, Chasen Shreve and Masahiro Tanaka. ‘I was amazed everyone’s grip was a little different,’ he said. ‘I came up with a grip on my own.’

He went on his merry way to the Angels and finally the Padres, where he solidified his position as a splitter-secondary reliever. This year, the trend has only intensified:

Yates now throws the splitter over 40% of the time, a far cry from even two seasons ago. The results have been nothing short of astounding. Since the beginning of last season, he has produced more value from his splitter (a whopping 12.5 runs) than any other pitcher in baseball, and most by wide margins.

Part of that actually has to do with his, like with talk of Paxton on Tuesday, decreasing the amount of spin on the splitter; it’s notable here that the black dot, where Yates resides, is on the lower half of this nice correlation between spin rate and xwOBA over the last two seasons.

Even from the beginning of 2018 to now, the amount more bite is incredibly noticeable, from March 29th then... striking out Carter Keiboom to end a game just last week:

The obvious eye-test aspect we can now confirm is this has resulted in significantly more downward movement:

This has led Yates to completely dominate the reliever leaderboards to start 2019, ranking extremely high in the main statistical categories:

  • ERA-: 7th (14)
  • FIP-: 3rd (26)
  • K%+: 8th (170)
  • fWAR: 1st (1.0)

Relievers come and go, and Yates may in fact do the same. It’s incredibly hard to throw a single pitch really well, especially considering how quickly some fade into the distance just as they become dominant.

Yet we can be confident about a few things. Yates’ splitter, beyond a doubt, is for real. He learned it from an organizational knowledge base that has experience and success with it, and it shows both in the changed spin rate (and presumably, grip), and it has shown its worth in vertical movement and thus whiff rate and strikeouts. The Padres are one of The Teams To Watch this season, and they now have a truly elite closer in the mix.