Kirby Yates would like to forget the 2020 Major League Baseball season ever happened. Early on in the season, the once-dominant closer looked anything but.
After a handful of appearances where he struggled mightily the San Diego Padres wanted answers as to what had gone so wrong with their all-world closer from the previous season. The answer came in the form of bone chips in his throwing elbow. One surgery later and Yates’ 2020 season was over before it ever really had a chance to start.
Yates had to watch from the sidelines as his Padres made it to the playoffs and performed well before a slew of injuries led to their easy exit at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yates’ presence wouldn’t have made a huge impact in their sweep at the hands of their rivals. However, his presence all year long would have lengthened the bullpen and allowed less strain to be placed on a starting rotation with some seriously fragile arms. Be all that as it may, Yates ended his tenure in San Diego with a whimper, but prior to that he produced plenty of noise.
In 2019 Yates had a hell of a season for the still as of yet to realize their potential Friars. He appeared in 60 games, posting a DRA of 2.03 and a bWARP of 2.2. The Hawaii native’s 42 DRA- signaled that he had finally arrived in the land of elite relief pitchers. Only, hold on a second there, Yates’ 2018 was just as, if not slightly more, dominant than his much more noteworthy 2019. That season Yates appeared in 65 games, putting up a DRA of 1.92. Meanwhile, his bWARP was an identical 2.2 and his DRA- was one point higher at 43. Yates was, easily, one of the most dominant relievers in baseball during the two-year run.
Yates got to such a point via the combination of his ability to miss the barrel of the bat and tendency to bury a nasty split-finger fastball by hitter after hitter. The first part is what is most impressive. In 2018 Yates was in the 34th percentile when it came to missing barrels. He was getting by via a fourseam fastball and limited use of his aforementioned split-finger. The following season Yates augmented his approach and majorly increased his split-finger usage. The ensuing result was a jump to the 94th percentile in missing barrels. The capability Yates showed in increasingly missing barrels with his split-finger fastball, plus more with his fourseamer by playing off of his premier pitch, is the sign of a pitcher who knows what he doing on the mound.
All of the above points to a pitcher that teams should be lining up to sign this off-season. Unfortunately, that’s likely not the case based on two factors, neither of which are within Yates’ ability to control.
First, there is the market itself. Relief pitchers often find the market to be less than accommodating and that has only increased as owners have shown a heightening unwillingness to spend to improve their teams.
Injury concerns are the second factor. There’s no real reason to believe that Yates can’t come back just as dominant as he was before, but it is, all the same, understandable that teams have questions about his arm after the bone spurs.
Yates will find a new home, it’s simply a question of when and where. Whichever team targets the former Padres closer will find themselves with a vastly improved bullpen as a result. Kirby will ride again, there are far too many hitters he still needs to swallow up as he dominates whichever league he winds up playing for next season.