Yates is measuring up pretty well to older brother Tyler, who pitched parts of five seasons in the Majors. Except when it comes to height. Kirby checks out at “5-foot-10 and three-quarters.” Tyler is 6-foot-4.
“People are always like, ‘What happened?’” Kirby said. He responds: “I got the arm, and that’s all that matters.”
In 2005, Yates was drafted out of high school by the Red Sox in the 26th round, but he did not sign.
Kirby was extra valuable to the Yankees in the early 2016 season. He had been acquired for just $78,000 from the Indians over the 2015 offseason after Cleveland purchased him from Tampa Bay. As of May 25, 2016, he proved to be a quality bridge to the team's dominant back-end relief crew.
It was a remarkable turnaround for Yates, who battled injuries and ineffectiveness in 2015. But this isn't the first time Yates has overcome long odds. Along with his older brother, Tyler, Kirby is one of only two Major Leaguers who attended high school on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. He also overcame Tommy John surgery, which sidelined him for the 2006 and 2007 seasons. (Kelly - MLB.com - 5/25/16)
- MLB debut: June 7, 2014.
In 2017, Yates says he has put baseball into its proper perspective. That's because his wife, Ashlee, gave birth to the couple's first daughter, Oaklee. Yates returned to the club and whiffed Nolan Arenado after an eight-pitch battle in the eighth inning.
"Baseball's just baseball; there's a lot of other things that are more important in life," Yates said. "Once my wife got pregnant, I kind of realized that. That's another thing that's helped me this year. I come to work every day, but when I leave, I leave work at the field. I haven't done a good job of that in the past, but I've done that this year." (Cassavell - mlb.com 7/18/17)
Nov. 2018: Yates was on the MLB roster for the 2018 Japan All-Star Series with Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).
July 2019: Yates represented the Padres at the All-Star Game.
Oct. 3, 2019: Yates earned the Baseball Digest/eBay MLB Relief Pitcher of the Year Award.
Nov. 10, 2019: Baseball had never before had an official star squad that salutes a full season's worth of work the way other major professional sports do. But the results of the voting for the first All-MLB Team finally arrived at the Winter Meetings. The Padres Yates was named to the first team relief pitching group.
Dec 23, 2019: It has been quite a journey for Yates since joining the Padres. And the changes aren't limited to the baseball field. Yates and his wife, Ashlee, have welcomed two children (whom Yates often credits for helping bring perspective to his job in the big leagues).
Ashlee and Kirby Yates have also become very active in the community. Two years ago, Ashlee was diagnosed with epilepsy, and they've since partnered with the Epilepsy Foundation of San Diego County for numerous events and fundraisers.
MLB.com caught up with the Padres closer last week for a holiday-themed Q&A -- touching on his favorite holiday memories while growing up in Hawaii, his tenure in San Diego and his charity work:
MLB.com: First of all, what are your plans for the holidays, and how do you plan to spend the next week or two?
Yates: I'll be helping my wife wrap presents for the little ones and just hanging out with family. That's about it. That's really what it's about. My oldest daughter is getting a little bit older, and she's starting to understand Santa for the first time and the way the whole process works. So we'll see how this goes.
MLB.com: What are some of the normal holiday traditions for your family?
Yates: We usually do a dinner on Christmas Eve and then a lunch on Christmas. I don't think we're doing any of the hosting this year, just because we moved into a new house. So we've been busy with that. It's basically about getting together with family and getting the kids around their grandparents and everybody else.
MLB.com: You're coming off a pretty great season, and you were just named to the All-MLB Team. Can you describe what that honor means? You were an All-Star, obviously, but now you've been recognized for having put together a full season.
Yates: It's cool because you get to celebrate the entire body of work. Sometimes you can have a really good first three months and a bad last three months. Or vice versa. When you compile an entire six months of a baseball season, that's really hard to do. The fact that they opened up this award and are doing an All-MLB like they've done [in the NFL and NBA], I think it's neat. The more you think about the award, the more it makes sense to have it, and the more you appreciate what it means to win it.
MLB.com: The Padres have improved their bullpen already this winter. You've signed Drew Pomeranz, and some of the younger guys will make an impact this year. What do you make of the outlook of this bullpen and what it could be in 2020?
Yates: Obviously, it looks really, really good on paper. We've got a lot of power arms -- guys who can strike dudes out and miss some barrels. When you can stack more than two or three guys like that -- and we should have six or seven guys that can line up and be very dominant -- it's exciting. But we all have to go out there and do our part. I need to keep being my dominant self, and hopefully that trickles down. It's an area of the team we all feel very excited about.
MLB.com: This will be your fourth season with the Padres, and you've really turned your career around here. What has being a Padre meant to you, and why does this city, this fanbase and this franchise seem to mesh so well with you?
Yates: The personalities that I've come in contact with -- a lot of them are just real and easy to get along with. I've been really fortunate to land here and resurrect my career. I'm really thankful for the opportunity that they gave me. And the best part is the relationships that I've built and the relationships that I keep building. I think that kind of means the most to me.
MLB.com: I know that extends a little bit beyond baseball. You and your wife partnered with the Epilepsy Foundation of San Diego. Can you describe what that organization and those efforts mean to you?
Yates: My wife was the head of this. She wanted to get involved and do something for it and just be involved in giving back to the community. The neat part for both of us has been meeting people that are going through the same things that we're going through and have gone through -- just asking questions and finding out their story. We've met a lot of great people in the foundation that we've partnered with.
MLB.com: What's your favorite holiday memory?
Yates: "I really remember when I was little, we used to get up and open presents. I used to run into my brothers' rooms early in the morning and wake them up and tell them to get up and get the day going. We'd finish opening presents in the early morning, and by lunchtime, we'd probably be at the beach running around.
"That's the thing that I'll always remember. We'd always have a family day, going to the beach or doing something like that. That's kind of what it's all about, getting with your family, hanging out and enjoying being with everybody. (AJ Cassavell - MLB.com - Dec 23, 2019)
2009: The Rays signed Yates as a non-drafted free agent, out of Yavapai Jr. College in Prescott, Arizona.
November 25, 2015: The Rays traded RHP Kirby Yates to the Indians for cash.
January 8, 2016: The Indians traded Yates to the Yankees for cash ($78,000).
October 5, 2016: He was claimed off waivers by the Angels from the Yankees.
April 26, 2017: Kirby was claimed off waivers by the Padres from the Angels.
Jan 12, 2018: Yates and the D-backs avoided arbitration, agreeing on a one-year deal.
Jan 11, 2019: Yates and the D-backs avoided arbitration, agreeing on a one-year deal for $3.0625 million.
- Jan 10, 2020: Yates and the D-backs avoided arbitration, agreeing on a one-year deal for $7.0625 million.
|Birth City:||Lihue, HI|
|Draft:||Rays - NDFA - 2009 - Out of Yavapai J.C. (Ariz.)|
|2011||GCL||GCL - Rays||4||6.2||6||3||2||4||0||0||0||2||0||2.70|
Yates has a 92-96 mph 4-seam FASTBALL. He also has an 85-88 mph SLIDER and an 86-89 mph CHANGEUP.
"Kirby's got a pretty unique release point, and that helps him to get on top of hitters," Rays pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "It's not in the normal slot, or even at three-quarters or lowered. It's just different." (Kelly - MLB.com - 5/25/16)
2016 Season Pitch Usage: 4-seam Fastball: 60% of the time; Change 3% of the time; Slider 32.3%; and Curve 4.7% of the time.
2017 Season Pitch Usage: 4-seam Fastball: 62.3% of the time; Sinker less than .1%; Change 13.9%; and Slider 23.6% of the time.
2019 Season Pitch Usage: 4-seam Fastball: 56.9% of the time; Slider 1.1%; and Split 42.1% of the time. Average velocity: 4-seam 93.7 mph, Slider 85.6, and Split 86.6 mph.
"I'm comfortable," Yates said of pitching for the Padres. "They've allowed me to be myself. I had some things that I wanted to do within myself, that I thought I needed to do. They've let me do that and helped me along the way."
The best example, Yates says, is his split-finger fastball, a critical third pitch in his arsenal. Yates had spent time with the Rays, Yankees and Angels, but the Padres were the first team to truly nurture his splitter. (Cassavell -mlb.com - 7/18/17)
2018 Season Pitch Usage: 4-seam Fastball: 58.3% of the time; Slider 4.7%; and Split 37% of the time. Average velocity: 4-seam 94.6 mph, Slider 87.4, and Split 87.9 mph.
2018 Season: In the second half of 2018, Yates became the closer for the Padres, after Brad Hand got traded to the Indians. In San Diego, Yates was encouraged to lean on a splitter he had recently developed, an approach that has made a world of difference. Working off a 94-mph four-seamer, the 87-mph split falls off the table and makes life difficult for hitters. Over the past two seasons, the pitch has generated a 46 percent whiff rate, with opponents batting .126 with 83 strikeouts in 143 at-bats.
April 22, 2019: Kirby Yates got his introduction to the Padres' closer tradition in the best way possible. In the summer of 2006, Yates flew to San Diego to watch his brother, Tyler, pitch for Atlanta. With the Padres clinging to a late lead, the bullpen doors opened, "Hells Bells" clanged, and Trevor Hoffman shut down the Braves.
"I remember getting goosebumps," Yates recalled.
Now Yates is the one opening those doors. Since his arrival in San Diego two years ago, he's become the most dominant reliever no one's talking about. Take a look at the relief ERA leader boards since the start of last season:
1) Blake Treinen, 0.782) Jeremy Jeffress, 1.263) Sean Doolittle, 1.474) Edwin Diaz, 1.895) Kirby Yates, 1.92
Relief ERA isn't always a great barometer but the rest of Yates' numbers also stack up. In that time, he's ranked fifth in strikeout rate minus walk rate (30 percent), eighth in xWOBA: (.198), ninth in FIP (2.28) and strikeout rate (37 percent).
Kirby Yates is probably not someone you think about enough. He's been incredible this year. (17/3 K/BB, 0.90 in 10 innings.)
This year 2019, Yates is the only pitcher in baseball with a strikeout rate higher than 40 percent and a hard-hit rate lower than 20 percent. The Padres have needed every ounce of those efforts. They've won 12 games, all by three runs or fewer, and Yates has finished 11 of them. He's atop the NL with 10 saves, and he owns a 0.75 ERA with 19 Ks in 12 innings.
Yates has followed a long line of excellent Padres closers, and he's lived up to the standards set by Hoffman, Goose Gossage and Rollie Fingers, among others. Nationally, he’s not quite so well-known. Yet.
Who is Kirby Yates?
Aside from one of the most dominant relievers in baseball, he's an unassuming, laid-back Hawaiian. Yates is 5-foot-10, rocks a mohawk and serves as the bullpen’s funny guy. He just turned 32, after a winding career in which it took a decade to develop his splitter into one of the sport's nastiest pitches.
"He's not the body type you'd expect in a closer," said Padres skipper Andy Green. "He's not the package you'd expect in a closer. But he's every bit a closer."
Yates went undrafted out of college in 2008 and '09 after missing two seasons because of Tommy John surgery (he had been taken in the 26th round out of high school by the Red Sox in '05 but didn't sign). That gave him the appropriate chip on his shoulder.
"In the Minors, if I was pitching, and I was facing a first-rounder or a second-rounder, I knew it," Yates said. "I was totally conscious of that. I wanted to make a point, I wanted to strike them out. I want to test myself. But it got to a point in Double-A or Triple-A where I was just like, I don't care who you are anymore. I'm good enough."
How did Yates get to San Diego?
Yates spent two seasons in Tampa Bay and a season with the Yankees. He pitched middle-relief with middling results from 2014-16. Following the '16 season, Yates recommitted himself. He moved to Arizona, where he could intensify his offseason workouts. He began throwing his splitter. Yates felt he was poised for a big season.
Then, in an early-season bullpen crunch, Yates was cut by the Angels after just one appearance.
"Out of all the teams, out of all the times, that was the only time where I thought, 'OK, you guys messed up,'" Yates said. "I got why Tampa got rid of me. I got why New York got rid of me. I understood. But that one, I didn't."
The Padres were happy to swoop in. Their scouts liked Yates' splitter, even if he'd only been throwing it for a couple months. At first, Yates was stubborn in ditching his slider. But his results with the splitter didn't lie.
"Every time I threw a good one, I got a swing and miss,” Yates said. “I didn’t know how to use it at first. But that told me, 'Wow, this is going to work.' I just need to get it consistent."
Why is he so good?
Easy. Nobody hits Yates' splitter. Since he began using the pitch, opponents are batting .127, slugging .182, and they have a .168 xWOBA against it. It has +4.0 inches of drop vs. the MLB avg.
The reason it's so effective: It's the perfect complement to his fastball -- a pitch with nearly 1,000 more RPMs. Yates is basically 60-percent fastball, 40-percent split, and that mix has baffled opposing hitters.
"They come out exactly the same and go two different directions," said Craig Stammen, Yates' catch partner. "Honestly, if I could pick any two pitches that match up perfectly, I'd pick those two."
Yates isn't one to get rattled either, given his winding career path. He spent most of last season with a severely sprained ankle and pitched anyway, assuming the closer role in mid-July, when Brad Hand was traded to Cleveland.
"Last year he played with a dang near cast on his ankle all year," said bullpen coach Doug Bochtler. "You see that blue-collar workingman's mentality with these amazing results. You see that, you know what he's been through, and now he's one of the top closers in the league."
Time for the baseball world to take notice. (AJ Cassavell - MLB.com - April 22, 2019)
May 1, 2019: Yates’ 14 saves this season are the most ever by a major league pitcher before May.
June 19, 2019: Yates recorded his 26th save in 26 chances. The 26 saves ties the Padres record for most saves before the All-Star break set by Heath Bell in 2011. Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman had 25 saves before the All-Star Game on three separate occasions.
In 2017, Kirby was a middling reliever, freshly claimed off waivers, trying to find a home in San Diego's bullpen. Now, he's an All-Star.
After a brilliant first half of 2019, the veteran right-hander was named as the Padres' lone representative to the Midsummer Classic in Cleveland on July 9. Yates leads the Majors with 30 saves, he owns a 1.15 ERA, and he's striking out hitters at a 41 percent clip.
Yates reinvented himself with San Diego, developing a split-finger fastball that qualifies as one of the nastiest pitches in the sport. He's posted a 2.53 ERA in parts of three seasons with the Padres, to go along with the highest strikeout rate in franchise history.
“I had to earn everything I’ve gotten,” Yates said. “I had to earn my way to the big leagues. I had to earn my way to stay here. I had to earn every role. This is something I feel proud of because I earned it. Nobody’s ever going to take this away from me.”
Coming off a strong finish to the 2017 campaign, Yates set a 2018 preseason goal to make the 2018 All-Star team. He fell just short, as close friend and former teammate Brad Hand was the Padres’ lone representative.
“I’m tired of not being good,” Yates recalled feeling two years ago. “I want to make an All-Star team for myself. I got close [in 2018], but I was totally fine with the outcome. This year it just kind of happened. I’m really grateful for it, and it’s not something I’ll ever take for granted.” (Cassavell - mlb.com - 7/7/19)
- July 10, 2019: This is the 19th time that a closer/relief pitcher has represented the Padres in the All-Star Game.
But no one has gone into the All-Star Game with the first-half credentials that Kirby Yates has compiled this 2019 season.
Let us begin with the raw numbers. Yates went into the All-Star break with exactly 30 saves in 90 games (and 45 Padres wins). That is a save in 33 percent of all Padres games and in 67 percent of the Padres wins.
He worked a total of 39 innings in 38 appearances and finished the first half with a 1.15 ERA -- giving up seven runs (nine earned) on 22 hits and nine walks with 60 strikeouts. He finished the first half with a 0.795 WHIP, a .163 opponents’ batting average and a .231 opponents’ on-base percentage.
The 30 saves are the most ever by a Padres’ reliever before the All-Star break. Heath Bell held the old mark with 26 saves in 2011. Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman had 25 saves at the break in three different seasons. (B Center - Padres - July 10, 2019)
Sept. 7, 2019: Yates became the first pitcher in the big leagues to reach 40 saves this season. He also joined an elite group of San Diego relievers to hit that milestone.
In franchise history, only Trevor Hoffman, Mark Davis and Heath Bell have notched 40 saves in a season for the Padres. Hoffman did so nine times, including the franchise record of 53 in 1998. Bell accomplished the feat three times, most recently in 2011.
- September 26, 2019: With 3 games left in the 2019 season, Kirby leads all Major League relievers with a 1.19 ERA and a 1.31 FIP. He clinched the 2019 saves title, becoming the first Padres reliever since Trevor Hoffman in 1998 to lead the Majors in saves. Yates' 41 saves put him four ahead of Aroldis Chapman and Roberto Osuna.
"It's a cool accomplishment," Yates said. "Any time you lead the Major Leagues, that's neat in itself. It'll be cool to tell my son and my daughter that their dad actually did something. I don't know that they'll believe me. But I think that'll be the coolest part. Ten or 15 years down the road, it might mean a little more."
Yates is merely the latest in a long line of successful Padres closers. Previous National League saves leaders in San Diego include Hoffman, Heath Bell, Mark Davis and Rollie Fingers. In Hoffman, Fingers and Goose Gossage, the Padres boast three Hall of Fame closers.
"He's just followed the tradition," said pitching coach Darren Balsley. “He’s carried it on.”
That legacy clearly isn't lost on Yates, a journeyman who arrived in San Diego in 2017 and quickly became one of the sport's most dominant relievers. "To be a part of that group, it's humbling," Yates said. "There's been a progression over the last three years, and this is what it's led to. It's really been a lot of hard work, and it hasn't been just me. There's a lot of people involved in this." (Cassavell - mlb.com - 9/26/19)
Oct 3, 2019: Baseball Digest Magazine has selected its major award winners for the 2019 MLB season, and Padres closer Kirby Yates was named the Majors’ Relief Pitcher of the Year.
Yates captured his first Baseball Digest Relief Pitcher of the Year Award after leading the Majors with 41 saves in 44 opportunities. Yates’ 1.19 ERA also led all big league relievers (min. 50 innings), and that mark lowered to a microscopic 0.59 when he was brought into a save opportunity.
2019 season: In his first full season as San Diego's closer, Yates was the only big leaguer to reach the 40-save plateau (41), and he led MLB (min. 20 innings) in ERA (1.19) while finishing third in strikeout rate (41.6 percent).
As of the start of the 2020 season, Kirby had a career record of 12-16 with a 3.40 ERA, having allowed 39 home runs and 223 hits in 278 innings. Kirby has 55 saves in 65 attempts, (84.6%).
What saved Kirby's career? During his brief stint with the Yankees in 2016 one moment breathed new life into his career. Masahiro Tanaka taught him the grip he used to throw his spitter.
Kirby then worked on it in the off-season with former Rays pitching teammates Matt Moore, Merrill Kelly, Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly. Soon Kirby could throw a slitter at a blazing 95 MPH. His career took off from that point. (Kirk Lee Aeder - Feb. 2020)
- April 2, 2020: Why Yate's splitter is so nasty: +4.0 inches of drop vs. MLB avg.
This pitch quickly catapulted Yates from a fairly anonymous reliever bouncing around the fringes of Major League rosters all the way to one of the game’s top closers. The change happened in April 2017, when Yates was claimed off waivers for the second time in six months, this time by the Padres. They encouraged Yates to embrace the splitter, and off he went.
Only Tyler Clippard gets more vertical movement on his splitter than Yates, compared to the MLB average while factoring in velocity. The pitch is there, and then it simply falls off the table, leaving hitters to either miss entirely or pound the ball harmlessly into the ground.
Over the past two seasons, opponents have missed on 39% of their swings against Yates’ splitter, and even when they have made contact, it’s been hit on the ground 63% of the time. The result? A .158 average, .202 slugging percentage and 106 strikeouts in 243 plate appearances ending with the split. (A Simon - MLB.com - April 2, 2020)
While at Yavapai College Kirby missed the 2016-17 due to surgery for a torn ligament in his pitching arm.
- April 29-June 10, 2015: The Rays placed Yates on the disabled list with a strained right pectoral muscle.
- April 9-20, 2018: Kirby was on the DL with right ankle tendinitis.