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The Twelve Days of Free Agent Relief Pitchers: Day Four, Kirby Yates

On the fourth day of free agent relief pitchers, Kirby Yates has brought us a splitter with a -16 run value. So thoughtful!

Marlins @ Padres by Adam Moss is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Twelve Days of Free Agent Relief Pitchers: Day Four, Kirby Yates


Estimated Reading Time: 4 Minutes

We’re continuing our Padres portion of my Twelve Days of Free Agent Relief Pitchers with Kirby Yates! I hope that people of all or no religions will feel welcomed in this series, as long as they worship a splitter with a very nice .169 xBA.

The purpose is to rank these pitchers, but I am not positing landing spots, because marriages between particular relief pitchers and teams are more difficult to project than with position players and starting pitchers. Everyone needs relief pitching; even teams that have it wouldn’t mind having more of it, if they could come by the right deal. And teams that need it may not address it with the most obvious fit. That said, I do outline who needs relief pitching most in my first piece.

Kirby Yates

YES. Kirby Yates may not walk out of the 2020-21 offseason with the fourth largest contract, but I think he could easily be the fourth best reliever for a team to snag (or better). The difficulty for the 33-year-old righty is that he only pitched 4.1 innings in 2020, vacating the Padres team that Trevor Rosenthal was adding himself to memes to save. The 12.46 ERA he posted in this microscopic sample is indicative of nothing besides the pain that he experienced while pitching. Surgery to remove bone spurs in his elbow ended his season in mid-August.

And because of this injury concern, Yates is being downgraded this offseason. For example, MLB Trade Rumors has him as their seventh relief pitcher in their Top 50 MLB Free Agents piece. I’m still ranking him here, though, for two reasons.

Number One: A Blessing from the Lord of Statcast

Firstly, Kirby Yates was the God of Statcast in 2019 in the same way that Rosenthal dominated those metrics in 2020. And as with the God that appears in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it’s really a waste to avert your eyes.

In 2019, Yates had the best xERA, xSLG, and xwOBA in baseball, with a stunning actual-wOBA of .228 and 1.19 ERA to match. His 41.6% strikeout percentage is the Spiderman pointing at Spiderman of Rosenthal’s 2020 41.8% mark. That Yates led the majors with 41 saves is almost an afterthought.

The fact that he did this over a full 162 game season made me consider ranking him above Rosenthal—and maybe even Brad Hand—especially since it was his third good season in a row. Although it’s fair to point out that his otherworldly 354 ERA+ in 2019 bears no relation to marks of 180 and 107 in 2018 and 2017, respectively. (If you need a refresher on any of these advanced metrics, I am here for you.)

However, Yates is three years older than Rosenthal, and the 33-year-old doesn’t have the same overpowering velocity. Not relying on velocity may bode well for his aging curve, but Yates achieves success by playing his fastball off of his fantastic splitter.

In 2019, he added three more inches of vertical drop to the splitter, transforming into the most impactful of its kind, with a league-leading -16 run value (the runs expected to score on an event). As a caveat, however: splitters can be volatile, as a pitch onto which to hitch your proverbial wagon. Just ask Hector Neris. Or Masahiro Tanaka.

Number Two: “It’s only a bone chip”

Nevertheless, I’m ranking Kirby Yates here because I believe in his ability to come back nicely from his surgery. And I attribute this to the nature of the injury, not an ineffable quality in Yates himself, ie. his last name is a homonym with my favorite dead person. People are understandably concerned when a pitcher undergoes elbow surgery, but Yates’s surgery was only to remove several bone chips in his elbow, not something more serious like the dreaded Tommy John. (Which Yates did have, fourteen years ago.)

The rehab process for this bone-chips surgery is much shorter—typically six-to-eight weeks. During the season, rumors wafted around that Yates could return if the Padres went deep into the playoffs. Other pitchers like Sonny Gray, Blake Snell, and Nathan Eovaldi have all had similar surgeries and returned to form without long rehab. So–with the proviso that one of my bold takes heading into 2020 was that Ken Giles might be the best closer and I am therefore clearly not an injury guru–I believe that Yates has more than enough time, with the offseason, to be as good as new in March.

However, as I stated at the top, he may not get a good-as-new contract, since teams will not have seen him pitch. The FanGraphs’ crowd sourcing puts it at one year, $7 million. This feels like it could be a bargain, even amidst the “up to 25% off and more!!” sale running this offseason, but I understand why teams may not offer a longer deal, even to so talented a pitcher.

Ellen Adair is an actor, probably best known as Janet Bayne in “Homeland,” Bess McTeer in “The Sinner,” and Bridget Saltire in “The Slap,” but has been in a lot of other TV shows, films, and theater that the truly curious can investigate at www.ellenadair.com. As a human being, she is best known for her unhealthy love of baseball. It says so on her business cards. She loves baseball in general, but the Phillies are her life partner. She is the author of "Curtain Speech," from Pen & Anvil Press, and is working on bringing to life a TV series about baseball writers. Connect with her on Twitter at @ellen_adair or Instagram at @ellenadairg.

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