CLEVELAND — Kirby Yates had a very simple plan for his career in 2017.
“I didn’t want to suck,” he said. “I wanted to be better. Plain and simple.”
Yates had earned a promotion to the major leagues based in large part on his performance as the closer for the Durham Bulls. He saved 20 games for the 2013 team that won the Governors’ Cup, then added another 22 saves over the next two years, finishing his tenure in Durham with a 2.33 ERA and 162 strikeouts in 112 innings.
The success didn’t translate in the majors, however.
Yates got two looks from the Rays, but after he posted a 5.27 ERA, they sold him. He ended up with the Yankees, where he wasn’t much better, giving up a 5.23 ERA. New York waived him, and he got into just one game with the Angels before getting waived again in late April 2017.
That’s when he made his plan and got a new beginning.
The San Diego Padres claimed him off waivers in what would likely be his last shot at the big leagues.
“I had a few opportunities before,” he said. “I was fortunate to get another one in San Diego.”
The Padres showed confidence in Yates, putting him on the MLB roster instead of sending him back to the minors. He responded by making a plan to make the most of his last chance.
“I put out a plan,” he said. “I wanted to do something different. I wanted to work on a better out pitch.”
Up until then, Yates had relied on a fastball and slider, which produced plenty of strikeouts — when things were going well.
“On days I had a good slider, that was getting strikeouts,” he said. “But on days when the slider was flat, that’s when I’d give up homers.”
During his brief time in New York, the other Yankees pitchers showed him their split-finger fastball grip, and, after playing around with it for a couple years, he was ready to roll it out.
“The slider wasn’t cutting it, so I developed the splitter,” he said. “Along with that, I developed the mindset that this was going to be different. I devoted myself a lot more in the weight room.”
The results were encouraging. Working mainly as a set-up man, Yates had a 3.72 ERA in 61 games for San Diego.
He also continued to get familiar with the splitter, working out the kinks with the new pitch and learning how to use it more effectively.
“I was trying to throw it in ’17, but I don’t think I really got it honed in until the end of the year in ’17,” he said. “I think that’s what helped me last year. I started getting a good feel for it and understanding how to use it better. I think the big thing now is I have to manage the pitch. I can throw it in or out. I know how to get it to break pretty consistently. I think that’s one of the most important things — the action is pretty consistent.”
The Padres responded by giving Yates back the closer role he’d last had in Durham. That meant coming in for three outs in the ninth, rather than the uncertainty of earlier innings.
“People think I’m crazy for saying this, but I think the hardest job in the bullpen is the seventh and eighth innings,” he said. “You’re still going out there getting three outs in ninth, the last three outs of the game, and they can be hard. I’m not saying its ever easy, but in the seventh or eighth inning, you’re usually getting the middle of the lineup. If you’re the eighth-inning guy, chances are you’re warming up in the seventh, in case guys get on base. If you’re the seventh-inning guy, you’re up in the sixth. I know if I’m pitching in the ninth inning, I have the lead and can just go. It’s not really like that in the seventh or eighth. You pitch in tie games. Sometimes you pitch down one.”
With a more stable role, Yates has thrived, posting 12 saves in 2018 after taking over the role. This year, he’s saved 30, the most in the league, and earned a spot on his first All-Star team.
Yates credits his new MLB home with helping him to achieve his grand plan.
“Everything worked out,” he said. “The comfort level when I showed up — they were telling me what they wanted me to do, and it matched up with what I had planned, what I was trying to do. I’ve got really good coaches that I trust. The staff members were all positive. I can just go out there and relax.”