SARASOTA, Fla. -- Kirby Yates’ quest to turn the clock back to 2019 begins Thursday in Dunedin, Fla., when the Blue Jays’ presumed closer will make his Spring Training debut, but Yates is already well into his throwing schedule.
With a handful of live batting practices and side sessions under his belt, Yates is on track for a normal camp. After his 2020 season was cut short by a procedure to remove bone chips from his right elbow, Yates felt these controlled environments would better allow him to find his groove mechanically, and it fits his ideal timeline, too.
“I try to keep that rolling into the season and hit the season in stride rather than plateauing and getting bored in Spring Training and having to wait for the season,” Yates said Wednesday. “Once I feel like I’m ready, I want the season to start, so I feel like I’m on a perfect schedule. I feel like I’m right where I need to be.”
With just 4 1/3 innings pitched in 2020 with the Padres, Yates feels like he’s almost coming off a season without pitching, period. That does present more of a challenge when it comes to getting back into his best mechanics, but when Yates is right, he’s proven to be one of the best relievers in baseball.
Yates pitched to a 1.19 ERA and saved 41 games for the Padres in 2019, striking out a whopping 101 batters in 60 2/3 innings. The year prior, Yates put up a 2.14 ERA over 63 innings. Anything in the same area code as those numbers will work for the Blue Jays, and for Yates to get there, his splitter is the key.
Yates threw the splitter on 42.1 percent of his pitches in 2019 -- trailing behind his fastball at 57 percent -- and opponents hit just .153 with a .178 slugging percentage against it. When it’s working, it’s an elite pitch. Yates first began working on this towards the tail end of the '16 season, which he spent with the Yankees.
“I was still throwing a slider. I felt like my slider was getting worse, getting unreliable,” Yates said. “I talked to some guys on my team that threw splitters, picked their brains, took it into that offseason, really worked on it and basically committed to myself in the 2017 season that I was going to try to make this my second pitch. It ended up getting pretty good.”
The Blue Jays need Yates to recapture this form, and they’re betting he will. This is key to the back end of their bullpen, because if Yates can lock down the ninth inning, manager Charlie Montoyo and Toronto's staff will have plenty of options for other high-leverage spots in Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis, Tyler Chatwood and Ryan Borucki. The middle innings and multi-inning arms will evolve as the year goes on, but the back-end options appear locked in.
“I think everybody expects me to be the closer here,” Yates said. “I would like to, but there’s a lot of guys who are throwing the ball really well. I’ve got to go out there and do the same. I don’t expect anything to be given to me, but if I go out there and do what I’m capable of and pitch well, I think it should be mine to lose.”
Yates knows that the arms around him are talented, though, so if he’s not pitching in the ninth, there’s a good reason.
Romano was the breakout star of the group in 2020 before a right middle finger injury cut his season short, pitching to a 1.23 ERA with 21 strikeouts over 14 2/3 innings. With a fastball that’s been running up to 98 mph consistently in camp and a wipeout slider, Romano has closer written all over him, but he would be a fantastic weapon to move around in earlier situations.
This whole picture begins with Yates’ role, though. There’s a reason the Blue Jays bet on his upside this past offseason, and if they make the postseason run they’re expected to in 2021, they’ll need someone slamming the door shut at the back end of their powerful bullpen.