NEW YORK -- Kirby Yates only pitched 41 games for the Yankees in 2016. He posted a 5.23 ERA and spent a six-week chunk of that season at Triple-A.
It was one of the best things to ever happen to him.
Three years later, Yates is making his return to the Bronx this week as one of the sport's most dominant closers. The Padres’ veteran right-hander looks back on that time with the Yankees as the catalyst for his success.
"I learned a lot in '16," Yates said. "I got off to a really good start that year, if you look at the first couple months. I was throwing the ball really good. There was a point in June where I hit a wall. I got tired. I needed to get in better shape."
Indeed, Yates owned a 2.25 ERA through the season's first two months in 2016. Then things unraveled. In 10 June appearances, Yates allowed 13 runs in only 8 1/3 innings. He was demoted at the end of the month and wouldn't return until August -- after the Yankees had dealt Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman at the Trade Deadline.
Yates continued to struggle down the stretch, and he was designated for assignment during the first week of the offseason. That's when he made the changes that saved his career.
Yates recommitted himself. He moved from his native Hawaii to Arizona. He hired two personal trainers and spent five days a week in the gym that entire offseason -- a stark contrast from previous winters.
"I moved away from Hawaii," said Yates, a fiercely proud native of the Aloha State. "That wasn't easy, it was hard. I talked to my parents, dad, brother, everybody. It was a decision that everybody said, ‘Yeah, you need to make it. This is your career.' It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Yates joined the Padres the following April, and he has been a devastating bullpen weapon ever since, posting a 2.59 ERA for San Diego with a 39 percent strikeout rate that ranks as the best in franchise history.
In that time, Yates has gained a reputation as one of the Padres’ hardest workers. (Manager Andy Green noted that Yates arrived at 8:45 a.m. on Monday -- the day after an international travel day -- to pore over Yankees hitters.) But it wasn't merely the work ethic that Yates took from his time in New York.
"That's also when I kind of realized, the slider's not the pitch," Yates said. "I needed something else."
Toward the end of the 2016 season, Yates began fooling around with a splitter. In doing so, he picked the brains of a few different Yankees who threw the pitch, most notably Masahiro Tanaka.
Before long, Yates’ splitter was one of the most dominant pitches in the sport. He has since ditched his entire offspeed arsenal from 2016, opting for a fastball/splitter mix almost exclusively.
"The only encouragement we gave him with that was ... 'Throw the thing, man,'" Green said. "'It's legit. It's elite. Throw it.' As he's thrown it, his confidence and his faith in it grew more and more."
In 24 appearances this season, Yates owns a 1.13 ERA and an 0.69 FIP. He has struck out 44 hitters in 24 innings entering Monday, including 24 of the last 41 batters he’d faced.
On top of that, Yates -- alongside Craig Stammen -- is now the veteran in a young Padres bullpen.
“In Triple-A, you're playing catch with your buddies,” said Phil Maton, who became Yates’ temporary catch partner upon his 2017 callup. “You get here, you're playing catch with a guy like that, and you know you aren't messing around anymore. Overall, his work ethic, the things he's done to get himself ready on a daily basis, that's what's really resonated with me.”
Funny. Yates recalls a similar experience watching Miller and CC Sabathia among others from that 2016 Yankees contingent.
"You didn't have to ask them questions to learn a lot,” Yates said. “You learned a lot by watching them go about their business. ... Those guys pitched all the time and were good all the time. That's when I realized what it would take to be good all the time like them."
Those aren’t just words. Yates’ actions since leaving New York speak much louder.
"I needed to give myself the best opportunity to succeed," Yates said. "It's working out so far."
• The Padres still haven't offered a timetable for the return of Fernando Tatis Jr., who has missed a month with a left hamstring strain. But Green noted on Monday that the rookie shortstop is "getting closer and closer."
Tatis has been playing extended spring games at the team's complex in Peoria, Ariz. He has progressed to running the bases at near-full speed. The Padres haven't yet decided whether he might require a rehab assignment.
• Right-hander Chris Paddack, who was pushed back from his start on Sunday because of a stiff neck, remains on track to pitch Wednesday's series finale at Yankee Stadium, Green said. Lefty Joey Lucchesi, originally slated to pitch on Wednesday, had his start pushed to Friday, with Saturday’s start open after Cal Quantrill was optioned.
• Right fielder Franmil Reyes returned to the lineup on Monday after missing two days with a right shoulder tweak.