Kirby Yates: From waiver claim to top reliever

April 26th, 2020

SAN DIEGO -- In his new home just east of Phoenix, flipped on a Padres-D-backs game one April evening three years ago. He had nothing else to do that night.

A journeyman reliever in his ninth professional season, Yates half-heartedly watched a few innings, allowing his mind to wander. Three days prior, he'd given up two homers against the Blue Jays. The following day, he'd been designated for assignment by the Angels.

"I had the Diamondbacks-Padres game on, just watching two teams playing baseball, not making anything of it," Yates recalled. "Then A.J. [Preller] calls me the next morning."

The Padres' general manager explained that he was poised to claim Yates off waivers. He'd learned that Yates was living in the Phoenix area, so he inquired about Yates' availability that night. A few hours later, Yates reported to the visiting clubhouse at Chase Field.

It's now been three years since Yates made his Padres debut the following evening. Since then, Yates has risen to the top of his profession. He's arguably the best reliever in the sport, coming off a season in which he posted a 1.19 ERA and won the Major League saves title.

Yates is slated to reach free agency next winter as one of the most sought-after arms on the market, even at 33. The Padres have previously expressed a desire to bring him back (though amid the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 pandemic, all discussions have been tabled). At the very least, they expect Yates to anchor one of the best bullpens in the sport when the season begins.

Three years after Yates' arrival in San Diego, it's easy to take his greatness for granted. But for a few months in 2017, his career truly hung in the balance.

'The last opportunity I'll get'
The move looks foolish in hindsight. But it's hard to blame the Angels for casting Yates aside so quickly. He’d recently turned 30, and in parts of four big league seasons, he had posted a 5.38 ERA.

"I really knew going into that season that this was probably the last opportunity I'll get to pitch in the big leagues," Yates said. "Some people might say that's putting pressure on yourself. But you'd be lying to yourself if you said anything otherwise.

"You don't get opportunity after opportunity. People aren't just going to keep giving you jobs. The world doesn't work that way."

Yates moved from his native Hawaii to Arizona and overhauled his workout regimen. He also continued experimenting with his trademark splitter.

The Padres took notice. They knew Yates was out of options and on the Angels' roster bubble, so they evaluated him closely that Spring Training.

"With the deception and what the split had a chance to be, we thought maybe he could pitch the seventh or eighth inning," said pro scouting director Pete DeYoung. "We definitely didn't envision him being a closer, but we thought he could be a solid piece in the bullpen. Credit to him, he's taken off, established himself as arguably the best closer in the game."

Second chances
Twenty-nine teams passed on the chance to claim Yates at the end of Spring Training 2017. That list includes the Padres.

When Yates passed through waivers, the Angels assigned him to Triple-A Salt Lake, where he began using his splitter with regularity for the first time. DeYoung was in Sacramento for Yates' final Minor League appearance. Yates worked a 1-2-3 ninth with two strikeouts, and the next day, he was headed to Anaheim.

"I was on the verge, I felt, of being pretty dominant," Yates said. "The weird thing is, the worst game I had that year was that game against Toronto. It was one of those things: I was going against a team I had faced a lot the previous three seasons. They were familiar with me, and I wasn't on my game."

Kevin Pillar took Yates deep to start the eighth. Justin Smoak homered to start the ninth. A day later, Yates was sent packing.

Around that same time, the Padres decided to end the big league phase of their experiment transitioning catcher Christian Bethancourt into a reliever. Suddenly, a spot was available in the San Diego bullpen.

"We didn't claim [Yates] after Spring Training, but it was definitely a discussion then," DeYoung said. "We liked the fact that he was missing bats, we felt there was some deception there, and we were intrigued by the split.

"We discussed it, and felt it was the right time. There was some upside and some questions in our own bullpen, so we felt it was the time to take a shot on Kirby. Obviously, he's exceeded any of our expectations."

A splitter and an opportunity
Since that fateful waiver claim, Yates’ successes have been rehashed endlessly. He was excellent in 2017, better in '18, and took his game to a different level in '19, earning a spot on the inaugural all-MLB team. Yates’ splitter has become one of the sport's nastiest putaway weapons.

"We knew he needed an opportunity," Preller said. "He did a great job once he actually received that consistent chance to pitch."

The Padres promised Yates an opportunity, but nothing was guaranteed. Yates felt his leash would be short if he struggled early. Instead, he arrived in San Diego and didn't allow a run for three weeks.

"The best thing that happened in this whole thing was those first nine or 10 games," Yates said. "I got off to a really, really good start. That gave me a breathing room. If I had a bad outing, it was different than doing it in the first one or two games where -- who knows what happens then?"

Indeed, Yates' story personifies the razor-thin margins that often make or break big league careers. Three years later, it’s clear his emergence was the product of a perfect intersection between hard work and opportunity. And a practically untouchable split-finger fastball.