Blue Jays’ Kirby Yates brings difference-making splitter to bullpen

Even by MLB reliever standards, ’ road to the — the 33-year-old’s sixth MLB organization after finalizing a one-year, $5.5-million deal on Wednesday — has been a winding one.

First drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 2005 — Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was six-years-old — Yates went unsigned and, after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2006, subsequently undrafted his second time eligible in 2009. The Rays scooped him up for nothing, because of course they did, and after a half-decade spent toiling in the minors, he finally made his MLB debut in 2014 at the age of 27.

His rookie season was fine, but things went sideways in 2015 as Yates finished with a 7.97 ERA and received his first of four designations for assignment over the next two years. He was traded for cash twice, claimed on waivers twice, and, by 2017, hanging on to his career for dear life with the San Diego Padres.

But during a brief stop with the New York Yankees along the way, Yates picked up a from Masahiro Tanaka, and learned from Chasen Shreve how to manipulate his arm speed to make it more effective. He started using it in 2017 and finished the season with a 3.97 ERA and 12.9 K/9 over 56.2 innings. The next year, he dropped that ERA to 2.14 over 63 frames. And then he became baseball’s best closer.

That’s no exaggeration. In 2019, Yates led all MLB relievers with a 1.19 ERA and 41 saves. He struck out 41.6 per cent of the batters he faced and allowed only 13 extra-base hits in 60 appearances. His Statcast batted ball profile was ludicrous:

Perhaps the only thing he didn’t lead MLB relievers in was miles-per-hour and revolutions-per-minute. And he never will. His fastball velocity is just slightly above-average. His breaking ball spin is unremarkable because he doesn’t ever throw one.

Fastballs and splitters. That’s it. Yates once threw a slider, a reasonably effective pitch that generated a 40 per cent whiff rate in 2017, but abandoned it midway through the 2018 season in favour of more splitters and hasn’t looked back. There was a changeup and curveball earlier in his career but those, too, are long gone.

Just fastballs and splitters. Evidently, he doesn’t need anything else. Yates’ splitter that year was baseball’s best by a mile, generating a swing 53 per cent of the time, a whiff on 35 per cent of those swings, and a groundball 67 per cent of the time hitters managed to put it in play. Despite throwing it 42 per cent of the time, Yates gave up only 18 hits with his splitter all season — 15 singles and three doubles.

That’s a left-brained way of saying the pitch was really, really good. For a right-brained demonstration, let’s look at a mid-2019 plate appearance against Cody Bellinger — one of baseball’s best hitters. We’ll go pitch-by-pitch.

That’s the splitter. It’s a bastard of a pitch that averaged 37.6 inches of drop and 13.6 inches of break in 2019 — both well above league average. And incredibly, with all that movement, Yates still locates the pitch in the zone nearly 40 per cent of time.

Which is what makes it unfair. Hitters can’t just eliminate it and hunt fastballs. And they can’t square it up either when it’s moving like that. Bellinger didn’t even try. Maybe he was hoping he’d get a heater next.

Well, he got it. And a guy who hit .328 against fastballs that season came up empty. Yates may not throw his four-seamer particularly hard by today’s standards, but when hitters have to guard against his splitter they’re still susceptible to getting beat like this.

That he spots it perfectly on the upper black is what ties Yates’ profile together. His command is exceptional. In 2019, he located his fastball in the zone 54 per cent of the time and walked only 5.3 per cent of the hitters he faced, a top-20 mark among MLB relievers.

Ahead 0-2 and having earned strikes with both of his pitches, Yates is in the driver’s seat. And Bellinger’s in survival mode.

Yates goes back to the splitter, but this time throws it down-and-in, earning an extremely defensive swing from Bellinger on a pitch that ended up outside the zone.

Note how well Yates hides the ball in his delivery. It’s still behind him as he’s striding towards the plate. That’s another reason his 93-94 m.p.h. fastball surprises hitters. It gets on you quick. Here’s a good example for strike three:

Or what should’ve been strike three. Turns out, when you’re Bellinger you get some pretty favourable calls.

Human error aside, notice how that fastball was tunneled in the same lane as the splitter that preceded it. Pinpoint sequencing is another reason Yates gets away with throwing only two pitches. From the hitter’s perspective, both look identical out of his hand and approach the plate on the same plane. See if you can tell which is which from this freeze frame:

The splitter’s on the left and the fastball’s on the right. As Bellinger’s starting his swing, there’s little perceptible difference between them. But the splitter’s 7-m.p.h. slower and about to drop off the face of the earth at the last second. Here’s a slow-motion overlay:

Good luck with that. At this point, Bellinger’s seen two fastballs and two splitters. Yates can go in any direction he wants. And Bellinger can’t be sure of what’s coming. In two-strike counts that season, Yates threw a fastball 182 times and a splitter 176 times. If Bellinger had done his homework he knew it was a coin flip.

Yates could throw him a fastball off the plate, trying to get Bellinger to chase. He could throw one on the plate, trying to disguise it as his splitter and steal a called third strike. Or, as Yates chose to do, he could just aim his splitter towards the outside corner and let its late life do the rest:

More defence from Bellinger. A reminder: Bellinger was the NL MVP that year. He crushed right-handed pitchers like Yates to the tune of a .318/.417/.647 slash line. He also demonstrated one of MLB’s best eyes at the plate, going after only 23.6 per cent of the pitches he was thrown outside the zone, leading to a 95th percentile walk rate.

But here, in the span of five pitches, he’s already chased twice and taken a pitch on the plate that should’ve been a strike. Yates has him completely out of sorts. And he’s about to finish the job:

What can you even do with that pitch? It starts at Bellinger’s quad and ends up nearly in the dirt. Bellinger’s trying to foul it off and stay alive for one more opportunity, but the downward movement on Yates’ splitter is just too nasty.

It’s ability and results like these that can produce one of MLB’s rarest outcomes — a substantial pay day for a reliever. So how did the Blue Jays end up with Yates on just a one-year, $5.5-milllion deal? Because while his 2019 was sensational, his 2020 was a write-off.

After struggling with his command and allowing runs in three of his first five appearances, Yates was pulled from his sixth with discomfort in his arm. An MRI revealed bone chips in his elbow, which he had surgery to remove, ending his season. Turned out he’d been pitching through it — plus a back issue — . And he’d carried it as far as he could.

Does this layer in some risk for the Blue Jays? Of course. While Yates’ surgery was arthroscopic and relatively minor, it’s still surgery. And the nonchalance with which the soon-to-be-34-year-old , “I’ve always kind of had a spur back there that’s flared up from time to time for the last, I don’t know, four or five years,” is either reassuring or alarming, depending on your perspective.

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But in the wake of Liam Hendriks signing for a $54-million guarantee , the Blue Jays are getting a bargain. And if Yates can stay healthy and produce something even resembling his 2019 results, he’ll sweeten his end of the deal by qualifying for at least part of his $4.5-million worth of incentives ($3-million for 35 games pitched; an additional $1.5-million for 70, .

And yet, if that happens and the Blue Jays end up paying $9-million for merely an approximation of the elite closer who produced 3.4 fWAR in 2019, the deal will still represent massive value for the club. Even if Yates were to repeat his 2018, in which he was worth 1.8fWAR over 65 appearances, the Blue Jays would still be coming out ahead.

Anything can happen with relievers — Yates’ winding career is a living example of that. But this is as good of a gamble as any the Blue Jays could’ve made on the relief market this winter. And if you told Yates five years ago he’d be in the position he is today, even he might not have believed it.