Before the Cleveland Indians were on a streak of playoff appearances, basking in the afterglow of a World Series run, and enjoying the year in, year out success of having Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez on the left side of their infield, they were hoarding relief pitchers and signing “has beens” like Rajai Davis and Mike Napoli to fill out their 2016 roster.
One of the many relievers added that offseason was Kirby Yates. At the time, Yates was a middling pitcher with the Tampa Bay Rays who was coming off season in which he had a 7.97 earned run average over 20.1 relief innings. He couldn’t keep the ball on the ground, he completely lost the feel for his slider, and his season kept getting worse until the Rays were ready to part with him in the offseason for nothing more than cash from the Indians.
This was all before Terry Francona earned praise for his bullpen usage in the 2016 playoffs, mind you. This was when he was just known for stacking eight relievers and hoping for the best when Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen weren’t available. The bizarre era of finding no-name relievers and turning them into studs was only in its infancy — the protogenic Jeff Manship turned in an 0.92 ERA season, but the rest of the bullpen was up in the air. So, at most, Yates was seen as one of many arms who could thrown into the buzzsaw of the 2016 season. He was slated to be up against the likes of Ross Detwiler, Joe Thatcher, Tom Gorzelanny, Felipe Paulino, and the great Joba Chamberlain.
I had dug into Yates’ numbers shortly after the Indians acquired him and noticed something with his disastrous 2015 season — he quit using his slider. Previously, it had helped him at least be an average reliever (and it was a fairly dominant pitch in the minors), but when he seemed to quit using and instead leaned on an ineffective curveball, his season tanked. For that reason alone I grew optimistic about Kirby Yates; the idea that the Indians acquired him so Mickey Callaway could fix him was an interest proposition, especially before Andrew Miller arrived. It was a perfect low-risk, high-reward move the Indians loved to make and they nailed it.
Surely, the era of Kirby Yates in Cleveland would be glorious. He would find his slider again, dominate the league from the back-end of the bullpen and the Indians would win the World Se-... oh, no, wait they traded him to the New York Yankees two months later. Not only that, but the Indians did my boy Kirby absolutely dirty. You see, just six days before he was traded, Kirby was married in Maui and while he was on his honeymoon the Indians traded him away to the Evil Empire.
Maybe it was this disrespect that fueled his ascension to one of the best relievers of 2018. It’s either that, or San Diego helped him discover a nasty splitter that opponents are hitting .151 off in 2018.
Either way, Yates is having a phenomenal season with the Padres. He leads the league with a 0.82 earned run average with peripherals to (mostly) back up the success. His groundball rate is higher than it’s ever been at 50.6 percent, his strikeouts-per-nine rate remains in the double digits, he’s walking 2.45 batters per nine innings (a career low by a wide margin) and he’s allowed 0.27 home runs per nine innings. That’s a great line, even if his 94.6 percent strand rate is a bit frightening.
Depending on how the Indians feel about the emergence of Neil Ramirez and Oliver Perez, they may be in the market for a reliever at the trade deadline, and Yates is one of the higher names on the list. But man, they had him for basically nothing. And they could still have him for another two years of arbitration before they have to deal with the black hole that is life without Kirby Yates. But maybe he would have never developed with the Indians, and maybe the butterfly effect kicks in and the Indians wouldn’t have reached the World Series that year if he was on the team. Who knows?
Blake Ruane wrote about Lonnie Chisenhall being his odd connection to a player, and I think mine has always been Kirby Yates. He was here and gone in a flash, but I got weirdly excited about the idea of the Indians fixing him, only to see him gone and re-emerge as a legit reliever years later with another team. There’s finally a chance to fix all that, though, if the Indians are willing to do the right thing.
Bring. Him. Home.