Jul 11, 2014; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Kirby Yates (49) against the Toronto Blue Jays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Yates and the Plight of the Triple-A Closer

On Tuesday night against the St. Louis Cardinals, Kirby Yates made the ninth inning a little bit more interesting than the Tampa Bay Rays would have liked. After striking out righty hitters Peter Bourjos and Tony Cruz looking to begin the inning, Yates allowed a hard single to the lefty-swinging Oscar Taveras before another lefty batter, Matt Carpenter drew a walk. Only then did Yates retire the third lefty he faced in a row, Kean Wong, to end the game, but even then, the out came on a line drive that Kevin Kiermaier was able to glove. Yates is used to pitching the ninth inning–heck, he recorded 36 saves at Triple-A Durham the last two years. However, even his brief major league time has shown that Yates does not profile as anything near a closer at the highest level, and it has to leave you shaking your head a little bit. What is so different between closing at Triple-A and the major leagues?

The issue that Kirby Yates needs to contend with is that a Triple-A closer and a big league closer are virtually mutually exclusive terms. Taking a look at the 35 major league relievers with 7 or more saves this season, they averaged just 5.24 saves at Triple-A, with 15 of the 35 not recording a single one. No one comes even close to Yates’ 36 Triple-A saves, with the highest among the sample being ex-Ray Fernando Rodney at 27. (Grant Balfour is second at 26 while Jake McGee checks in at seventh with 10.)  Yates boasts a save at each full-season level, something only 3 of the 35 can match. Finally, Yates’ 63 minor league saves overall blow away the average of 10.74 by the 35 closers, with even Craig Kimbrel‘s 51 being a good margin behind. The simple reality is that when a team sees a good reliever, they promote him aggressively, limiting his save chances in the minor leagues. Not every quick riser becomes a closer, but so few that take longer have a realistic chance.

It’s a strange statement, but a mostly true one that the best Triple-A closers turn into big league middle relievers at best. That is certainly the case with Yates. While we can be amazed by Yates’ 1.45 ERA, 13.3 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, and 0.2 HR/9 in 86.2 innings with the Durham Bulls, it takes about five seconds to see that Yates is not capable of doing the same in the majors. Looking at Yates’ minor league splits since 2011, his walk rate jumps from 2.6 per 9 innings against right-handed batters to a terrifying 7.1 per 9 against lefties. Sure enough, Yates has a 12-0 strikeout to walk ratio in 48 plate appearances against righties since his promotion to the Rays and just a 5-4 mark in 21 PA’s against lefties. Yates’ slider is much more effective against righty batters than lefty ones, and big league hitters can take that weakness a long way. Yates’ struggles against lefties will not doom his career–he can still be a strong righty specialist–but he certainly is not a closer, and he may not even be a setup man.

Rays fans can certainly take solace in the fact that Kirby Yates has a big league future, unlike a player like Josh Lueke whose minor league performance didn’t translate in ay way. As we look for future Rays closers, however, remember that the guy taking the ball at the end of games at Triple-A will likely be irrelevant. Look at the Triple-A starters tossing in the mid-90’s who won’t have a rotation spot anytime soon and the relievers zooming through the ranks, and those will be the players to watch. Unfortunately for Kirby Yates, he was a Triple-A closer and a great one, but the mold of a major league late-inning arm does not fit him well.

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