At first look, there is nothing too impressive about Tampa bay Rays 27-year old minor league reliever Kirby Yates. Yates was drafted in the 26th round by the Boston Red Sox way back in 2005, but he elected not to sign and hoped to boost his draft stock by playing college ball. But he could not do so, and he was relegated to signing with the Rays as an undrafted free agent in 2009. Yates is by no means a physical specimen at 5’10”, 195 lbs and because of it, his velocity is nothing to get too excited about. He throws 92-93 MPH consistently with his fastball, and while that isn’t bad by any means, this is the day and age of flame throwing relievers that throw mid-90’s with ease. So with all this, it would seem Yates is a fairly underwhelming player. Yet, he continues defying expectations.
In his minor league career, the highest ERA Yates has ever posted was 3.40, and that was in a season that he saw significant time as a starter. As a reliever, he has never put up an ERA above 2.65. The reason that he is so dominant is because of the explosive movement on his fastball as well as a nasty slider. Both are virtually unhittable, as evidenced by his career 6.2 H/9. His problem has always been controlling them, but a mechanical tweak that he made last season has paid huge dividends. Now, Yates is currently sitting in Triple-A Durham with a 0.43 (!) ERA and 13 saves through his first 18 appearances spanning 21.0 innings. In that time, he has put up a 12.9 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, and an unreal 3.4 H/9. The righty has been dominant to say the least, and he continues to get even better as time goes on. This is all despite being undersized and not having any special velocity on his fastball.
Unfortunately for Yates, this year might be the deepest bullpen that the Rays have ever had. Their 7 relievers in the major leagues may have been inconsistent this year, but with the exception of Cesar Ramos who is more of a longman type, all of them have the stuff and ability to be an 8th or 9th inning guy on most teams. Not only that, but also sitting back in Triple-A are other dominating relievers like Jeff Beliveau and C.J. Riefenhauser, experienced big leaguer Brandon Gomes, and starters like Nate Karns, Enny Romero, and Mike Montgomery who could easily dominate in relief. Thus, despite being more than deserving, Yates has yet to receive his big league chance. The way he is pitching now, he could easily be the Rays first option in the event of injury to the big league bullpen, though that is not a guarantee by any means. He will certainly be a September call-up this season, but he deserves more than that. He will get his chance this year, and hopefully he can make enough of an impression that the Rays keep him around for years to come.
The biggest worry with Yates is that his stuff won’t dominate in the big leagues as it has in the minor leagues. Because he has pitched so well, Yates has cemented his status as at least a future middle reliever or righty specialist. But, the Rays find those type of guys with ease, and Yates is going to need to be more to have an extended stay with the Rays organization. The good thing though is that as Yates has moved up through the minors, people have thought his stuff wouldn’t translate against better competition, but it has every step of the way. He may end up being a middle reliever with the Tampa Bay Rays, and that would be a great return for an undrafted free agent. But if there is anyone who can defy odds and outpitch his stuff at the big league level, it is going to be Kirby Yates.