Dodgers’ interest in Kirby Yates makes sense, thanks to his elite splitter


We’re about five weeks from Spring Training (we think), and there is still a little work for Andrew Friedman and the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers to do.

I’ve written about the third base/right-handed hitter thing a bit, but other than that, they don’t have a lot left. The rotation is probably set, unless they want to make a big splash and they’ve already addressed the bullpen with three acquisitions — Corey Knebel, Garrett Cleavinger and Blake Treinen. Knebel and Treinen have a couple things in common — they both have something elite-level in their repertoire: Knebel’s curveball and Treinen’s sinker. While Cleavinger doesn’t have that, reports that his stuff has ticked up could lead to an elite-level pitch in the future, but he’s also not expected to be a main cog in the bullpen.

If you look at the rest of the bullpen, you’ll see a lot of well above-average or even elite-level pitches (past or present):

This doesn’t even factor in Pedro Baez‘s famous changeup, which will likely have a new home this season and beyond.

Now, this is probably somewhat common around the league, but it seems to stand out a bit more with the Dodgers. As such, it explains their interest in pitchers with elite-level pitches, if not arsenals.

The one who comes to mind most is Kirby Yates, whom the LA Times reports the Dodgers have “significant” interest.

Yates, 34 in March, is coming off a strong four seasons with the Padres. His 2020 was marred and abbreviated by an elbow injury, but from 2017-19, he was among the game’s best relievers. He ranked fourth in WAR (5.6), third in both ERA (2.40) and K-BB% (31.8) and fifth in FIP (2.56). This is thanks in large part to an elite split-finger fastball. He picked it up in 2017 and leaned on it heavily in ’18 and ’19. It was the best in terms of runs above average from 2017-19 (20.4), and he has thrown it almost 30% of the time.

In that time, his splitter ranks as the best in all of baseball (minimum 200 plat appearances ending with the pitch) in the following categories:

  • BA
  • xBA
  • SLG
  • xSLG
  • wOBA
  • xWOBA
  • AVG Launch Angle

He’s also allowed the fourth-lowest exit velocity allowed in that time.

Including 2020, Yates has allowed just seven extra base hits (4 doubles, 2 homer runs) on the 937 splitters he has thrown. Seems good! But the bottom line is, his splitter is really good, but there’s also a reason he’s still unsigned (other than the borderline freezing hot stove) — surgery in August to remove bone chips in his elbow. If not for that, the Padres probably would have already re-signed him or signed him to an extension in-season. The injury puts a damper on his value on the free-agent market. Craig Edwards of FanGraphs predicted he’d land a 2-year, $10 million deal, while Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors predicted one year and $5 million. Dierkes might be more in the ballpark, as Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union Tribune reported Yates is looking for an incentive-laden 1-year, $5 million deal. The Dodgers are no stranger to offering incentive-laden deals (hello, Kenta Maeda), so offering one to a guy with as good a recent track record as Yates makes a lot of sense.

They’re also in a position to do this because Yates would definitely be a luxury, but a risky luxury that a lot of teams won’t be willing to take.

Yates would make a third addition to the 2021 bullpen that is pretty full as it is. Fortunately, the Dodgers have a lot of relievers with minor-league options, should they choose to sign another veteran reliever. They also have to sort out third base, so if they want Yates or another reliever and either Justin Turner or DJ LeMahieu (or both, please?), they’ll have to make some 40-man roster moves, as it’s currently full. Caleb Ferguson and Kahnle will go on the 60-day injured list as soon as it’s permitted (beginning of spring training), but I don’t think the likes of LeMahieu, Turner and Yates are going to last on the open market that long. So, there could be some guys who get designated for assignment or some minor trades. We’ll see what happens.

About Dustin Nosler

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Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosted a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He was a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times and True Blue LA. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.