Thursday, May 2, 2024

Always Be Closing: From Out of Nowhere


In 2019, Kirby Yates was luckily enough to be the ninth inning heir apparent to a team that had a large number of save situations. Part of his success for the Padres that year was that he'd had such good luck in San Diego, and wasn't dropped into a closing job with no confidence. And so Yates went onto lead the league with 41 saves, plus a 1.19 ERA. It was a landmark season that gave Yates a reputation as a powerful closer, but after an injury in 2020, Yates' stock dropped. 

The Blue Jays signed him in 2021, and wouldn't see him suit up for the major league club. Then in 2022, Yates signed with the Braves, made his way back for 9 games and got back to what he was doing before. In the second year of the contract, Yates excelled in a middle relief role for Atlanta, with a 3.28 ERA and 80 Ks in 61 games. The way it was looking, while his closing days were behind him, he could still be extremely useful as a bullpen piece, and was capable of pitching into his late 30s.

Which is how we got here. Kirby Yates, the 37-year old closer for the defending champion Texas Rangers, who has once again discovered how to not give up runs.

There are several fundamental differences between the 2019 Padres and the 2024 Rangers. Status, accolades, depth, rookie success. The Rangers, however, are awfully human for a defending champion, and have skidded down to 2nd place in the AL West with a 17-15 record. They're still very good, and have a lot of assets that many teams would kill for, but they haven't completely taken off yet, and Nate Eovaldi's exit from today's game could indicate that he'll be joining Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Cody Bradford on the IL. 

The upside to that, in the case of Kirby Yates, is more save situations. The Rangers tried growing their own closer with Jose LeClerc, it didn't work. So they've mostly gotten by off rentals. Last year the saves went to Will Smith and Aroldis Chapman, who've both left for other, smaller markets. Yates got the ninth thanks to a strong spring, and he won the job over David Robertson, who's another excellent bullpen asset in his late 30s. I'm not saying we're in full on '2010s Rangers going with Arthur Rhodes and Darren Oliver' territory, but having Yates and Robertson with minimal ERAs and peak stuff is a nice feeling. 

Yates already has 5 saves, 2 wins and 14 Ks. He's also only given up 3 hits and 0 runs. You've seen a lot of truly dominant closers so far, between Yates, Clay Holmes, Robert Suarez, Emmanuel Clase and Evan Phillips. Yes, it's early, but you're already seeing who's starting out dominant, and who's building up momentum. Yates is one of the older names with an ERA below 1 here, but he's just as valid as the rest of them, even if he's less a 'career closer' and more a bullpen expert who can hold his own in the ninth.

I hope Yates, and the Rangers, keep things up, and I hope Yates walks away with another strong season to put with his classic 2019.

Coming Tomorrow- Ironically, a former closer and reliever who's done pretty well in a starting position.

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