Kirby Yates’ incredible journey to the All-Star Game

PEORIA, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 21: Pitcher Kirby Yates #39 of the San Diego Padres poses for a portrait during photo day at Peoria Stadium on February 21, 2019 in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
PEORIA, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 21: Pitcher Kirby Yates #39 of the San Diego Padres poses for a portrait during photo day at Peoria Stadium on February 21, 2019 in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

When Kirby Yates represents the San Diego Padres in the 2019 MLB All-Star Game, it will be the culmination of a memorable journey for the closer.

To say that San Diego Padres closer Kirby Yates has been good in 2019 would be the understatement of the season.

Leading MLB with 27 saves, the Hawaii native has enjoyed the best season of his career. Yates has a career-low 1.27 ERA, 1.33 FIP, and 0.849 WHIP so far this year. He owns a 3.1 WPA (win probability added), which ranks fifth in the MLB.

As if that’s not enough, he has converted 27 out of 28 save opportunities for an impressive 96.4% save rate. He’s averaged more than 14 strikeouts per nine innings, given up a mere 0.3 home runs per nine, and walked just 2.3 batters per nine.

Simply put, Yates has been marvelous in 2019. And that’s before he made Padres history.

On June 28, his 27th save of the year broke the record for the most by a San Diego Padre before the All-Star Break. He surpassed Heath Bell (26 saves at midseason in 2011) and Trevor Hoffman (25 saves in 1998, 2005 and 2007). The latter just happens to be an MLB Hall of Famer.

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To have one’s name mentioned alongside those two is an honor. To have broken one of their records is truly a great achievement. And that was just the beginning.

The very next day, Yates was chosen to be a National League relief pitcher in the 2019 MLB All-Star Game, the first selection of his career. Yates told NBC San Diego this in response:

"I have had to earn everything I’ve gotten—earn my way to the big leagues, earn my way to stay here, earn every role I’ve got.I think this is something I feel pride in because it’s something I’ve earned. Nobody is going to take this away from me."

And proud he should be. Yates has found a home in San Diego, where he’s adored by the fans and his teammates alike, after being released by three different teams.

He was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the 26th round of the 2005 draft—the 798th selection overall. Ultimately deciding not to sign, he attended Yavapai College in Arizona, where he sat out two years after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Yates signed with the Tampa Bay Rays as a free agent in 2009, and worked his way up through the organization’s minor league affiliates—and he truly put the work in. Over six years, Yates played for six different minor league teams before his MLB debut with the Rays on June 7, 2014. He pitched 1.1 innings and threw two strikeouts that day.

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In his first season with the Rays, Yates had a 3.75 ERA in 37 games with one save and 42 strikeouts. He regressed the following year in Tampa Bay—allowing 7.97 earned runs in 20 games with no strikeouts—and was traded to the Cleveland Indians in November 2015, but was almost immediately swapped to the New York Yankees in January 2016.

He made the Yankees’ 2016 Opening Day roster as a relief pitcher. He played 41 games for the Yankees, posting a 5.23 ERA and 1.452 WHIP. Though he didn’t have any saves that year, he went 2-1 and had a then-career-high 50 strikeouts, but it wasn’t enough to keep him off the chopping block.

After the 2016 season, Yates was released for the second time in two years. He was picked up by the Los Angeles Angels but only appeared in one game as an Angel.

His third and final release came in April 2017, and the San Diego Padres claimed him four days later—starting the upswing on a career that’s become literally one for the record books.

Yates became the San Diego Padres closer last year, after the Friars traded Brad Hand to the Indians. Kirby had an impressive 2018 campaign—he owned a 2.14 ERA over 65 games, posting a .921 WHIP and a career-high 90 strikeouts. That had been his best season to date, but this year he’s truly stood out.

In 2019, Kirby Yates has been the one bright spot on an otherwise disappointing bullpen. The best season of his career has put the Padres in a difficult position; they aren’t yet World Series contenders but strive to maintain their top talent.

There have been plenty of trade rumors surrounding Yates, and word on the street is that the Padres would demand top dollar for their top-notch closer (rightfully so). But they would like to keep Yates, and he’s made it clear that he wants to stay in San Diego. As he told

"I’d prefer to stay here…I don’t want to go anywhere else. I want to win here. I’ve built a lot of strong relationships here with staff members and my teammates. My family likes it here, my wife likes it here, and the way the Padres organization has treated me and my family has been awesome."

For now, Padres fans can revel in the fact that Kirby Yates has made his first-career All-Star Game. It’s only fitting that he’d be the sole player to represent the Friars this year, who are still somewhat flying under the radar. No one is fully taking them seriously yet—just like no one quite caught on to how good Kirby Yates is.

Though his teammates won’t be on the field with him, Yates will have several friends and family members who will accompany him to Cleveland for this next chapter of his journey. Yates said to NBC San Diego:

"I’ve [got] the whole family coming. Everybody is coming to Cleveland. This is going to be neat.  It’s something we are not accustomed to. We’re going to have all the Hawaii boys there. It’s cool. I’m just excited I get to spend this with my family, that’s what I’m most excited about."

Congratulations, Kirby. You deserve it. After all the hard work and heart he’s put into not just this season, but his career, Kirby Yates epitomizes what it means to be both a San Diego Padre and an MLB All-Star.

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