It’s been more than three years since Kauai’s Kirby Yates made his Major League debut for the Tampa Bay Rays.
It was a memorable debut, facing four batters and getting them all out with two strikeouts versus the Seattle Mariners.
“What helped was I came out and I threw strike one. The first pitch I threw was a strike. I was like, ‘Alright. It’s the same game. These guys are going to take. Just throw your pitches, and you should be good,’” Yates said in an interview with The Garden Island. “It was beautiful. … It was a lot of fun. I was having fun out there – just laughing and enjoyed myself out there. I enjoyed every minute of it.”
It was a long road before reaching the big leagues, and it started in his youth on Kauai.
Growing up on the Garden Isle
As a youth, his father, Gary, played fastpitch softball in the local league. His brothers, Tyler and Spencer, too, played baseball — one of which made it to the Majors as well.
“When Tyler used to come home and I was a young kid – I was 12 or 13 years old when Tyler was still in the minor leagues – when he’d come home, I’d play catch with him,” he said. “We were throw partners the whole time he was playing baseball. I learned a lot from him. I think that helped me, helped get my arm a little bit stronger. He taught me how to throw a baseball. My success is due to him, too.”
In high school, Yates helped Kauai High win three Kauai Interscholastic Federation championships and was drafted in the 26th round (798th overall) out of high school by the Boston Red Sox in the 2005 Draft.
Opting for college
Despite being drafted, Yates decided to not play professionally right away and went on to Yavapai College in Arizona. His time in college, though, didn’t go as expected.
He suffered an elbow injury and had Tommy John surgery. Yates sat out in 2006 and 2007. He’d finally take to the field for the Roughriders in the 2008 and 2009 seasons. However, he said, he didn’t perform particularly well.
After Yavapai, Yates went undrafted in 2009. He’d end up signing as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Rays.
“Had my season. I was OK. I didn’t put together the seasons I wanted to,” he said. “Fortunately, I had a free agent shot with Tampa Bay. I took it, and the rest, I made it to the big leagues on that. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but the path wasn’t easy.”
Road to the big leagues
From there, he’d work his way up through the minor leagues, starting with the organization’s advanced rookie affiliate — the Princeton Rays in West Virginia.
In the Majors, there are employees who are paid to carry players’ bags, Yates said. In the minors, it is not the case — far from it.
But it’s an experience, Yates said, he wouldn’t trade.
“It is a grind, and you have to want to do it. But I think that’s where you separate the guys who don’t want to do it from the guys that do,” he said. “I enjoyed the bus rides just because it gave me a chance to see the United States. I being from Kauai, you get on a bus and you’re driving through the Midwest. And you see all these farms that I’ve only seen on TV and movies and stuff. I thought that was pretty neat, and I enjoyed it. Would I want to go through it again? Probably not just because I’ve already gone through it. But I think the experience and all of that, I enjoyed it.”
Getting the call
In 2013, for the Rays’ AAA affiliate — the Durham Bulls in North Carolina — Yates earned all-star status. That year, he had a 1.90 ERA with 20 saves in 51 games.
In June 2014, he finally got his call-up to the Majors.
Though finally reaching the big leagues was a great accomplishment, soon came the realization that staying there would be tougher than getting there.
“I just think your opportunity is your opportunity. Some guys get more opportunities than others. Fortunately, I’ve gotten a few opportunities from different teams. But there’s always people behind you, pushing you,” Yates said. “If you’re not good enough, there’s another guy that’s going to take your spot. That’s just how it is. Everybody’s trying to get to the big leagues. Not everybody stays there.”
In that 2014 season with the Rays, Yates posted a 3.75 ERA with 42 strikeouts and a save in 37 appearances. But the following year, his ERA ballooned to 7.97.
In 2015, the Rays traded Yates to the Indians, who then months after traded him to the Yankees.
When he arrived at the clubhouse of one the league’s richest franchises, he couldn’t help be in awe.
“CC Sabathia and A-Rod. Alex Rodriguez was my favorite player growing up,” Yates said. “It was just weird to walk in and have him playing baseball. I was watching him play baseball. I’ve never seen him, but yet we’re on the same team. It took a while to get used to. It did. Watching him work and watching him do things, it was just pretty impressive to watch how he went about his business, and how good he was at 41 years old.”
On the move again
In that first year with New York, he had a 5.23 ERA with 50 strikeouts. Yates said the Yankess gave him every opportunity to succeed, but he’d again be on the move.
“Before the season ended, they told me they were probably going to put me on waivers as soon as the season ended. The communication with them was awesome. They didn’t sugarcoat anything. They just (said) what my position was within the organization, and they told me that, ‘You’re probably going to get let go after this year. Not that we don’t like you as a human being. It’s just part of the business.’”
He was placed on waivers and was claimed by the Los Angeles Angels in October 2016. While with the team’s minor league team, the Salt Lake Bees in Utah, he felt he was getting back to his old form. In six games, Yates posted a 2.57 ERA with 14 strikeouts, eight hits, two runs and one save.
But when he got called up, again things went south. In one appearance with the Halos in April, he gave up two home runs in one inning of work.
“Didn’t pitch really well in that game. I made two bad pitches, and I got hit out of the ballpark,” Yates said. “That’s the big leagues. That’s the difference between the big leagues and AAA. You make a mistake, it gets hit out of the ballpark. So, they designated me and I got claimed by the Padres. And that’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, as far as baseball goes.”
Days later, Yates was again put on waivers and was soon after claimed by the San Diego Padres.
Blessing in disguise
With each new team, there’s uncertainty, Yates said. But he felt differently when he arrived in San Diego.
“As soon as I walked into the clubhouse and as soon as I got around (meeting) the people, it just felt right. It felt like home,” he said. “Everybody’s relaxed. Everybody’s calm. I got to go to San Diego – second time I’d been there. There’s just something about it that feels right.”
That early premonition would turn out to be a sign of things to come — on and off of the baseball field.
Off it, he and his wife, Ashlee, welcomed a daughter, Oaklee, in July.
On it, Yates got his most playing time in the bigs since Tampa. He played most of the season for the Padres, and would end the season with a 3.97 ERA — 3.72 in San Diego — in 62 games.
His stats for the season are 44 hits, 25 earned runs, 19 walks and 88 strikeouts in 56.2 innings pitched.
The season, Yates said, was his best yet. But even then, he tries not to get complacent.
“It’s definitely the first time I’ve had a role with a team, a significant role. (But) you hate to say you’re settling in with a team because anything can happen. You try not to get too comfortable, but I like where I’m at,” he said.
“Their communication with me and everything has been awesome. I’d like to be there for the rest of my career, but that’s not up to me. I can pitch well and help that cause, but ultimately that’s not up to me. But I like being in San Diego. That’s the place I’d want to be.”
Yates will soon enough report to the Padres for spring training. His short-term goal for the next season, simply, is to be better than the last season.
His plans long-term are to play in the Majors at least for the next five years, and to stay in San Diego.
Through all the ups and downs, all the changes throughout his career, Yates described the journey as “awesome, but not done. Not finished.”
“I would like to, in a perfect world, play for another seven years. The probability of that happening is probably small, but I want to play for as long as I can,” he said. “I feel like I can play for at least five more years, but staying in the big leagues for another five years is hard. That’s why I say, ‘Getting to the big leagues is one thing. Now it comes to a point of staying in the big leagues. How do I stay in the big leagues?’ That’s where I’m not done. I want to play for another five more years.”
As for when it’s all said and done, he hopes he and Tyler have inspired the young players of his home island to reach the big leagues as well.
“I love Kauai. This will always be home,” he said. “I love the people. I love the food. Everything. My family’s still here. But my goal was to be as good as I could possibly be, and that is to pitch in the big leagues for as long as I can.
“You talk to people. They know Yates, and they affiliate it with baseball. That makes me proud,” he continued. “I hope 10 years down the road, that when I’m done playing and Tyler’s done playing, that people will still say, ‘Hey, those are the Yates boys and they played baseball. They made it to the big leagues, and so the young generation can do it, too.’ I hope it paves the way. I hope there’s another Kauai boy that makes it to the big leagues at some point. I think when that starts happening, then people will be like, ‘Wow. That’s pretty neat.’”
Statistics from Major League Baseball.