TORONTO – Of all the newcomers on the Blue Jays’ pitching staff, it’s likely Kirby Yates who brings the most upside. In 2019, his last full season, he showed what kind of impact he can make by striking out better than two batters for every five he faced while posting a 1.19 ERA and leading the National League in saves.
Simply put, Yates can be a dominant late-inning pitcher when healthy. But the 33-year-old has ramped up cautiously since undergoing surgery to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow last August and 10 games into the Blue Jays’ Grapefruit League schedule he has yet to appear.
That will change Thursday, when Yates is slated to pitch one inning against the Tigers, and based on how he’s felt throwing side sessions and live batting practice against his new teammates, he doesn’t plan on holding back.
“Oh yeah, it’s full-go,” Yates told media on a Zoom call Wednesday. “It’s go out there, get ready, get these guys out and prove that I’m still capable of pitching at a high level.”
Along with Ross Stripling, who started Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the Orioles, and Thomas Hatch, who will debut on Friday, Yates is one of three pitchers debuting this week. With a little more than three weeks remaining before opening day, there’s still just enough time for all three to be ready when the games count.
In fact, Yates said he feels ahead of schedule compared to 2018 and 2019, his two best big-league seasons. While it may take a few outings to regain his command after appearing in just six games last summer, he’s at least feeling fully healthy.
Based on the results of some early intra-squad at-bats, manager Charlie Montoyo is similarly encouraged by what he’s seen.
“The times he’s pitched already in the simulated games, he’s looked well,” Montoyo said. “My main thing is that he comes out healthy. He’s doing well right now and he feels really good, so I’m looking forward to seeing him.”
Meanwhile, Stripling’s debut went according to plan in Sarasota, Fla., where he pitched two scoreless innings. The right-hander allowed three hits, but he also struck out two while throwing 38 pitches. Most encouraging was the way Orioles hitters missed on a couple of fastballs.
“I bet I had more swings and misses on fastballs in those two innings than I might have had all season last year,” Stripling said afterwards. “That’s a good thing for me to have because I’m obviously not a velo guy, not a fastball guy, so if I can beat guys with my fastball and keep them off-balance, that’s just going to play my off-speed up even more.”
If Stripling makes three more spring starts and adds one inning each time out, he’ll be built up to throw five or six innings when he makes his first start of the season despite the fact that his spring began late due to a Texas winter storm and the birth of his first child. That’s significant considering Stripling now projects to start the season in the rotation barring an unexpectedly quick recovery from Nate Pearson, who’s dealing with a groin strain.
While Stripling made the trip south, his longtime teammate Hyun Jin Ryu stayed in Dunedin, Fla. to pitch in a simulated game against the likes of Teoscar Hernandez, Bo Bichette, Marcus Semien, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Randal Grichuk. The left-hander pitched three innings, working his way up to 50 pitches, before adding 15 more in the bullpen to build further stamina.
Afterwards, Ryu said he’s hopeful a more traditional spring will allow for even better results in 2021. Few would criticize Ryu for a season in which he finished third in AL Cy Young voting, but his walk rate did increase last year.
“I believe my command wasn’t as perfect as it should have been,” he said via interpreter Jun Sung Park. “I’m not really trying to get a lot of strikeouts, but trying to get more ground balls and weak balls in play.”
Behind the plate for the simulated game was Alejandro Kirk, who has yet to catch Ryu in an MLB game. While most catchers need lots of time to fully understand the preferences of the veteran finesse pitcher, Ryu said Wednesday was a solid starting point for Kirk.
“Overall it wasn’t that bad,” he said. “It was pretty good. He’s a young player and as a pitcher it’s how I can bring him and pull him along to my type of game.”
From Ryu to Kirk to Stripling, those small steps forward do add up as the Blue Jays prepare for opening day. A strong debut from Yates on Thursday would advance things even further, at which point the discussion can shift from health to roles.
“Everybody expects me to be the closer,” Yates said. “I would like to, but there’s a lot of guys throwing really well. I’ve got to go out and do the same. I don’t expect anything to be given me, but if I go out there and do what I’m capable of, go out and pitch well, it should be mine to lose.
“But we have a really good bullpen and if I’m not pitching the ninth inning it means someone else behind me is better and I’m fine with that.”