Braves’ Kirby Yates: ‘I do believe that I can still go out there and be elite’



NORTH PORT, Fla. — For Kirby Yates, this spring feels much different – physically and mentally – than last year.

He is far past the Tommy John surgery and its rehab. And he already fought through the inevitable and necessary adjustment period that occurs when a pitcher actually returns to a big-league mound after such a lengthy layoff.

Now, Yates feels free.

“Just being able to relax and not worry about a whole lot of things,” Yates said this week. “It was a lot of uncertainty last year. There was the uncertainty of, how’s my arm gonna feel, am I going to be healthy? And two, am I gonna be able to get guys out?

“I’m not sitting here with those same questions this year.”

Yates seemed content when he reported to North Port. “I’m just in a much better spot,” he said. “The way I feel right now, the way my arm feels right now, it didn’t feel this way at all last year.” Yates entered the offseason not knowing how his arm would feel or which areas of his game he might improve, but he believes he got better in almost every area over the past several months.

The Braves, who began spring training this week, should feature another dominant bullpen, if judging it only on paper. They have power arms, but they also possess depth. Casual fans may lose Yates in the shuffle, but he could be a crucial piece of the club if he comes close to returning to form.

Last season, Yates pitched only seven innings, which probably is too small of a sample size to accurately evaluate because he had to shake off rust after not pitching in a big-league game since 2020 before that. In September, Yates landed on the injured list with right elbow inflammation, which effectively ended his season.

After this frustrating experience, Yates is ready to have some normalcy.

“I tolerated last year, but it wasn’t exactly fun to go through (it) and not be what you were expecting to be,” Yates said. “I think it’s a day-by-day thing, piece it together and get better. But I do believe that I can still go out there and be elite.”



Once a great closer, the Tommy John surgery derailed Yates for a couple of seasons. But as the days and weeks pass, he gets further and further away from the procedure, which undoubtedly is one reason he is feeling so well. His body is healing and adapting.

“Now when I throw the ball, I’m a lot more comfortable, it feels more natural,” Yates said. “It feels kind of how it used to.”

One big part of all this: Yates experienced a normal offseason for the first time since the months following the 2019 season. There was no rehab. He could simply focus on improving.

This could help Yates reach his pre-injury form.

“I hope so,” manager Brian Snitker said. “That was kind of the plan when we signed him.”

Over the offseason, Yates said he felt like he gained a foundation that he could work off of mechanically. Last year, his mindset focused on catching up after two years of lost time and trying to simply feel comfortable enough to get outs in any way he could. “Now, the way the ball is coming out, hopefully I can get back to what I used to do in the past, and that was more get ahead and dictate at-bats, which I didn’t really do last year,” he said.

As of now, it appears Raisel Iglesias, Joe Jiménez, A.J. Minter and Collin McHugh are virtual locks to make the roster. If he pitches well in camp, Yates should join them. But the Braves have a lot of depth, and there probably will be some competition for the final bullpen spots.



The bullpen is such, Yates said, that you pitch yourself into and out of roles. The best and most reliable relievers will pitch toward the end of games, while the struggling ones often are called upon earlier.

Yates said he hasn’t talked with the Braves about his role for 2023, but added that he doesn’t need to discuss that.

He feels they’re on the same page.

“They expect me to be really good. I expect to be an elite guy to help this team win,” Yates said. “If I didn’t think I could pitch at a high level still, I don’t know if I’d still be in this clubhouse.”