Braves reliever Kirby Yates has unfinished business

Kirby Yates, who had some of his best seasons with the Padres, hopes to make an impact this season with the Braves.

Credit: AP Photo/Gregory Bull

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Kirby Yates, who had some of his best seasons with the Padres, hopes to make an impact this season with the Braves.

Credit: AP Photo/Gregory Bull

Yates: ‘I wasn’t ready for it to end’

NORTH PORT, Fla. — As Kirby Yates went to his car, leaving his wife and kids behind, he became emotional. He had departed home for work many times throughout his career, but this was different. This time, he was headed for a flight to Texas for his second Tommy John surgery, and the fear gripped him.

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Yates knew he would miss the entire 2021 season, but he wondered something about his career: Is this ending? As much as he longed to be hurling a baseball off a mound, he didn’t know at that moment if he would ever pitch again. He didn’t expect this to hit him so hard as he left home and headed for his flight, but he found himself facing many emotions.

“I think that was hard because you don’t want it to end,” Yates said. “I wasn’t ready for it to end.”

“It's kind of easy when you feel good and everything is going your way, but the real mark of a good reliever is probably the days you're not feeling good or the days that you're kind of battling, (and having) the ability to get your job done."

- Braves reliever Kirby Yates

For about two weeks after surgery, Yates struggled with fear and doubt. He felt like he began to reach the pinnacle of his career in 2018 and 2019 with the Padres, but the injury halted his progress. Now he wondered whether he would have the opportunity to continue his career.

It’s been just over a year since Yates had surgery, and he’s in much better spirits – especially because he’s with the team for which he wanted to play all along. Before the Blue Jays signed him in 2021, the Braves had agreed to sign him until he failed their physical. Yates never pitched for the Blue Jays because he required Tommy John surgery.

On Oct. 26, after the Braves had beaten the Dodgers to punch a ticket to the World Series, Yates sent a text to Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos that read:

“I knew I chose right! Congratulations and good luck in the series.”

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Now Yates is with the Braves as they hope to repeat as World Series champions. He found a lot of good in the time he missed after surgery (more on that later). He’s turned his frustration into motivation, though he said he’s never had an issue motivating himself.

Yates feels like he has unfinished business in his career. From the time he debuted in 2014, he worked his entire career to receive the All-Star nod he earned three years ago. His terrific seasons with the Padres put him among the game’s elite relievers, then the injury occurred.

“I made a vow to myself to try to become one of the best in the game and was kind of getting close to doing that,” Yates said. “I never got a chance to kind of build on that and sustain it, so (my) goals are not only to get healthy but to get back, try and be that guy and get better.”

The Braves have confidence he can do just that. Over the offseason, the club gave the right-hander a two-year, $8.25 million contract that includes a club option for 2024. The Braves added a former All-Star at a team-friendly price, while Yates received some security with a multiyear deal.

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While Yates felt frustrated during his time away from baseball, he found positives. One of them: He was home every day. He didn’t have to leave his family for a week at a time. He began to build strong relationships with his children. “That’s time you don’t get back,” he said.

“I didn’t have to leave for 10 days and come back and try and catch up,” he said. “You leave your kids for 10 days, it makes an impact on them. When you come home, they’re used to just Mom. Sometimes, you’re kind of the outlier of the family because you’re in and out, and they don’t know any better.”

Right now, it seems like August is a realistic target for Yates’ return. The Braves recently bolstered their bullpen by adding closer Kenley Jansen and Collin McHugh. If Yates returns and looks anything like the pitcher who posted a 1.67 ERA over his two best seasons in San Diego, the Braves’ bullpen will be even scarier.

Yates is playing catch and is throwing five days a week. The distance varies, but he’s thrown from 120 feet. He said he’s getting closer to throwing off a mound. “I feel fixed,” he said. “I feel everything is strong again, and it’s just about kind of getting on the program, waiting the time and taking it day by day, week by week.”

Yates said he’s had to push everything back about two months during his rehab process. Doctors want to be cautious because this was his second Tommy John surgery. He wore a brace for 2 ½ months and couldn’t start throwing until he was eight months out from the procedure.

Yates hopes to return to his form from 2018 and 2019, when he felt like he “learned everything I needed to learn about myself to be successful in this league.” He improved his preparation and understood hitters much better. Perhaps most important, he figured out how to survive the days when he didn’t have his best stuff.

“It’s kind of easy when you feel good and everything is going your way,” he said, “but the real mark of a good reliever is probably the days you’re not feeling good or the days that you’re kind of battling, (and having) the ability to get your job done.”

Not counting spring training, Yates hasn’t pitched in a big-league game in almost two years. This has irked him, even if he’s practiced patience throughout the process. He wants nothing more than to be able to step on the mound and fire a baseball again.

“I don’t have trouble being motivated, especially on a baseball field,” Yates said. “I don’t think it’s ever like a motivational issue or anything like that. The only thing we’re talking about here is health, right? We’re not talking about ability or anything like that. We’re just talking about health.

“Sometimes you control that, and sometimes you don’t. I think right now, you can control as much as you can control, but you just go along with the timeline. You take it day by day, week to week, and I feel good now. The goal is to keep feeling good for another four months and the rest of my career.”