Since closer Aroldis Chapman made his season debut on May 9, the Yankees' late-game trio of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Chapman has provided an enormous boost. But the starting staff has struggled to reach the late innings. New York's starters entered Wednesday with only 252 1/3 innings (an average of 5.73 innings per start), ranking 11th in the American League.
That's why Kirby Yates has been extra valuable. The 29-year-old righty, who was acquired for just $78,000 from the Indians over the offseason after Cleveland purchased him from Tampa Bay, entered Wednesday having permitted just four earned runs over 18 1/3 innings this season, proving to be a quality bridge to the team's dominant back-end crew.
It's been a remarkable turnaround for Yates, who battled injuries and ineffectiveness last season. But this isn't the first time Yates has overcome long odds. Along with his older brother, Tyler, Kirby is one of only two Major Leaguers who attended high school on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. He also overcame Tommy John surgery, which sidelined him for the 2006 and '07 seasons.
Yates' line last year was not flattering: A 7.97 ERA, 1.475 WHIP and 10 home runs over 20 1/3 innings.
"Last year, when I got sent down and tried to make it back up to the club, I felt I kept having to prove myself over and over again," Yates said. "I didn't want to go back to Triple-A."
Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild suspected Yates wasn't completely himself in 2015.
"The slider wasn't working at all, so he switched over to the curveball and that wasn't working too well, either," Rothschild said. "This year, he was able to get back to his slider, and now he's throwing similarly to the way he did a couple years ago."
According to Fangraphs, opponents have collected just four hits off the 189 fastballs Yates has thrown this year. They're also hitting just .269 against his slider, which is a marked improvement from their .400 average against his secondary pitch last year.
"He's got a pretty unique release point, and that helps him gets on top of hitters," Rothschild said. "It's not in the normal slot, or even at three-quarters or lowered. It's just different."
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.