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Yankees Transaction Trees: Dillon Tate

It’s easy to forget that the talented right-hander spent two years in the Yankees’ minor league system.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees
Dillon Tate and Adley Rutschman celebrate an October 2022 win over the Yankees in New York.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

On Wednesday, I went over the Yankees-Sonny Gray saga. While Gray wasn’t nearly as effective as the Bombers had hoped, the damage was minimized given that none of the prospects the Yankees sent to the A’s in return for the right-hander panned out for Oakland. However, one of those prospects, Jorge Mateo, stands out as a productive player for the Orioles today. Meanwhile, Dillon Tate, another Yankees trade afterthought, has also become a Baltimore staple.

Tate began his university career at UC-Santa Barbara pitching out of the ’pen for two years, transitioning to a starter only in his last season of college ball (2015). At the tail-end of that season, in which he pitched to a 2.26 ERA with 111 Ks and 28 walks in 103.1 innings, the Rangers made him the fourth overall pick of the MLB draft. In advance of his full-season debut in pro ball, FanGraphs’ Dan Farnsworth pegged him as Texas’ second-best prospect entering 2016, expressing optimism that Tate would not have to transition back to relief.

What Farnsworth and many others failed to anticipate was that Tate would prove unable to maintain the high-90s velocity he had as a reliever in a starting role beyond college. With the diminished velocity and a hamstring issue, despite his advanced age for the level, Tate wound up struggling mightily as a 22-year-old in Low-A ball to the tune of a 5.12 ERA and 4.37 FIP across 65 innings. By the trade deadline that summer, Tate’s stock had bottomed out such that all it cost the Yankees to acquire him and two other pitching prospects was a two-month Carlos Beltran rental. One of those other prospects, Erik Swanson, would end up being a crucial part of the James Paxton deal later on.

Granted, Beltran was having a great year offensively. After putting up a 119 wRC+ in 2015, the switch-hitting slugger was up to a 134 wRC+ by the deadline, not to mention a superb .304/.344/.546 slash and 22 homers. But he was a 39-year-old set for free agency at season’s end, and sure enough he was only good for a league-average 100 wRC+ the rest of the year. The Rangers must have seen something really wrong with Tate if that’s all they were getting for him just one year after drafting him fourth overall.

For the rest of 2016, the Yankees had Tate iron out some mechanical issues in the minor league bullpen in the hopes of building up the young hurler’s confidence and velocity. The changes seemed to work, as Tate pitched to a 3.12 ERA and 3.46 FIP in 17.1 innings the rest of the way. The Yankees moved him back to the rotation in 2017 and he worked his way up to Double-A in short order. As a starter in the Yankees’ minor league system from 2017-18, Tate pitched to a 3.09 ERA and 3.86 FIP in 166 innings.

This was certainly a rebound, but Tate’s strikeout rate still stood at a paltry 7.48 per nine — that mark wouldn’t translate well to the majors. With his stock up but his ceiling capped, the Yankees chose to cut ties with Tate, sending him along with two other pitching prospects to Baltimore for Zack Britton at the 2018 trade deadline. By the next season, the Orioles had given up on using Tate as a starter.

When Tate debuted for the O’s in 2019, he averaged 93.6 on both his four- and two-seamers. In 2020, he averaged 95 on his four-seamer and in 2021 his sinker joined in, but his velocity went back down last year to 94 on the sinker. In other words, he hasn’t really seen a huge uptick in velo since transitioning to relief again full-time. Yet, despite the lower mark this year, he posted his best season yet.

In 2022, he stuck with the sinker, throwing it over 50 percent of the time. He also largely scrapped his four-seamer in favor of his changeup, which he threw at a career-high 23.7 percent rate. The sinker and change had great synergy, with a near-perfect 10.1 mph gap and extremely similar shapes: 10.3 versus 10.2 inches of horizontal movement and 3.4 versus 2.6 inches of rise. Both horizontal movements were also career bests. All told, the sinker saved Tate an estimated 16.9 runs — while the changeup cost him three runs, it also netted a career-high 20.3 percent swinging-strike rate, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it aided the sinker.

While figuring things out, Tate has pitched to a 3.97/4.03/4.01 ERA/FIP/xFIP slash in 179 major league innings. Now, the ascendant Orioles have three more years of an ironed-out Tate before he hits free agency, something a depleted Yankees’ bullpen could certainly use right now. Those next three years will also prove crucial to the narrative surrounding the Yankees’ Britton acquisition — neither of Tate’s trade-mates panned out, and Britton is now a free agent. For what it’s worth, Britton only tossed 25 innings in his original deal with the Yankees. It was a good 25 innings, as he pitched to a 2.88 ERA mark, but by WAR, Tate has easily out-earned it. Even including his more recent deal with the Yanks, Britton’s tenure in the Bronx has yielded exactly one win (largely due to poor showings in the last two seasons), while Tate has accrued 1.2.

Though Texas gave up on Tate much too soon, the Yankees didn’t hold onto him long enough either. They helped to increase his stock and flipped him when the opportunity presented itself, a strategy that has borne fruit when it comes to players like Justus Sheffield, but Tate represents the potential downside of such a tactic. Now, the Yankees will have to contend with the ever-improving righty in the AL East for the next three years.