The Yankees were poised for their biggest win of the season. After scoring five runs to tie the game in the top of the eighth, Joe Girardi handed the ball to David Robertson with the expectation that he would carry the deadlock into the ninth. It was the same script that seemed to work every time in 2011, but last night, the curtain was lowered after only four pitches.
Last year, Robertson was as dominant as a reliever can be. In 66 innings, the right hander only allowed 40 hits and one home run, while striking out nearly 14 per game. After last night’s implosion, he has already allowed 42 hits and five long balls, despite pitching 20 fewer innings. Also, and perhaps of even greater concern, as the year has gone on, his strike out rate has declined.
Note: Robertson pitched only 3 1/3 innings in May because of a stint on the disabled list.
It seems a little perverse to be talking about Robertson’s struggles when his ERA and most of his peripherals remain well above the league average. However, in 2011, Robertson set the bar high, so it’s only natural that he would suffer by the comparison. Having said that, what makes Robertson’s 2012 campaign suspect isn’t his aggregate performance, but his frequent struggles when pitching in high leverage situations.
Note: sOPS+ compares a player’s performance in a split to the MLB average. A number less than 100 indicates that a pitcher did better than the league average.
Source: baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com
In 2011, Robertson got better as the stakes were raised. In 127 high leverage matchups (nearly half of all situations faced by the reliever), the right hander allowed the opposition a miniscule line of .126/.236/.171, which, on an adjusted OPS basis, was only 17% of the average output allowed. Robertson’s clutch score of 0.62 (for an explanation of clutch, click here) also ranked among the top-25 relievers in baseball, which is even more impressive when you consider the all around outstanding level of his performance (i.e., clutch compares a player’s performance to himself, not a league average). When the Yankees needed big outs before Mariano Rivera’s turn to pitch, Robertson got them just about every time.
Unfortunately for Girardi’s beleaguered bullpen, Robertson has not provided the same security blanked in 2012. This year, the righty has been just as good in low and medium leverage situations, but his performance in big spots has lagged. Although still slightly better than the norm in such situations, Robertson has allowed opposing hitters to compile a line of .235/.303/.397. In terms of clutch score, the reliever now ranks toward the bottom of the league with a rating of -0.48.
It would be silly to make Robertson a scapegoat for the Yankees’ late season collapse, but it’s also hard to ignore the role he has played in it. On six separate occasions this season, the righty has been brought into the game with the Yankees tied or ahead, but left with the team trailing. On four occasions, the late inning loss came at the expense of the division rival Orioles and Rays, including two in the past week, and in three instances, the damage was done via the long ball. Had he been able to escape half of those situations, the Yankees would still have a comfortable lead. Is that an unfair standard? Perhaps, but without the Houdini Robertson, the Yankees have become more vulnerable in the late innings, which, for a team in a pennant race, is an uncomfortable feeling.
Can Robertson rekindle his magic from last year? The Yankees had better hope the right hander hasn’t exhausted his bag of tricks because, without a dominant Robertson, the next thing to disappear could be October baseball in the Bronx.