David Robertson may not be the heir apparent after all. According to ESPN New York, the Yankees are considering signing a “proven closer” to take over for Mariano Rivera instead of simply handing the role to his setup man. Is this a case of the Yankees opting for experience, or simply a lack of faith in Robertson?
What makes the Yankees’ dilemma a little ironic is Robertson has been an excellent setup man. In fact, he has arguably been the team’s best “eighth inning guy” since Rivera performed the role leading up to John Wetteland. So, it seems only natural that the Yankees would take the same leap of faith that they did in 1997 and pass the baton to the in-house solution. However, there are two key differences: David Robertson is not Mariano Rivera and neither was John Wetteland.
Can Robertson be a good closer? It would be silly to suggest otherwise. However, it is reasonable to wonder whether Robertson can be as good closing games as he was in the setup role. In addition, durability is a real concern. Not only has the right hander battled nagging injuries during his career, but his propensity for throwing a lot of pitches could also limit his availability during the season.
Rivera vs. Robertson: Pitch Count in One Inning Appearances
Note: Includes only appearances of exactly one inning.
Being a good closer is about more than just dominance. Consistency and reliability are just as important. That’s why the real issue facing the Yankees isn’t Robertson’s ability to pitch in the ninth inning, but whether he can do so with regularity. Since 2009, the right hander has had consecutive appearances of one inning or more on only 35 occasions, representing approximately 10% of his overall workload. Last year, Rivera did it 12 times, or about 20% of his appearances in 2013. Can Robertson handle a similar pattern of use without it reducing his effectiveness? That question, more than his overall pitching prowess, should guide the Yankees’ decision.
It’s hard to imagine a reliever more efficient than Rivera, so it’s unfair to use him as a benchmark. However, that’s exactly the standard to which the next Yankees’ closer will be held. This reality introduces another reason why the team could be considering a more experienced replacement for Rivera. Instead of having Robertson deal with replacing a legend, a veteran from another team might be better equipped to handle the transition. Joe Nathan, a great closer in his own right, would be ideal in this regard, but quirky personalities with big game experience like Grant Balfour and Brian Wilson might also fill the bill.
Even if the Yankees were convinced Robertson could handle the workload and wouldn’t be intimidated by replacing Rivera, there’s another more practical reason for passing him over as closer. As previously mentioned, the free agent market for closers is relatively robust. On the other hand, there aren’t many dominant setup men looking for jobs. If the Yankees can fill the hole left by Rivera with a free agent signing, they won’t have to worry about replacing Robertson in the setup role.
It’s worth noting that this discussion becomes moot if the Yankees’ priority is trimming payroll below the $189 million threshold, in which case, Robertson’s lower salary would become the overriding factor. However, if the goal is to win, the next Yankees’ closer should not be a fait accompli. Ultimately, the point is to have an effective, well rounded bullpen, and leaving Robertson in his comfort zone might be the best way to accomplish that.
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