Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Yankees' David Robertson will succeed as closer

The New York Yankees lost the greatest closer of all time when Mariano Rivera retired from the game at the end of the 2013 season. The team spent more than $500 million on free agents this offseason and not one player was signed with the intention of replacing Rivera.

The Yankees decided potentially long before the offseason began that they would be best served to have Rivera’s setup man the last couple seasons, David Robertson, carry the burden of following up Rivera.

Being a closer is no easy task. They are often times asked to do things that other pitchers are not -- strand runners with the game on the line and with little or no time for the offense to catch up. Closers take most of the blame for late-game losses in which they cough up the lead and are sometimes overly celebrated for saves. But, following Rivera could make the role of Yankees closer the hardest of all 30 MLB teams in 2014 as far as scrutiny is concerned.

Can Robertson handle it?

Well, the jury is out on this. The Yankees obviously believe he can. Not only did they decide to not sign one of several closers available this offseason, but they didn’t bother to make any significant upgrades behind Robertson. They will be relying on Matt Thornton, who is no longer the dominant lefty from his Chicago White Sox days, and a group of young and/or inexperienced arms.

Robertson has been one of the more dominant setup men in recent years. He has provided the Yankees with three straight seasons of fantastic, albeit sometimes nail-biting, performances. The fans have bestowed upon him the nickname Houdini for his seemingly magical escape acts, sometimes created on his own.

Robertson will not have the luxury of someone behind him to pick up the pieces if one of his save opportunities goes awry. He is unquestionably the man until further notice. There is some cause for concern and it is not purely about the Houdini act.

Robertson’s success rate in 18 save opportunities (saves plus blown saves registered, not save situations) is not very good. He has eight saves and 10 blown saves in such circumstances. Robertson owns a 3.88 ERA in 51 innings while pitching in the ninth inning and a 1.94 ERA in 180.2 innings while pitching in the eighth inning.

Now, this paints the picture an undesirable closer in many eyes, but I’ll argue that Robertson has the ability to be brilliant as a closer if he can translate his eighth inning success to the ninth inning. There is plenty of data to suggest that Robertson is an exceptional pitcher in crucial situations.

According to Baseball-Reference, Robertson has recorded RE24 measures of 27.8 in 2011, 8.5 in 2012 and 14.1 in 2013 with zero representing an average pitcher. RE24 calculates runs saved based on the number of baserunners and the out situation in the resulting play; 24 base-out states. Robertson’s WPA (Win Probability Added – the number of wins his presence on the mound would have added to an average team) for the same years in succession – 4.1, 0.4 and 3.5. While not predictive, Robertson’s WPA does paint a picture of success in the past few seasons.

In standard measures, Robertson has pitched to a 1.91 ERA (ERA+ of 220) with a 12.0 K/9 rate in 193.2 innings across 205 appearances from 2011 through 2013. No matter how deep you look at Robertson's statistics, they are very good.

In my view it is too simplistic to look at Robertson’s less than stellar results as the reliever closing out a game. It is more realistic to believe that provided he can maintain his high K/9 rates, low HR/9 rates (0.5 from 2011 to 2013) and continue to shrink his BB/9 ratios (4.7, 2.8 and 2.4 trending from 2011 through 2013) that he can be a very reliable closer for the Yankees.

Robertson’s mentality has never seemed to be an issue from my vantage point. He has always gone out to the mound with one thing in mind, limit the number of baserunners and prevent inherited baserunners from scoring. The game was no less on the line when he upheld small leads or maintained ties in the seventh or eighth innings the last few seasons. He has performed his job as well as anyone could hope since 2011.

I fully expect we’ll see some straitjacket maneuvers from Robertson over the course of the season. I also firmly believe that he will be able to handle the role just as well as anyone the Yankees could have locked down via free agency or trade this offseason. I anticipate Robertson will have a fine season, in fact, I predict his performance in 2014 will secure future seasons in the Bronx.

What do you think?

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

Photo courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance sports writer/editor and the Director of Content Strategy for Sportsideo. Connect with Chris on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.