With about a month to go before spring training starts, a certain New York Yankees pitcher may, in fact, be facing the most pressure in all of Major League Baseball, and no, it's not just-signed Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka.
It's David Robertson, one of the Yankees' lesser-known players who has spent the entirety of his career pitching in a middle-relief and setup role. Until now, that is.
Shortly after news broke, via Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, that the Yankees had reached an agreement on a seven-year, $155 million contract with Tanaka on Wednesday, Robertson officially was named the club's closer by managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner, according to Joel Sherman and Dan Martin of the New York Post.
"I have a lot of confidence in Robertson and so does [manager] Joe [Girardi]," Steinbrenner said. "Robertson is going to be our closer, and I believe he will do a good job."
The decision isn't exactly surprising—given the current makeup of the team's bullpen, it was expected—but prior to Wednesday's announcement, the Yankees themselves had expressed some doubts about Robertson's readiness to take over.
Here's what general manager Brian Cashman told Andy McCullough of The Star-Ledger back in November:
I’m not sure Robertson is capable yet. He's never done that before. I think he's earned the right to take a shot at it. And he very well may be the guy. But we're not anointing him the guy. We'll wait and see how our winter plays out, and then how our spring training works out.
And so, here's what Robertson is facing: The 28-year-old reliever not only has to replace recently retired—and best-ever at the job—Mariano Rivera by taking over the ninth inning for the first time in his career, he now also has to do so for a team that plays in the media capital of the world and has spent nearly $500 million in a matter of months to avoid a second straight postseason-less campaign.
Oh, and Robertson's also due to become a free agent after the season, so he's got what is likely his only shot at a big-money contract (for a reliever) on the line, too.
Sheesh. If there's another player in baseball with simultaneously more to prove and more on the line, by all means, applicants are welcome.
None of this is to say, of course, that Robertson won't be up to all the above. While the right-hander isn't a "proven closer," he is, inarguably, a proven reliever, one who sports a closer-like 2.76 ERA and 11.7 K/9 for his career.
Robertson also has been among the very best relief pitchers of any kind in the sport over the past five seasons, going by just about any measure. Like wins above replacement (WAR), per FanGraphs:
|*Minimum 200 IP|
Or shutdowns and meltdowns (SD/MD), also via FanGraphs, which essentially determine the number of times a pitcher helped or hurt his team's chances to win a game and show that Robertson has compiled nearly four shutdowns for every meltdown he's responsible for over the past five years:
|127 (t-12th)||35||3.6||9.05 (7th)|
|*Minimum 200 IP|
That last column, win probability added (WPA), is another how-good-is-the-player-when-it-counts metric. Yet again, this shows that Robertson has been near the top among his late-inning brethren, despite never being given the closer job, simply because Rivera was busy being the greatest reliever of all time.
Beyond even those, there are plenty of other numbers to prove how well Robertson has handled pressure to this point. For example, his incredible .163/.196/.388 line with a 28-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in bases-loaded situations for his career.
That's reason enough for Robertson to have earned his nickname: Houdini.
In the interest of playing devil's advocate, it's reasonable to point out that Robertson's career 3.88 ERA in the ninth inning is exactly twice as high as his career 1.94 in the eighth, his more familiar frame (albeit in nearly one-fourth the opportunities). If there's anything for skeptics to criticize about Robertson, that's at least something.
Despite that and to his credit, Robertson gets that there isn't an inherent difference between outs Nos. 22, 23 and 24, and Nos. 25, 26 and 27.
"It's just like the eighth inning," he told Bryan Hoch of MLB.com last October. "You have to get three outs and not let anybody score."
Is David Robertson ready to handle the ninth inning in New York?
It's still possible, too, that the Yankees will look into bringing in one of the relief pitchers with closer experience who remain on the free-agent market, like Grant Balfour or Fernando Rodney.
That might not be a bad idea, considering all that's resting on Robertson's rather unproven ability to compile saves. It's also the kind of move that could create controversy where there shouldn't really be any, especially since the reliever remnants on the open market are just that—remnants—and saves are a silly stat that don't prove how good a pitcher is.
For those wondering about Robertson's performance at the time of year that matters most, the time of year the Yankees hope to be playing again in 2014—that is, October—he owns a respectable 3.71 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 9.0 K/9. That, though, is a tad misleading: Aside from a disastrous showing in the 2010 ALCS against the Texas Rangers, Robertson has surrendered but one run in 14.1 postseason innings.
For the past 17 years in New York, the Yankees enjoyed the privilege of watching Mariano Rivera jog out of the bullpen and shut down opponents in the ninth inning. That's about to change, and with change will come questions and concerns and talk-radio fodder every time David Robertson fails. And he will fail, for sure, on occasion.
But Robertson is ready to replace Rivera, ready for the spotlight, ready to handle the pressure of the last three outs in the Bronx. For the Yankees' sake, for his own sake, Houdini better be.
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