Given the way Sunday's loss to the Minnesota Twins unfolded, the outcome was an especially brutal one for the New York Yankees. With the team up 2-1 in the top of the ninth, not only did David Robertson fail to lock up the game, but the closer imploded in such a way that the Yankees haven't been used to witnessing in the ninth inning for the past, oh, decade-and-a-half.
Having spent several seasons working as the team's setup man—and becoming one of the best in the sport in that role—Robertson was groomed to take over for Mariano Rivera, baseball's all-time leader in saves. But on Sunday, the successor wasn't all that successful, and with rookie revelation Dellin Betances throwing as well as any reliever in the majors, it's not too soon to wonder whether the Yankees might consider a switch.
Remember, this is a Yankees team looking to avoid a second straight October-less campaign, one that simply cannot afford to give away wins like Robertson did Sunday. He allowed five earned runs on two hits and three walks while getting only two outs against the Twins, who aren't exactly a powerhouse offense, ranking smack dab in the middle of the pack in runs scored.
Robertson's unraveling happened quickly, too, as Josh Willingham hit the game-tying home run on the very first pitch of the inning.
"I stunk today," Robertson said after the Yankees wound up losing 7-2 in the end. "I didn't get the job done."
While Robertson was blowing it in the ninth, Betances was busy hurling two more scoreless frames while whiffing five of the six batters he faced without surrendering a hit or walk across the sixth and seventh innings.
That makes six straight appearances without allowing a run for Betances. Since the start of May, the 26-year-old has tolerated only 11 baserunners and just two runs over 19.1 innings to go with a ridiculous 33-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
For the year, Betances has been better than Robertson in just about every facet, from ERA (1.38 to 4.50) to WHIP (0.74 to 1.17) to home runs allowed (one to three) to walk rate (2.5 BB/9 to 3.5). And while Robertson is striking out a career-high 16.0 per nine through his first 18.0 innings, Betances' 15.4 K/9 is right there—in more than twice as many innings (32.2).
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While the flames of change may only yet be flickering, it won't take much more fuel on the fire before it's raging. Especially in New York. Especially with the Yankees.
Heck, Brendan Kuty of NJ.com has already written about the pros and cons of making Betances the closer:
According to Baseball Reference, Yankees manager Joe Girardi used Betances in high-pressure situations twice in April, as the New York City kid was adjusting to the majors. In May, six of Betances' 12 appearances came in sweating-bullets scenarios.
Now, Robertson's outing on Sunday did come only a day after he pulled off a perfect save—a one-two-three ninth with three strikeouts to secure Masahiro Tanaka's eighth victory—and he's only blown two opportunities to date. As mentioned earlier, he's also been one of the best relievers in the game for several seasons, so one outing isn't enough to act on, even as bad as Robertson was Sunday.
On the whole, however, Robertson has been capable but inconsistent. That actually jibes with the 29-year-old's performance throughout his seven-year career. It's the very reason why he's known as "Houdini"—a nickname that speaks as much to his knack for getting into trouble as it does for getting out of it.
Betances, meanwhile, is proving why he once was one of the top pitching prospects in the Yankees' system after being drafted back in 2006. A product of a Brooklyn high school, he took the circuitous route to get to the Bronx, undergoing elbow surgery, battling multiple injuries and spending eight seasons in the minors after being picked in the eighth round.
While he always struggled with his control in the minors (4.9 BB/9 career), the right-hander is learning how to command his high-90s heat and that devastating slurve (a slider-curve hybrid).
In his past 10 games, covering 15.1 innings, Betances has walked nary a batter.
For what it's worth, manager Joe Girardi indicated he still has faith in his closer. "[Robertson] has shown the ability to bounce back before," Girardi said during his postgame press conference.
And yet this is the same manager who pretty quickly moved Robertson out of the ninth inning in favor of Rafael Soriano back in 2012 in the wake of Rivera's season-ending knee injury. The big difference here is that Soriano was an experienced big leaguer and closer, whereas Betances is still a rookie.
The other factor to consider is that Betances, a former starting pitcher, has been especially valuable in his current role because he can be called upon not only to avert disaster in non-ninth-inning situations but also to pitch more than one inning at a time. He's done the latter 15 times out of his 23 appearances to date.
In other words, while Betances undoubtedly has been the better reliever this year—and one of the very best in all of baseball—he actually might be more valuable to the Yankees being utilized as he is now.
That said, if Robertson can't tighten things up, it would be impossible to resist the temptation to turn to Betances in the ninth if he keeps throwing this well.
And as a bonus, if that wound up happening and working out, well, then the Yankees just might have their next great closer. With Robertson set to hit free agency at season's end, wouldn't that be something?
For his part, Betances is saying all the right things. "Whenever Robertson goes back out there, I'm sure he'll do the job," Betances said via Bryan Hoch of MLB.com. "He's been doing it for a while now and that's the guy we want out there."
For now, at least.
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