Searching for Jeff Nelson: Why David Robertson's Turn Has Come

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Searching for Jeff Nelson: Why David Robertson's Turn Has Come
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Standing at a height of 6'8" and weighing in at a listed 225 pounds, Jeff Nelson was an imposing figure and the primary setup man on the Yankees' World Series teams of 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000.

Since Nelson left for Seattle prior to the 2001 season, the Yankees have been actively searching for his replacement as the bridge to Mariano Rivera. Thus far, from a stability standpoint, the Yanks have failed. 

Over the past 10 years, Ramiro Mendoza, Steve Karsay, Chris Hammond, Armando Benitez, Paul Quantrill, Flash Gordon, Tanyon Sturtze, Scott Proctor, Kyle Farnsworth, Luis Vizcaino, Edwar Ramirez, and Joba Chamberlain all, in one way or another, have fallen shy of the Yankees' expectations in a big situation.

In 2003 the Yankees even brought back Nelson at the trading deadline to try to recapture his magic. By this point, however, he was too old.   

Phil Hughes finally filled the eighth inning void in 2009, turning into an executioner out of the bullpen and helping the Yankees to title No. 27—their first in nearly a decade. This solution was only temporary though, and Hughes' success has translated into the rotation in 2010. 

Compared to Jeff Nelson, the 25-year-old David Robertson would appear to be a pretty unassuming guy. Listed at only 5'11", 190 pounds, it's easy to write off Robertson as another meek MLB middle reliever. His stats say otherwise. 

Since arriving in the Yankee organization as a draft-eligible sophomore out of Alabama in 2007, David Robertson has posted impressive strikeout totals. Over 152 minor league innings, all in relief, Robertson rang up 215 batters, good for an otherworldly 12.7 K/9 rate. It may surprise you to discover that in 110 major league innings Robertson has struck out 142 batters (good for a 11.5 K/9 rate). 

Over the past three seasons, of relievers who have thrown at least 100 innings, David Robertson has the fourth best strikeout per nine innings rate in baseball.   He sits only behind Carlos Marmol, Jonathan Broxton, and Billy Wagner, three of baseball's elite closers. 

Where David Robertson struggles is with his control. After walking only 61 batters in his minor league career (for a respectable 3.6 BB/9), he has issued 56 free passes in the major leagues for a BB/9 of 4.6. In 2010, his K/9 rate is only 10.55, but the walks have come down slightly to 4.42 per nine innings. 

Robertson's arsenal consists of a slightly above average low 90s (usually 92 MPH) cutter, which he throws around 80 percent of the time. The other 20 percent of his offerings come in the form of a league average 79 MPH curveball. 

In terms of batted ball data, Robertson's rate of groundballs has always been around 40 percent, which is also about league average. This year, however, his line-drive rate has jumped to an absurdly high 26 percent, which may either be random noise or a real cause for concern.

It would seem odd that a pitcher who has one of the league's highest strikeout rates would also rank fifth in the league in line-drive percentage against, although he is in familiar company with relievers such as Matt Thornton, Carlos Marmol, and Jon Axford, all of whom rank highly in both categories. 

Whatever the case, David Robertson's .373 Batting Average on Balls in Play is due to regress. Though his ERA sits at 4.42, it's reasonable to suggest that Robertson currently possesses the ability of a pitcher with an ERA of around 3.50. Since the All-Star break, in seven innings of work, Robertson has struck out 11 batters and only walked one.

Whether or not this is merely the impact of a small data sample (likely) remains to be seen. For the optimists, it could mean that Robertson has taken that next step towards stardom. 

What is clear, even if he hasn't, is that despite doubts about his size, David Robertson deserves a shot to become Mariano Rivera's successor. 

 

Data courtesy of:

www.fangraphs.com

www.baseballcube.com

www.baseball-reference.com 

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