To a generation of Yankees fans, the closer’s role has been something of an afterthought. That is if you can consider having the privilege to watch Mariano Rivera, the undisputed G.O.A.T. (speaking strictly of relief pitchers, of course) day in and day out. Even in 2012, when Rivera went down with a torn ACL, Rafael Soriano stepped in and did a marvelous job.
Those days are over. As you may have heard, Rivera has retired and although he has not been officially designated as such (something that is perhaps telling in its own right), David Robertson will most likely be the Yankees closer once the 2014 regular season begins. The reluctance on the part of Yankees’ brass to name Robertson the closer so early in spring is not necessarily a red flag. They did, after all, choose not to sign one of the available, healthy free agent veteran closers over the winter, making it clear this spring who the front-runner is to be the closer. While Robertson may not be considered the heir apparent to Rivera, he is the heir…apparently.
As we’ve been told (and have seen) time and again, pitching the ninth inning is a different animal. Having filthy stuff is not enough; you also need a full measure of intestinal fortitude. Not everyone is equipped with the requisite set of avocados needed to withstand the pressure that comes with nailing down the final inning to make their teammates work over the previous eight payoff in a victory. It is not a job for the faint of heart. Now, Robertson has been good, at times excellent, as a late-inning reliever for the Yankees and has stood tall in numerous high-pressure situations, including the playoffs and the World Series. But not to close out the game.
While it was never boring (quite the opposite) to watch Rivera come in to close games, whipping his signature cutter at opposing batters, sawing off bats as the t.v. broadcast cut to a shot of his teammates (and often opponents) chuckling in the dugout, it did become a matter of routine. Watching ninth inning greatness unfold night after night for the 16 full seasons Rivera served as the Yankees closer did indeed spoil Yankees fans, and understandably so. Fans of other teams are often left on the edge of their seat in the ninth inning, as even the most stalwart of closers trip up on occasion. But Rivera’s missteps were so few and far between that although it was difficult to process what had happened when they did occur, there was no doubt that it would not happen again the next night or the vast majority of nights after that. And it didn’t.
Robertson is so inexperienced as a closer and Rivera is the best ever, that most reasonable fans will not compare the two as Robertson sets off on the fool’s errand of replacing a legend. Adding to the level of stress for Robertson this year is the fact that he will be a free agent at season’s end. So now he’s replacing the best closer ever and he’s in his walk year. The pressure builds…
Robertson’s nickname is Houdini due to his penchant for getting out of trouble. The trouble with that trouble, is that it is sometimes, not always, brought on by Robertson himself, many times in the form of walking the first or second batter he faces in an inning. That is a recipe for disaster for any pitcher, especially a closer. Then there are these words from Robertson himself, as reported by the New York Post, “I know I’m here for another year, so even if I’m not throwing in the ninth inning, I know I’m still effective in the eighth.” That’s not what I’d call exuding confidence with the intention of grabbing a very important job by the horns, something the Yankees would very much like him to do.
It’s all there for the taking for Robertson. Success as the closer this year for the Yankees would not only mean free agent riches next winter, but would also further endear him to a fan base that is still getting used to the idea of being put to bed by someone other than The Sandman.