Yankees’ fans for the last 19 years had the privilege of watching the greatest closer of all-time secure win after win for them. As a Yankee opponent, if you were down in the 9th inning, you might as well throw in the towel. It became a regularity; the Yankees entered the 9th with a lead and number 42 would jog in from the bullpen ending any chance you thought you had in winning that game. Even in his final year, at age 43, he was still the better than everyone. The best part about it? Every hitter knew what was coming and still couldn’t hit it. He perfected his craft; he threw one pitch and he could throw it where he wanted whenever he wanted. That kind of dominance comes once in a lifetime, and for Yankees’ fans, they got to enjoy every second of it. He brought the city five world championships and a sense of pride and poise like no other.
Last year, Mariano Rivera decided it was his time to move on from the game of baseball. He was ready, but the real question was, were the Yankees ready? Who in the world could follow up the greatest closing act in the history of baseball?
The beginning of a new era started this 2014 season when David Robertson was named Mo’s heir apparent. He had quite the resume as a set-up man; career ERA of 2.72, opponent batting average against of .219, and 97 holds in the last three years. Those are some really good numbers. His most notable statistic last year was his ability to throw strikes while also striking out a ton of batters. In 2013, Robertson had a career best BB/9 at 2.4 and maintained a high K/9 at 10.4. Even though Robertson had virtually no experience as a closer, it is hard to overlook the brilliant young player who was lurking in Rivera’s shadow the last four seasons.
How has this new-look bullpen looked thus far this year? If I said it was as good as last year, I’d be lying to you. But at the same time, it is much better than most people expected. Robertson got off to a slow start due to a groin injury sustained within the first week of the season. Shawn Kelley, Robertson’s set-up man, filled in nicely converting 4 out of the 5 chances he got. Not bad for a fill in, but it still wasn’t Mo.
Robertson returned from the DL in late April and has looked sharp thus far. He has not blown a save yet this year and has an WHIP of 0.750. Batters are hitting .148 against him and he has only given up one run on the season. OK, now we’re talking.
While people remember Mo for his heroic 9th innings, what most people forget is the amount of times Rivera came in the game in the 8th inning. If the Yankees got into a jam in the 8th inning, instead of hoping they could miraculously find a way to Mo in the 9th, both Joe Torre and Joe Girardi had no problem sending the Sandman in at the most critical part of the game. Most closers don’t get called on for more than three outs; that’s just the nature of the role. The amount of confidence that Rivera’s managers had in him to get them out of the jam shows just how much they trusted him. Who wouldn’t trust a guy who held opposing batters to a .211 average over his career? At the same time Girardi needs to find that same trust with Robertson. He’s pitched well enough in big spots to earn the trust of so many fans, why can’t the manager feel the same way?
Let’s look at the game on 5/5/14 against the LA Angels. The Yankees entered the 8th inning tied 1-1. Set-up man Shawn Kelley goes out to the mound and walks the lead-off man (never a good start). He then gets a ground out and the man on first advances to second. Mike Trout then flies out to center for out number two. Intentional walk to Pujols to make it first and second. As Raul Ibanez walks up to the plate to pinch hit, Robertson might not be a bad option to bring in right this second. Instead, they stick with Kelley and he walks Ibanez. At this point, this is the biggest moment in the game; bases loaded with two outs and Howie Kendrick is up. The closer is supposed to be your best arm out of the ‘pen; the one you feel can overcome the most adverse situations. If Rivera is warming up in the bullpen, you can bet that he is running in to save the day. Why can’t David Robertson have that same opportunity? I’m guessing he will next time as Kelley presumes to walk in a run, then Matt Thornton is called on to walk in another run, and if that wasn’t enough, Preston Claiborne trots on in to put more gasoline on the fire by walking in yet another run. At what point do you think Girardi said to himself, “Hmm maybe we should have put in Robertson.”
It’s a long season and it’s a learning process for us all. The New York Yankees no longer have the greatest closer to ever play the game sitting in their bullpen, but they have a pretty darn good one. Life without Mo will be hard for both the Yankees and their fans this year. Let’s just hope that Robertson continues to seize his opportunity and grow before our eyes.