Yankees fans have been spoiled. Since 1997, ninth inning leads have typically been a stress free prelude to victory. No sweaty palms. No heart palpitations. No watching the last out between your fingers. With Mariano Rivera in the game, Yankees’ fans were treated to a closer with one of the most unique combinations of excellence and efficiency. Now that he is injured, however, those last few outs may not come as often or as easily.
In David Robertson’s first save attempt since Rivera’s injury, the right hander added two more strikeouts to his astounding total (15.9 per nine innings) and extended his scoreless innings streak to 26 1/3 innings. In the process, however, he also loaded the bases on a hit and two walks and needed 25 pitches to escape the jam. Although Robertson eventually slammed the door, it was a very stressful beginning to life without Rivera.
Robertson’s somewhat shaky debut as closer could be attributed to nerves, but the fact of the matter is the righty throws a lot of pitches. So far in his young career, Robertson has had 116 one-inning appearances, of which 45, or almost 40%, required at least 20 pitches. In contrast, Rivera has had 720 stints that lasted one inning, but only 112, or 15%, lasted 20 pitches or greater. In fact, Rivera’s percentage is even lower than Robertson’s rate of 25-pitch appearances, which is currently over 16% of his one-inning outings.
Easy saves might be good for the blood pressure readings of fans and teammates alike, but they don’t count extra in the standings. However, that doesn’t mean closer efficiency is purely aesthetic. Even though Robertson’s 25-pitch inning counts as a save just the same, the effort used to nail it down could have implications for his immediate availability. If that pattern repeats throughout the season, the Yankees could find themselves short handed in the ninth inning on more than a few occasions (and that’s without taking into consideration the impact so many high leverage pitches could have on the health of Robertson’s golden right arm). That’s why Rivera’s uncanny efficiency was about so much more than stress relief.
Over the last year-plus, David Robertson has been one of the most effective, if not dominant, relievers in all of baseball. What we don’t know, however, is whether he will be efficient enough to be available when needed. If not, the Yankees will wind up with a closer-by-committee, just not by choice. When you consider that Rafael Soriano isn’t the most efficient reliever either, what used to be the easiest part of Joe Girardi’s job could become his greatest challenge.
Replacing Mariano Rivera is about so much more than finding someone to pitch 40 innings. It also entails finding a new balance in the bullpen. That ripple effect ends with the closer, but begins the moment the starting pitcher leaves the ballgame. If Robertson can manage the ninth inning on a regular basis, the rest of the bullpen just might fall into place. However, if he fails, either because of performance or inefficiency, the resultant disorder could leave the Yankees desperate for relief.
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