Here’s the analytical truth: most MLB teams overvalue and overpay relief pitchers. Especially closers, and especially set-up men. Their jobs are glorified, so the argument goes, making their practice more exclusive than it should be.
That being said, if David Robertson, the set-up man for the New York Yankees, was released and made a free agent today, you can bet every team in baseball would be knocking on his door.
This is partly because traditional knowledge endures, but mostly because Robertson has knock-you-off-your-feet kind of stuff. The kind of stuff that belongs in the All-Star Game, this coming Tuesday at Citi Field.
An All-Star for the first time in 2011, Robertson has a shot at his second trip to the Midsummer Classic by way of the A.L. Final Vote. As of this writing, he trails only Toronto’s Steve Delabar for the last spot on the A.L. roster. Granted, with five terrific relief pitchers on the final ballot it’s hard to say one guy deserves it more than any other, but here’s the case for D-Rob.
At just 5-foot-11, 195 pounds – decidedly small for a big-league pitcher – the Yankees’ diminutive right-hander can flick away hulking hitters like gnats. His strength comes from his legs, two Roman pillars that more closely befit the body of an NFL running back. His calves appear in an ongoing struggle to burst through the seams of his socks, as though the 28-year-old were still wearing his Little League uniform. His stature is quite the contradiction: a pair of Redwood trunks supporting the torso of a birch tree.
The sight of a 95 mile-per-hour heater zipping from the hand of an undersized high-school lookalike is nearly enough show for the All-Star Game by itself. But Robertson doesn’t merely defy physics and throw hard like others do; he defies physics and gets outs. And more often than not, he does it with ease.
He features three pitches – fastball, curveball, changeup – but essentially uses two. The fastball, which cuts and hops, sets the table, while the curveball, which falls off a cliff, clears it. The fastball, in particular, is a pitching marvel. Opposing hitters believe it accelerates as it nears the plate, giving it the illusion of rising at the last moment. Robertson throws a ball made out of cork and cowhide and makes it move like a plastic wiffleball.
But Robertson has the one thing most wiffleball pitchers lack: command. Despite the magnetic movement of his pitches, he consistently throws strikes. In 36+ innings this year, he has issued only 12 walks, nearly two fewer per nine innings than in his banner year in 2011. Add to that the 23 hits against, and the result is 35 base runners in 36 1/3 innings, good for a team-leading WHIP of .96. Yes, Mariano Rivera was included.
In the past, Robertson has been called Houdini by his teammates, for his shrewd ability to escape bases-loaded situations. But those were the days when Robertson was more of a fireman, a guy who would come out of the bullpen to douse a rally. These days, the 8th inning is all his. He starts it, finishes it, and hands the baton to the best anchor in baseball. Robertson works so quickly that a trip to the bathroom may cost you the chance to see him pitch.
At the core of his efficiency is this: his batting average against when facing the leadoff man is .176. Like any great relief pitcher, Robertson quells rallies before they happen. When the rare hitter does get on base, his batting average against dips to .157. And when that hitter, by some grace of God, makes it into scoring position, Robertson’s batting average against is a meager .129. When the stakes heighten, D-Rob stiffens.
His ability to escape jams when he’s in them owes to his penchant for punch-outs. Over 36 1/3 innings, he has racked up 46 strikeouts, or 11.4 per nine innings. Boston’s Koji Uehara is the only other pitcher on the Final Vote ballot with a WHIP less than 1 and more than 11 K/9.
The rivalry always stirs.
But the man Robertson needs to catch is Delabar. If he had any say in it, he’d set Delabar up with a pair of nasty cutters and then strike him out with a curveball from hell.