In case you hadn't heard, Mariano Rivera is retiring after the end of this season. When he does, he'll leave the Yankees with a decision to make that they haven't had to consider for the last 17 years- who takes over for him and assumes the closer role in 2014? The smart money all season has been on David Robertson, Mo's long time setup man, one of the best late-game relievers in baseball, and magna cum laude graduate of the Mariano Rivera School of Relief Pitching. But last night something happened that brought that potential passing of the torch into question.
With 2 outs and a runner on second in the 8th, Joe came out to remove D-Rob and go to Mo. Not only that, he came out in the middle of an at-bat after D-Rob had already thrown a pitch to yank him. While it might not seem like much, it's another instance of Robertson not being shown a lot of faith as the heir apparent and it raises the question of whether the Yankees really do view him as Mo's successor.
It wasn't like Robertson was in trouble or showing signs of wearing down last night. He recorded the first 2 outs of the inning on 6 pitches, and the hit he gave up to Rajai Davis was a groundball single. Davis stole second base off him, as he's done to many a pitcher, and Brett Lawrie at the plate wasn't the most intimidating matchup. Yes it was a 1-run game, yes it was a must win, and yes Joe has shown a willingness to go to Mo early and often this month in these situations. It was still surprising to see him have such a quick hook with Robertson when D-Rob was clearly still in control. He's the setup man for a reason and he's not just some bum out there. This is the guy who once retired 25 straight batters with the bases loaded. This is a guy with a .244 wOBA against and a 2.37 FIP in 78.1 career high leverage innings according to FanGraphs. History has shown that D-Rob comes up big when the moment is biggest, so if he's the future closer why was he getting pulled in a 2 out, 1 on situation against a righty hitter?
It's true D-Rob's track record in save situations isn't pretty. For his career he's just 7-17 in save opportunities, including 2 saves and 2 blown saves this year. Those numbers and the times when he has blown saves subbing for Mo have contributed to the media-created theme that he "doesn't have the closer mentality" and "can handle the 8th but not the 9th," and when you're the guy backing up someone like Mo it's understood that you're going to be put under that microscope. But those save numbers are over a 5-year span, hardly statistically significant when they're broken down to yearly sample sizes. The truth is that D-Rob hasn't had a lot of chances to save on a consistent basis, and the Yankees have made bigger moves before last night to limit those chances.
In 2011 it was the big money signing of Rafael Soriano that signaled a lack of faith in D-Rob as a true late game relief option. Robertson responded by having the best year of his career, 1.08/1.84/2.46 slash and 2.6 fWAR in a career high 66.2 IP. Last year it was the lightning quick decision by Joe to name Soriano the closer after Mo went down when Robertson blew his second save opportunity in the role. Robertson missed the next month with an injury and never got another chance to win the job back. For all the talk about how he's the next in line, the Yankee decision makers on and off the field have never done much to indicate they're on board with that plan.
If the job isn't his next year, what's the backup plan? There's nobody else internally who's close to qualified for the role and the free agent market is going to be more costly than replacing from within. As questionable as the Soriano signing was a few years ago, going out to sign another "proven" closer this offseason would be even more so with the payroll ceiling in mind. This post may come across as an overreaction to 1 in-game decision that had the team's season potentially hanging in the balance, but it's strange to me how the faith in Robertson always seems to have these hiccup moments. If he can't be trusted to get 1 out against Brett Lawrie after 4 years in the setup role, what does that say about his closing chances next year?