While Mariano Rivera was comfortably locking down games in the ninth inning for the Yankees in seasons past, fans and media members were free to wonder: “Who will be Mo’s heir?”
Nearly every hard-throwing prospect in the Yankees’ system or fleetingly successful set-up man was entered in the discussion. Phil Hughes. Joba Chamberlain. Mark Melancon. J.B. Cox (for those of you with particularly good memories for minor-leaguers that never panned out).
But the question is no longer a simple parlor game. Now it’s reality.
Rivera retired, and for the first time since 1996, someone other than the most successful closer in baseball history will regularly jog in from the Yankees’ bullpen.
The common assumption is that someone will be David Robertson, Rivera’s primary set-up man for the last several seasons. Robertson certainly has an impressive resume.
He’s posted a stellar 2.76 ERA in 329 innings that advanced stats show is indicative of his skill, not just great luck. For instance, Robertson’s Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), an advanced metric that accounts for only controllable factors such as walks, strikeouts and home runs, also has Robertson at 2.76. When ERA and FIP line up, especially that perfectly, you have a pretty good indication of true talent.
Robertson has also struck out 11.71 hitters per nine innings in his career, posting a double-digit K/9 rate every season of his career.
Since Robertson made his MLB debut in 2007, his 11.71 K/9 rate is second-highest (to Carlos Marmol) among 331 qualified pitchers.
Robertson’s ability to miss bats is another factor. His 7.3 percent career hits per nine innings rate compares nicely to Rivera’s 6.9.
But there are warning signs.
The biggest issue is Robertson’s control. While the movement on his pitches makes him difficult to hit, it also causes him to walk batters and get involved in long innings.
Rivera was the model of efficiency, throwing an average of 8.7 pitches per inning. But Robertson’s outings are more protracted — 17.7. He also averages 3.91 walks per nine innings, nearly double Rivera’s career mark of 2.01. Robertson is no stranger to finding himself behind in the count, only throwing a first-pitch strike 58 percent of the time.
Then there are Robertson’s apparent issues with the ninth inning and closing opportunities. He’s 8-for-18 in save opportunities during his career and his ERA rises from 2.29 during the first eight innings to 3.88 when pitching the ninth.
When Rivera tore the ACL in his right knee jut a month into the 2012 season, Robertson got the first crack at filling the closer role. He earned a save during his first opportunity (despite allowing a hit and two walks in an inning) and blew the save during his second chance, giving up four runs to the Rays while getting just two outs. One game — and no save chances — later, Robertson was injured and, by the time he returned from the disabled list, Rafael Soriano had locked up the ninth inning.So if not Robertson, then who?
Internally, Shawn Kelley is an intriguing option, but he’s essentially Robertson-lite. Kelley has a 9.58 K/9 rate and ran that number up to 11.98 in 2013. However, his 3.08 career BB/9 also increased to 3.88 last season in 53.1 innings, his most innings pitched during any of his five seasons in the majors.
Kelley has shown a propensity to throw strikes, getting his first pitch in the zone 64 percent of the time during his career and 65.6 percent in 2013 (the MLB average was 60.3 percent). But he still tosses an awful lot of pitches, 17.0 per inning during his career.
The free-agent market offers plenty of alternatives, though no option is perfect.
Grant Balfour (2.59 ERA, 38 saves in 2013) has been a revelation since getting the chance to close with Oakland. But he has a combustible personality that has to be a concern in the New York market. Joaquin Benoit (2.01 ERA, 24 saves) did a more than adequate job with the Tigers in his first go-round as closer, but there were hiccups, particularly during the postseason.
Rangers free agent Joe Nathan (1.39 ERA, 42 saves) is the most established closer on the market, but he’s 39 and his numbers in 2013 were likely artificially lowered by a fluky .228 batting average on balls in play. A pitcher’s BABIP is typically in the .300 range. Anything significantly below or above that number is an indicator that luck — bad or good — is playing a large role in the results.. Edward Mujica (2.78 ERA, 37 saves) rode a splendid splitter to success with the Cardinals before melting down in September. Fernando Rodney (3.38 ERA, 37 saves) had a season for the ages in 2012 and then a season that showed his age – 37 – in 2013, blowing a career-high eight saves.
Brian Wilson (0.66 ERA in 13.2 innings) appears to be healthy, but he refuses to shave his beard.
The trade market is fairly barren, though there does appear to be at least one fit.
Ex-Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton, 29, signed with the Reds last offseason with the idea he would close games and flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman would move to the rotation. But Chapman ended up staying in the closer role and Broxton became a highly paid setup man. He’s set to earn $16 million during the next two seasons and has a $9 million team option ($1 million buyout) for the 2016 season.
Serving primarily as a closer in 2012, he had 27 saves and a 2.48 ERA. Last season, he had no saves and posted a 4.11 ERA. The question, of course, is what the Yankees could offer back from their barren farm system – though salary relief could be nearly as attractive as a good prospect for Cincinnati.
The fourth option for the Yankees is to just roll with the punches. Neither the Red Sox nor Cardinals went into the 2013 season with the same designated closer that filled that role for them during each team’s appearance in the World Series.
Matter of fact, none of the last three World Series winners (Red Sox in 2013, Giants in 2012, Cardinals in 2011) locked down their championships with the same closer they began the season with.
While it may not be true that “anybody can close,” recent history is showing that flexibility and patience when choosing a ninth-inning stopper can pay dividends come October.
That’ll be a new experience for the Yankees, who no longer have Rivera to put off the sticky decision for another day.