Next up in our Pinch Hitters series is Rob Abruzzese, a reporter who covers high school football, baseball and basketball for ESPNNewYork. He’s been blogging about the Yankees since 2005, and in 2008 he created Bronx Baseball Daily. That same year, Rob graduated from Brooklyn College with degrees in journalism and political science, and he still lives in Brooklyn to this day. You can find him on Twitter: @BxBaseballDaily or @RobAbruzzese.
For his post, Rob wrote about D-Rob, taking a look at what’s made the Yankees setup man such an effective reliever.
David Robertson has come along quite well as a reliever for the Yankees from when he broke into the league in 2008 to 2011 when he not only picked up some Cy Young award votes but also nabbed a place on an MVP ballot as well.
How did he get this good? Well, nothing happened overnight for Robertson. He is very similar to the pitcher that came up in 2008, but he has made slight improvements overall across the board that have made a huge difference.
VELOCITY: The most notable difference in Robertson is his velocity. His fastball averaged 90.8 MPH when he came up, but that number has gone up every season and reached 93.1 MPH on average last season. It’s not a huge difference, but it has increased his K% along with it, from striking out batters 27.5 percent of the time as a rookie to a whopping 36.8 percent last year (fourth-best among relievers in MLB).
LOB%: Robertson’s WHIP was a good but not great 1.125 last season, but his LOB% was a strong 89.8 percent for a couple of reasons, the biggest being his ability to strike out batters at a 13.5 percent rate last season. By striking out so many, he is keeping the ball out of play, which takes away the chances for seeing-eye singles, errors, or missed calls by umpires.
HR/9: It also helps that Robertson allowed a very low amount of home runs. Now his ground ball percentage is 46.8, nothing too special, but because he is allowing fewer balls put into play than a typical pitcher, there just aren’t as many chances for a hitter to pop one over the fence. It shows too as his HR/9 of 0.14 was the seventh lowest among all relievers.
ROBBIE’S CUTTER: This really didn’t get a lot of attention last year, but Robertson started to throw a cutter last year. After throwing fastballs at a 74.3 percent clip in 2010, that number went down to 49.6 percent last year, according to PitchFX. It gave him a different look and no doubt contributed to his K/9 increasing for its fourth consecutive year.
IMPROVED COMMAND: Along with all of this, perhaps the most important thing is his improved command. I’m not talking about his ability to keep from walking hitters. After all, his BB/9 of 4.7 last season is identical to his 4.7 BB/9 that he has over his entire career. No, I’m talking more about his ability to spot his pitches over the plate, particularly to right-handed batters.
Take a look at the two graphs provided by FanGraphs below:
On the left is his heat map tracking his fastballs against right-handed batters from 2010. On the right is the same graph from 2011. In 2010, he pretty much just threw his fastball over the plate to righties with no discernible pattern. In 2011 the story is much different, as he almost stopped throwing fastballs on the lower inside part of the plate. It’s not so much where he throws the ball that matters for this purpose, but the fact that the 2010 chart pretty much looks similar to his 2008 and 2009 charts and in 2011, for the first time, he shows the real ability to spot his pitches on the plate with accuracy.
CAN HE CLOSE? It’s great that Robertson had such a phenomenal season last year, but relievers come and go pretty quickly. Just having one good year doesn’t make him a closer in waiting. After all, most Yankees fans probably thought Joba Chamberlain would be their closer after 2007 and Phil Hughes after 2009 and neither seems like an obvious choice today.
Robertson is interesting because of his career progression. He came up in 2008 and made improvements each year. Most relievers who look promising and then disappear are the type that bounce around in different roles before being at the right place at the right time and are able to take advantage for a little while. Guys like Ryan Franklin are examples of this. There are also the Chad Qualls/Luis Ayala types that go their entire careers and then have one or two lucky seasons when most of their stats are outliers and don’t accurately reflect who they are. Other than that, age and injuries are what most often nail relievers.
D-Rob will only be 27 next season, so he has age on his side. He did have to be shutdown with pain in his elbow in September 2009, but since then he appears to be fully healthy. Should he be able to stay healthy then there is a solid chance he could be a great reliever for years to come. Hopefully Rivera doesn’t retire after the 2012 season, but if he does, the Yankees very well already have his replacement in house.
Associated Press photo