Wanted: Capable young closer to replace a baseball legend. Must be willing to endure endless comparisons to the greatest person to ever perform the job and deal with questions about the organization's decision not to pursue any closers with more experience.
Interested? Mo bless you.
All off-season long and even before, it seemed like the Yankees were comfortable entering the 2014 season with longtime setup man David Robertson in tackle the unenviable task of replacing the incomparable Mariano Rivera at the end of Yankees games. Many people like the scribes here at Pinstripe Alley felt it was a promotion that was well-deserved, given D-Rob's previous four excellent years of relief pitching, a period in which the biggest problem in his game (his control) simply improved to become better than ever (2.4 BB/9 in 2013).
Others, however, are uninterested in giving Robertson a chance simply because he doesn't have much previous closing experience. They tend to point to the two games in which he entered following Rivera's 2012 injury and served as the closer. He saved one game, blew the other, then went down with an oblique injury for about a month (the only time the otherwise-quite-healthy reliever has ever spent on the DL in six MLB seasons). By the time he returned, Rafael Soriano had taken the closer's job, so manager Joe Girardi understandably decided to stick with the hot hand and Robertson returned to his setup role for the remainder of the season.
It should go without saying that two games is hardly a big enough sample size to completely disqualify an excellent reliever from future closing opportunities. It is a ridiculously unfair citation since every single reliever in the history of existence will go through a bad game at times. Robertson saved one game and failed to finish off the other. Big deal. When Rivera first got the closer's job in 1997, he blew three of his first six opportunities, including a mammoth Mark McGwire homer into the old black seats in center that led to a loss in the home opener. Robertson needs more of a stretch than two games before fans even have a remote reason to distrust him.
Robertson also has just eight career saves in limited opportunities, and his critics will point to the fact that he has 10 blown saves on his record. However, as Harlan Spence has pointed out in the comments on occasion, that statistic is incredibly misleading. On the rare occasion that he's entered a game in a save situation while setting up for Rivera or Soriano and lost the lead, it has counted as a blown save. When Robertson successfully converts and passes it on to the closer with the lead, he doesn't get a save for that. Instead, he gets a hold, a relatively new statistic. Per Baseball-Reference, Robertson has notched a remarkable 116 holds during his career and averaged 32 per year over the past three years. Much more often than not, Robertson gets the job done; the blown save stat lumps in his atypical failures as a setup man.
Hell, go back and actually look at the game logs for those 10 blown saves. His two in 2010 occurred in the sixth inning. All three of his 2011 blown saves occurred before the ninth inning while setting up for Rivera. Two in 2012 came as a closer, but the third was not. Both of his 2013 blown saves came in a setup role. So for all the talk about the 10 blown saves, only two were actually as a closer. So if you're really married to the idea of judging Robertson on his minimal closing experience, his actual record is eight saves in ten opportunities. That is fine and mostly irrelevant anyway.
It's honestly been difficult to comprehend why some people have such a problem with giving the closer's job to Robertson simply because he hasn't been a full-time closer before. As Greg Kirkland has noted on the podcast, it's the classic catch-22 of applying for jobs right out of college. The recent graduate likely doesn't have much work experience on his record, but many of the listed jobs demand experience. Many résumés are thrown out without much of a look simply because the former student doesn't have much experience. How the hell is he or she supposed to get the experience if no one offers a chance? It's the same case here, except on a higher level with more public exposure. How can Robertson get the closing experience if he's not given a chance? If the Yankees passed on it and let him leave in free agency after the season, some team would give him a chance, he would likely succeed, and the Yankees would probably rue their faulty judgment. Guess what? Every single successful closer in history had no experience at one point or another.
Goose Gossage had three career saves in 95 games before the White Sox gave him a shot in 1975. One Hall of Fame career spent most with the Yankees later, it turned out pretty well. Trevor Hoffman only had five saves in a season split between the expansion Marlins and the Padres before the Padres let him have a try in 1994. A crazy 596 saves later, one would say they made the right decision, no? Most damning of all is the beginnings of the man Robertson is succeeding as closer himself, Mariano Rivera.
Just like Robertson, Rivera was a mere setup man in 1996 and just like Robertson, a damn good setup man at that. Yet the Yankees chose to let incumbent closer and World Series MVP John Wetteland walk during free agency since they were confident enough that Rivera could do the job. Sure enough, when Rivera had those aforementioned April struggles, they were many a #HotTake about how the Yankees might have made a bad decision to go with someone who had not closed before and how it was questionable to let the reliable Wetteland go. It's a good thing that the Yankees didn't take that advice to heart during the previous off-season because otherwise, Rivera's career might never have exploded the way it did while the Yankees won three straight championships.
Robertson has put in his time as a setup man and has been an excellent reliever for years now. Letting him have a shot at the most challenging relief job in baseball is well within his capabilities. It's wonderful that it seems like the Yankees are giving him a chance. To Robertson's doubters, I only ask that you offer him the same chance as well.
I mean, come on.