Yankee fans would be hard-pressed to remember a time when the team did not count the bullpen, led by a dominant closer, among its most formidable weapons. Sparky Lyle's acquisition in 1972 heralded the beginning of a long lineage of spectacular relievers which includes Goose Gossage, John Wetteland, and the greatest of all time, Mariano Rivera. That quartet of late-inning specialists helped New York win 18 East Division titles, 11 American League pennants, and seven World Series championships.
The 2017 Yankees also have a dominant closer; a player who already helped the franchise win a championship as a young setup man eight years ago. His name is David Robertson.
Robertson and pen-mate Tommy Kahnle were acquired before the non-waiver trade deadline to augment an already impressive relief corp. With struggling Tyler Clippard sent to the White Sox as part of the deal, the Yankees were left with arguably the best bullpen in baseball. The weak link in the chain was (and still is) Aroldis Chapman.
At the time of the deal, it was reported that the Yankees had targeted Robertson due to concerns about Chapman. General manager Brian Cashman set a high priority on bringing in a proven closer in case the under-performing Chapman could not get back on track. A month after the trade, Chapman still showed no improvement. In fact, he appeared to be trending in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, winnable games continued to be lost. Joe Girardi finally announced yesterday that he was removing Chapman from the closer role.
Chapman carried a 2.08 ERA and 0.99 WHIP into this season; great career marks for a closer. Since the All-Star break he has a 5.40 ERA and 1.47 WHIP. Those are terrible numbers by any standard. He has given up earned runs in each of his last four appearances, including two runs in each of his last three games. Following last Sunday's blown save against the Red Sox, which cost the Yankees the series win, Joe Girardi pledged to stick with Chapman as his closer. He reversed that decision after Chapman's most recent poor outing on Friday night.
Girardi's announcement did not go far enough, however. Instead of elevating David Robertson to the role he was brought in to fill, the Yankee skipper proclaimed a closer-by-committee led by Robertson and Dellin Betances. I believe this is the wrong approach to take at this time.
Since inheriting the job from the just-retired Mariano in 2014, Robertson has been one of the top closers in baseball. He saved 39 games that year, and went on to get 71 over the next two seasons in Chicago. He has converted 14 of 16 save opportunities so far this year. Only five relievers have earned more saves than Robertson over the last four years: Kenley Jansen (159), Craig Kimbrel (146), Francisco Rodríguez (133), Mark Melancon (132), and Zach Britton (130).
Robertson was having another outstanding year prior to the trade that brought him back to the Yankees, but he has pitched like a man on a mission since. On the season, he has a 2.25 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 199 ERA+, 5.23 strikeout to walk ratio, and has averaged 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. All of these marks are better than his impressive career stats.
I believe that Betances would make a great closer. He's done well when tabbed to fill in. My call to designate Robertson for the ninth inning is not a knock on Betances. Rather, it's a desire to see the Yankees align their four-time All-Star setup man with their dominant finisher to create the familiar lock-down situation at the end of games.
The closer-by-committee and co-closer approaches have been tried many times. I can't recall a single example of either working out well. It's one thing when you have unproven talent competing for jobs, but that isn't the case here.
Players have often talked about the extra confidence they have carrying a lead late into games knowing that there are designated guys waiting to seal the win. We heard it all the time with Mariano and the parade of successful setup men that preceded him in games. Girardi would help the team by making that call now and giving his players that extra psychological edge.
Optimism was high regarding the club's bullpen situation heading into this season. Chapman returned via free agency following his successful half season with the Cubs, All-Star Betances resumed his eighth inning role, and the team had a stable of young arms to fill out the rest of the staff. It didn't work out exactly as planned. The front office stepped up and did its part by making moves to shore up the weaknesses. Girardi belatedly ousted the struggling Chapman, and now he should go one step further and specify the top bullpen roles by naming Betances setup man and Robertson closer.
Less than 40 games remain in the regular season. October is coming. The rotation has been upgraded markedly with the addition of Sonny Gray and the team is gradually getting its injured players back. The Yankees are poised to make a run. It's time to use the bullpen in the way it was intended; the way it has worked so well in the past.
What do you think? Should Girardi continue with his planned closer-by-committee or co-closer approach? Or should he specify the roles for the eighth and ninth innings? Let us know in the comments below.