One of the strangest rumors that circulated this winter suggested that the Yankees would shop David Robertson to clear payroll space for a Yu Darvish signing. I supported the team pursuing Darvish, but moving Robertson seemed absurd. Not only was he a fan favorite, but D-Rob also proved the team’s most effective reliever down the stretch in 2017.
When the Yankees reacquired Robertson last July, they enjoyed the familiarity of a known quantity. After all, he played Houdini in 2009, an effort that helped carry the team to its 27th world championship. In the years following, he emerged as one of the game’s premiere setup men. He even spent the 2014 season as closer, successor to the legendary Mariano Rivera. Brian Cashman knew exactly what he was getting in the trade.
“I’ve been here and I’ve won before, I want to win here again,” Robertson explained following the trade. “That’s all there is.”
While that’s a nice homecoming story, a closer examination shows that the Yankees didn’t get the old Robertson back. They actually landed a better version of him. This becomes notably apparent when one digs beneath the surface level. These measurements demonstrate just how effective he was.
The clearest indication of Robertson’s dominance comes in terms of his overall contact percentage. D-Rob has always done a fine job at missing bats, but he took that to a ridiculous level in 2017. In fact, he managed the lowest amount of contact in his career.
For context, I’ve also included the major league average. Sure, batters have grown increasingly dependent on their free-swinging ways, but the fluctuation in Robertson’s numbers appears precipitous. He became almost impossible to square up. That’s not the only area of improvement, either.
When batters did manage to get the barrel on the ball, they rarely hit it with authority. Robertson became a master at inducing soft contact in 2017. His soft contact percentage registered at its lowest mark since his insane 2011 campaign. When compared to his declining hard contact rate, you can make the case that he had one of the best years of his career on a batted ball basis.
At 32 years old, Robertson is beyond the age range of a pitcher’s traditional peak. He also never threw particularly hard. Then what explains Robertson’s success? An adjustment to his repertoire provides some insight.
Over the last few years, Robertson eased off his cutter. He reduced the percentage of fastballs thrown and began to mix in a steady diet of curveballs. That’s significant because his breaking ball was filthy. It worked a 24.76% whiff rate. He had the lowest contact percentage in his career largely because of his vicious curveball.
“I throw the breaking ball a lot more,” he said over the summer. “[I] throw just about any pitch in any count. I’ll do just about anything to get a hitter out. It’s kind of like I’ve become a little bit craftier.”
The Yankees made a prudent decision in not trading Robertson. He had a remarkable run last summer and played a vital role in the team’s postseason success. There exists evidence that this wasn’t a fluke either. He altered his arsenal, making a conscious decision to keep batters off balance. They struggled to muster any success against him, and that’s why he remains so valuable. The Bombers acquired D-Rob thinking they would bring an old friend into the fold for 2017 and beyond. They got that and so much more.