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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #83 David Robertson

Houndini may be known for getting out of jams, but his greatest trick might be how he’s found success while arguably flying under the radar.

MLB: Texas Rangers at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Full Name: David Alan Robertson
Position: Relief pitcher
Born: April 9, 1985 (Birmingham, AL)
Yankee Years: 2008-14, 2017-18
Primary number: 30
Yankee statistics: 38-22, 53 SV, 2.75 ERA, 2.73 FIP, 501 G, 498 IP, 666 K, 10.8 fWAR, 12.9 bWAR


The Yankees have a prestigious history when it comes to relief pitchers with many big names, but the Yankees bullpen’s story isn’t one that’s exclusively made up of names like Mariano Rivera and Goose Gossage. “Closers” get the glory, but the names who help bridge the gap from starter to closer are an important part of the story.

David Robertson was understandably always overshadowed by big names like Rivera, Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, and even his predecessor on this countdown, Dellin Betances. But after breaking out, he quickly carved out a place in the New York bullpen, playing a pivotal role for the 2009 championship team in particular. Even if D-Rob would often put himself in jams, he deservedly earned himself the “Houdini” nickname by consistently pitching out of those sticky situations.

Early life and MLB draft

Born in Birmingham, AL, to a family that included a second major leaguer in his brother Connor, David Robertson played his first three years for Central-Tuscaloosa High School as a shortstop and pitcher. After his junior year, once the high school split into three smaller schools, he played for Paul W. Bryant high school, helping lead his teams to three area titles throughout his high school tenure.

Eventually, Robertson enrolled at the University of Alabama, where he pitched as a starter and reliever, recording a 2.96 ERA and 170 strikeouts in 127.2 innings across two seasons. In his sophomore year, he was part of the Crimson Tide’s 25th SEC championship team.

That summer, Robertson played collegiate summer baseball in the Cape Cod League for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, helping them win the championship while securing MVP honors for himself.

Robertson’s collegiate career was successful enough that the Yankees selected him in the 17th round of the 2006 MLB Draft, and he signed with them for a signing bonus of $200,000. He quickly made a strong impression on the organization with a 0.96 ERA, 0.913 WHIP, and 12.1 K/9 across three levels in his first professional season, rocketing through Charleston and Tampa to make his way up to Double-A Trenton by season’s end.

Since Robertson only made two appearances for the Thunder in 2007, he returned for the ‘08 campaign ... and promptly left Trenton in the dust with just a pair of runs allowed across 18.2 innings (another 0.96 ERA). Promoted to Scranton in early May, Triple-A batters couldn’t do much at the hands of D-Rob, either. He spun a 1.64 ERA with 48 K’s in 33 innings from then until the end of June. The Yankees decided that the 23-year-old was ready. Robertson would get his shot at The Show.

MLB Debut and big stage breakout

Robertson was called upon for his MLB debut on June 29, 2008, right in the heat of a Subway Series against the Mets at Shea Stadium.* Undaunted, he tossed two innings, giving up one run while walking none and notching his first big league K.

*Robertson, Johnny Cueto, and Rich Hill are the only remaining active pitchers to have appeared at both Shea and the old Yankee Stadium.

Between 2008-09, Robertson bounced back and forth between Triple-A and MLB, until he finally was called up for good in May of 2009. His big curve, 3.30 ERA, and 13.0 K/9 in 45 MLB games during the ‘09 regular season earned him a roster spot on the playoff squad soon after the Yankees clinched the AL East.

Robertson’s first foray into postseason play was a true baptism by fire. Looking to lock down a 2-0 series lead and not a split with the next games set to be played in Minnesota, he entered in the extra innings of Game 2, when it was already a classic. There were two on and nobody out, and in true D-Rob fashion, he gave up a hit to load the bases. He would need a magic trick to escape this without the Twins carrying some kind of lead into the home half of the 11th.

But with the help of some great fielding from Mark Teixeira, Robertson quickly got two outs on two pitches to Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez, before eventually getting Brendan Harris to fly out to center and escape without allowing any runs to score.

Thus, “Houdini” was born. Robertson got the win in that game, once again thanks to Teixeira, as the slugger hit a walk-off home run to lead off the 11th.

In the ALCS against the Angels, D-Rob continued to work his magic in Games 2 and 3. He pitched 1.1 scoreless but self-induced trouble innings in extras of Game 2 to secure the victory.

Robertson also got two easy outs in Game 3 before giving way to Alfredo Aceves in a surprising move by Joe Girardi. Aceves ultimately gave up the game-losing hits and run in extras of that game.

The only World Series action Robertson saw was unfortunately in losses. In Game 1, he came in with two-on and two-out in relief of Damaso Marte. He allowed both those runs to score on a Raúl Ibañez single, but both of those runs would go on Phil Hughes’ stat line, not his. In Game 5, Robertson came in much earlier than he had throughout these playoffs, when he relieved AJ Burnett in the third after the starter had already given up five runs. Robertson got Pedro Feliz to pop out in foul territory to get the first out of the inning, but allowed inherited runner Jayson Werth to score on a groundout, before allowing a single to pitcher Cliff Lee and getting Jimmy Rollins to strikeout to end the inning. D-Rob pitched a perfect fourth to close out his 2009 postseason run. Two days later, Hideki Matsui put on his show, and the Yankees won their 27th World Series title.

New York Yankees World Series Victory Parade
Robertson at the World Series parade
Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Bullpen mainstay, true breakout, heir apparent

Now one of the unsung heroes of a championship team, Robertson was officially a mainstay in the Yankees’ bullpen. In 2010, he pitched to a solid 3.82 ERA across 61.1 innings before slumping in the ALCS against Texas. However, 2011 was the year when D-Rob truly became a household name. In 70 games and 66.2 innings, Robertson had a 1.08 ERA, an ERA+ of 399, only gave up nine runs over the year (one of which was unearned), made it to his first and only All-Star Game, and received down-ballot Cy Young (finished 11th in voting) and MVP (finished 22nd in voting) votes.

Remarkably, Robertson fanned 100 batters, striking out 36.7 percent of all batters he faced. By mid-June, he was Mariano Rivera’s setup man. It was a role that suited him well. Girardi was confident enough in Robertson that he stood by him even when the free agent they signed to occupy that role, Rafael Soriano, returned from injury.

Robertson tossed a pair of scoreless innings in the ALDS against Detroit, but the Yankees fell in five games. Still, it was a terrific statement season, and it was also the year when he started the High Socks for Hope charity that means so much to him, after a devastating tornado hit Tuscaloosa, AL and its surrounding areas.

While not quite as outright dominant as 2011, D-Rob’s 2012 and 2013 seasons showed that his breakout was no fluke. He set up for Soriano in the former when Mo went down with an injury, and once Mo returned in 2013, he did yeoman’s work to tee up the GOAT’s farewell. With a 2.04 ERA and 1.040 WHIP in 66.1 innings, Robertson set the stage for the lion’s share of Rivera’s final 44 saves in the majors (while also establishing himself as the “heir apparent” for the Yankees’ ninth inning).

Amusingly enough, another Yankee relief pitcher’s breakout loomed large over Robertson’s first year as the team’s closer, but as good as Betances was in 2014, Robertson proved more than capable of filling in Mo’s large shoes. He racked up 39 saves for the Bombers that year, even though his 2014 season will mostly be remembered for one of his few failures that year. Robertson allowed the Orioles to tie the game in the ninth on September 25, 2014 by surrendering three runs, setting up an opportunity for Derek Jeter to be a hero at Yankee Stadium one last time.

And yes, there were jokes back then about Robertson once again returning to the role of setup man for a legend — if only for one night.

Free agency departure and return home

Following a year as Rivera’s replacement, Robertson hit free agency for the first time in his career. It was largely assumed that the Yankees would bring him back, but instead the team pivoted and signed Andrew Miller to a four-year, $36 million deal. This saved them $10 million compared to what the White Sox gave Robertson (4/$46M), and allowed them to get draft pick compensation for his departure.

Nonetheless, Robertson’s track record as a relief ace led Dave Cameron of FanGraphs to say this about his potential impact to the White Sox bullpen:

Adding Robertson to the White Sox group pushes them from something like worst in the league to middle of the pack. He’s that good.

Chicago White Sox v Cleveland Indians

Robertson would only end up pitching two and a half seasons for the White Sox. A 2017 Trade Deadline deal saw him make a triumphant return to the Bronx along with Todd Frazier and Tommy Kahnle in exchange for a package led by prospects Blake Rutherford and Ian Clarkin. Still, in 154 games for the White Sox, D-Rob earned 84 saves for a mostly middling White Sox team.

As an added bonus, Robertson also stepped in as a key contributor to Team USA during its run to the 2017 World Baseball Classic. To date, it remains the only time that the Americans have won the WBC in their five attempts, and D-Rob was on the mound when they won it all.

In his return to New York, Robertson was once again asked to help bridge the gap for a bigger name closer, this time Aroldis Chapman. And did he ever deliver. In 30 games for the 2017 Yankees, Robertson fanned 51 batters and had a 1.03 ERA and 442 ERA+.

But truly his most remarkable moment of his second Yankees tenure came in the unforgettable Wild Card Game against the Twins. After Luis Severino failed to make it out of the first inning, heroics from Didi Gregorius and Chad Green helped restore some life into the Yankees. With the season on the line, Girardi asked David Robertson to stabilize the game, which he did in 3.1 (!) scoreless innings to earn the win.

In the middle of a truly incredible outing, Robertson also had to pause for a moment of concern and was every one of us after a foul tip hit Gary Sánchez somewhere no one wants to get hit with a baseball.

American League Wild Card Game - Minnesota Twins v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images
American League Wild Card Game - Minnesota Twins v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Unfortunately, that miracle Baby Bomber run in 2017 did not end in a championship. The season culminated with a Game 7 ALCS loss to the Astros, a story that would repeat itself a few times in the years after.

2018 saw another typical Robertson-esque year from the Yankees’ relief ace. While setting up for Chapman, he pitched to a 3.23 ERA across 69 games before once again hitting free agency.

Departure again, injury, Olympic revival

In a rarely seen move, that winter Robertson opted to forgo having an agent represent him and negotiate his deal, instead representing himself in free agency. It’s a move that worked out and saved him some money in fees, as he ultimately landed with the Phillies on a two-year deal with $23 million guaranteed (there was also a team option with a buyout for $2 million worked into that figure). Similar to his first foray in free agency when he signed with a White Sox team that desperately needed bullpen help, Robertson was asked to come in and stabilize the Phillies’ bullpen.

Unfortunately, this signing would prove to be an utter bust. Robertson appeared in only seven games for Philly (even those weren’t good outings) before an elbow injury ultimately led to Tommy John surgery and flexor repair surgery. He tried to make a comeback in 2020 but suffered a setback after attempting to pitch in an intrasquad game at the team’s alternate site and that was the end of that contract, as the team would go on to not pick up his option.

Despite some interest from clubs during spring training in 2021, Robertson ended up unsigned when the season started and ended up pitching a couple Indy ball games for the High Point Rockers of the Atlantic League. Those couple games were mostly to help prepare him to join the US National Team at the 2020 Olympics, which were being played a year late due to a certain pandemic.

Robertson’s Olympic resume wasn’t incredible, but he won a silver medal at the Games, and showed teams that he was healthy enough to be an option for a major league team again. He ended up signing with the Rays for the remainder of that season, where he had a 4.50 ERA in 12 appearances.

D-Rob is back

A free agent once again in 2022, Robertson returned to Chicago, but this time pitching for the Cubs in the North Side on a one-year, $3.5 million “prove it” deal. For a reliever with his track record and pedigree, it may be unheard of, but at his age and coming back from injury he had to prove he could regain his form and sustain success. Between the Olympics and his short stint with the Rays, Robertson proved he was healthy and could pitch, but he was still a question mark. The Cubs took a chance on him on a low-risk, high-reward deal.

Milwaukee Brewers v. Chicago Cubs Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/MLB Photos via Getty Images

If Chicago contended and he was good, he could help the team. If they weren’t contending and he was good, they could trade him for prospects. If he was bad, it didn’t matter how the team was doing, as the team’s commitment to him was minimal.

In 40.1 innings over 36 games, D-Rob showed the baseball world he was back to his old self by striking out 51 batters and pitching to a 2.23 ERA and 189 ERA+. Unfortunately, not much else was working for the Cubs, so they shipped him off for a reunion with the Phillies in exchange for minor league pitcher Ben Brown. With the Phillies he partially redeemed himself from his forgettable first tenure in the city of Brotherly Love, pitching to a 2.70 ERA and 150 ERA+ in 22 regular season games.

In 7.2 postseason innings for the Phillies, Robertson struck out 11 while allowing just one run as the Phillies went all the way to the World Series. His biggest moment was probably when he entered to finish off an impressive extra-innings victory in Game 1, though the Phillies fell to Houston in six.

A successful comeback season saw Robertson sign with the Mets for the 2023 season. The idea was that he and fellow former Yankee Adam Ottavino would help bridge the gap to Edwin Díaz. An unfortunate celebration during the World Baseball Classic caused him to miss the whole season and saw D-Rob promoted to a familiar role as the Amazin’s primary closer. He notched 14 saves in 40 games and struck out 48 batters while pitching to a 2.05 ERA and 207 ERA+. Unfortunately the Mets were in a tailspin, so once again he was on the trade block and ended up on the third NL East team of his career. This time, he took his talents to South Beach.

Whatever the reason, D-Rob’s talents seemed to stay back in New York and did not show up for the Marlins. In 22 games, he had a 5.06 ERA and a measly ERA+ of 90. Those numbers may be slightly skewed due to a few bad games after he first arrived to Miami. He did finish the season on a strong note, with six consecutive scoreless appearances. But he pitched one game for the Marlins in the playoffs against his former Phillies teammates, where he gave up two runs in two innings.

The Marlins stint was out of the norm for him, but during the season and a half prior to that, was standard D-Rob. For the 2024 season, he once again gets to test the free agent waters. If he wants to continue, his career should pick up somewhere, and he should hopefully be able to figure out what went wrong in Miami.

Whenever Robertson does hang them up, his career may never be remembered among the all-time greats, but he will definitely rank among the all-time bullpen staples. Plenty of pitchers can churn out a few good seasons in relief, but to be a consistent performer for 15 years now isn’t nearly as common. Indeed, Roberton’s 19.9 rWAR ranks in the top 10 this century for all MLB relievers, per Stathead, and he is one of only seven to reach the 1,000-strikeout plateau. The only two relievers in Yankees history with more K’s than D-Rob’s 666 are Rivera and Dave Righetti.

David Robertson’s two stints in the Bronx — which of course include that iconic 2009 title — will forever be the highlight of his surprisingly long career. We’ll be wearing our socks high in his honor upon his retirement.

Staff rank: 82
Community rank: 89
Stats rank: N/A
2013 rank: N/A


Baseball Reference

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Previously On the Top 100

84. Dellin Betances
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