The Phillies brought in David Robertson to be a stopper. That’s not what he is. The sooner they realize that, the better off both he and the team will be.
In January, when the news broke that the Phillies had signed right-handed RP David Robertson to a two-year, $23 million deal, I’ve got to admit I didn’t understand it. I knew that he had some success in the first half of his career with the Yankees, but I hadn’t heard his name until the Yankees reacquired him in 2017.
When the signing was announced, with Craig Kimbrel still available, and I was extremely vexed. I didn’t even know what spot in the bullpen Robertson would fill, but I knew Kimbrel was the better option. With the way the Phillies have been using Robertson to start 2019, they would have been better off going for Kimbrel.
After doing some digging, my suspicions about Robertson’s role in the Phillies’ bullpen turned out to be pretty valid. Throughout his career he bounced back and forth between the setup and closer role, sometimes coming in for the seventh inning. Yet, his most successful seasons had been in the setup role, in front of two of the best closers baseball has ever seen.
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The 2011 Yankees, winners of 97 games, had the greatest closer of all time to close out their games. Mariano Rivera pitched in 61 ninth innings that season, and Robertson pitched 50 eighth innings. The 26-year-old Robertson would have his career-best ERA and strikeouts, earning his lone All-Star appearance. Yet, he was never the guy. Mo was. Robertson was just the bridge.
Fast forward to 2014, where Robertson became the closer after Rivera’s retirement. A pedestrian season for a full-time closer (39 saves, 3.08 ERA, 96 strikeouts), a phenomenal year from 26-year-old Dellin Betances, and the signing of prized RP Andrew Miller led Robertson to sign on as the closer for the White Sox in 2015.
Over the next two seasons, Robertson put up more uninspiring closer numbers, with 71 saves, a 3.44 ERA, and 161 strikeouts.
In 2017, Robertson again started the year as the closer, and was even pitching his best since before he became a closer, until another 26-year-old in Juan Minaya started to shine. Going with the youth movement, and with the Yankees trying to stay in the hunt for the division, Robertson was traded back to the Yankees, to be the setup man for another dominant closer: Aroldis Chapman.
Robertson thrived in the role again, posting a ridiculous 1.03 ERA in 35 innings, and giving up only 11 hits in August, September, and October. The following season, Robertson struggled again while splitting time between the seventh and eighth innings with Betances, posting an unremarkable 3.23 ERA and 91 strikeouts, and tying his highest home run total allowed (seven).
The moral of my story is this; Robertson has had 3.5 great seasons, all of them in a defined setup role. Robertson, like most pitchers, is a creature of habit that needs to know when and where he will appear.
Gabe Kapler has emphatically denied assigning roles in the bullpen, going as far as to say last season that the closing duties would be by committee. Kapler plays to the analytics and match-ups rather than defined roles, which puts old school pitchers like Robertson at an extreme disadvantage. This is why signing Robertson never made sense to me in the first place.
In a bullpen with six different players pitching 50+ between the seventh and ninth, there is so much fluidity in an area where Robertson needs structure.
The Phillies wanted Robertson to be an “end of game” guy, to throw into the danger zone and guide them to the win or to slam on the e-brake to halt the opposition. That’s just not his game. If we see a shift in Kapler’s ideology, then maybe we’ll get to utilize Robertson’s abilities.
With the way the bullpen is orchestrated now, I’ll be watching through the spaces between my fingers when Robertson takes the mound with a late-game lead.