‘After Mariano’: For David Robertson, apparently, winning will not be enough
It's not easy to exaggerate how important Mariano Rivera has been to the Yankees.
But when David Robertson took the mound to save an important 5-3 win Tuesday night over the Tampa Bay Rays, in a spot that would have belonged to Rivera for most of the past decade and a half, YES Network's Michael Kay seemed determined to stress exactly how terrible it was that the Yankees did not have Rivera to close, rather than emphasizing how useful it was to have a pitcher on the mound who hadn't allowed a run since last September 1.
"Different mindset to close games," Kay said. "The three outs in the ninth are completely different than the three outs in the eighth."
On Tuesday night, the difference was that New York's eighth-inning pitcher, Rafael Soriano, faced the top of Tampa Bay's order, while in the ninth, Robertson faced the bottom of it.
Robertson threw a pair of pitches to induce a groundout by Jeff Keppinger for his first out.
The conversation continued between Kay and Al Leiter about the extent to which a pitcher responsible for the eighth inning doesn't face nearly the same pressure, with emphasis on how "robotic" Mariano Rivera was.
Kay quoted Robertson as saying, "I'm not going to be Mariano Rivera, but I'm going to do the best that I can." Robertson walked Will Rhymes.
"One of the things that is a concern with Robertson, he's not nearly as economical as Mo," Kay said. "He didn't look for strikeouts all the time, got broken-bat ground balls. But sometimes, David throws 25-30 pitches an inning. Well how does that affect pitching two days in a row?"
Fortunately, no need to speculate: We know exactly how often both pitchers were inefficient last year, and the effect it had. Robertson threw 25 or fewer pitches in 70 of his 82 outings last season; Rivera did so in 64 of 68 appearances. So clearly, Rivera was more economical, though Robertson's efficiency was quite good as well.
But that difference had little effect on how often either man was available to be used after that, or how effective either was. For all his economy, the Yankees used Rivera just 13 times on no rest in 2011. They actually used Robertson 14 times on no rest in 2011. Robertson walked more in his appearances on no rest, but his strikeout rate rose as well.
That's the other thing. It's awfully hard on Robertson to suggest he's a less effective pitcher when he's striking out many more hitters than Rivera did. The fewer balls in play, the less that can go wrong. The poor contact Rivera induced was extremely effective. But it isn't as effective as a strikeout, which gives the hitter zero chance of advancing to first base—better, even, than a broken-bat grounder.
"Looking at his innings, Michael, it's not the walks," said Leiter, the former pitcher, who seemed considerably more impressed by what he was seeing. "It's the strikeouts. Twenty-one strikeouts!"
Robertson blew a 93 mile-per-hour fastball past Sean Rodriguez. Shortly after Kay assured viewers that Rivera, at any rate, thought Robertson could close, Robertson jammed Rodriguez, who grounded a single between third and short.
The next hitter, pinch-hitter Brandon Allen, struck out. But then Ben Zobrist walked, bringing up the power hitter Carlos Pena with the bases loaded. The YES broadcast noted with a graphic that Robertson, with the bases loaded in 2011, had allowed just one hit in 19 at-bats in that situation, with no walks and 14 strikeouts. Rivera's opponents were 3-for-6 in that situation in 2011.
Robertson got ahead with a ridiculous 80 mile-per-hour breaking ball on the outside corner to the left-handed hitting Pena. It was an unhittable pitch, one that pairs with his moving fastball to create all of those unfortunate strikeouts.
"Beautiful," said Leiter.
That set up Robertson's next pitch, a 93 mile-per-hour fastball, also perfectly placed on the outside corner. 0-2. The Yankee Stadium crowd rose to its feet.
After Pena got even, 2-2, he watched a 94 mile-per-hour fastball, again perfectly on the corner, for strike three.
Kay's call: "Strikeout! Ballgame over! Yanks win, 5-3! And that's the first save of A.M.! After Mo!"
On the field, Robertson, a mere mortal, put his hands up in relief.