Robertson vs. Soriano: Yankees might have a closer controversy, but they shouldn’t
With David Robertson's imminent return to the Yankees, perhaps as soon as this weekend, the team will face a closer controversy of sorts, something it hasn't dealt with for the decade and a half that Mariano Rivera held down the position.
Robertson, Rivera's presumed setup man this year before the god-like closer was lost for the year to a knee injury, is one possibility to pitch the ninth inning. The other is Rafael Soriano, who has been holding the job since Robertson hurt himself last month.
While it isn't clear which pitcher the Yankees will choose, it shouldn't be a tough decision. Rafael Soriano is a very good relief pitcher. And David Robertson is significantly better.
The argument for Soriano is that he already is the closer right now, during a period that has seen the Yankees go from last place to first place in the American League East.
And Soriano also has a season of closing on his resume, back in 2010 for the Tampa Bay Rays. He led the league in saves with 45 that year, pitching to a 1.73 E.R.A. The Yankees paid him handsomely based on that season, giving him a three-year, $35 million, more than most actual closers make, to act as, essentially, Mariano Rivera insurance.
But while Soriano, since the start of that 2010 season, has been an effective pitcher, Robertson has been even better.
Soriano's 1.73 E.R.A. in 2010 was deceptive: His xFIP, a stat that is supposed to represent what his earned run average might look like if defense were taken out of the equation, was a more pedestrian 3.62. His xFIP numbers over three years have been 3.62, 4.18 and 4.35. His walk rate over the three years has been 3.1 per nine, but that's mostly on the strength of 2010. The past two seasons, he's been at 4.1 and 4.2.
Compare that to Robertson: his three seasons of xFIP have been 3.66, 2.46 and 2.05. And while his walk rate has been 4.7 per nine over that time, the trend has been down, 4.8 in 2010, 4.7 in 2011, 3.8 in 2012.
The strikeout rates are where the difference becomes obvious. Soriano's 8.2 per nine since the start of 2010 is consistent and solid. Robertson's 12.3 per nine since the start of 2010 has been rising, and is absurd. He was at 15.1 per nine before his injury in 2012.
This may seem obvious, hitters who strike out are hitters who can't positively affect the game, so the Robertson K-rate is like the ultimate trump card for a pitcher.
A bake-off between two capable closers is a nice controversy for any team to have. But in this case, it's not necessary: Robertson should be the first choice for the highest-leverage innings the Yankees have, with Soriano setting up.