Imagining David Robertson as a starter

Report: Nats have asked Yankees about Gardner
Kuroda "now definitely willing" to pitch on the East Coast
(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The question comes up frequently, but we’ve yet to explore the possibility fully. The Yankees still seek a starter for their 2012 rotation, and there doesn’t appear to be much available on the market. While they have five starters in name, plus a few young backup plans, adding another mid- to upper-rotation arm will only help them in their quest to win the AL East and more. As many have asked, might David Robertson make sense in that role?

Why tackle this now? For starters, the Winter Meetings are going slowly for the Yankees, and things don’t figure to pick up. Maybe the Yankees have something on the horizon, but if they do it will come as a surprise to everyone. Meanwhile, we still enjoy exploring all reasonable avenues of improving the team. Also, Marc Normandin of Over the Monster recently wrote about Daniel Bard as a starter. That created the opportunity to piggyback some of the great work he did there.

While Marc’s work on Bard inspired this article, Bard might not provide the best comparable for Robertson. After all, Bard started game for UNC before turning pro, and then spent his first minor league season in the rotation. He’s been a reliever ever since, but at least he has a history of starting games. Robertson, on the other hand, has no such history. The last time he started a game was in 2005 when he was still hurling for Alabama. Since then he’s been used exclusively in relief. This makes him a bit more like Alexi Ogando, who had no starting experience prior to 2011. Then again, he had little pitching experience at all.

One big consideration in making a move is the translation between starter and reliever. That is, a pitcher will likely pitch better in relief for a number of reasons. Tom Tango applies what he calls the Rule of 17 for estimating these translations. Essentially, there are three factors that change by 17 percent when moving between the rotation and bullpen: strikeouts per PA, BABIP, and home runs per contact rate. What catches the eye, and what works to Robertson’s great benefit, is that walk rate doesn’t change much at all. He can’t really afford to walk more hitters than he already does — his almost 90 percent strand rate greatly aided his 2011 campaign — so any change in transition to the rotation would not be welcome. But if it remains flat, perhaps he can make it work.

If we use only Robertson’s 2011 season, clearly he’d look superb as a starter; his results were off the charts, both in terms of peripherals and results. There’s only a minuscule chance he can approach those numbers again in relief. Still, he did have two quality seasons in 2009 and 2010, following a rough rookie campaign in 2008. If we add up all his innings, though, he’s at 202 for his career. Since that’s a full season, it might be best to apply the Rule of 17 to his career stats and see what we get.

Robertson As A Starter

  RP SP
K/PA 31.1% 26.6%
BABIP .319 .373
HR/BIP 2.6% 3.0%

There are a few caveats to attend here. First, Tango’s study encompassed all pitchers. Some performed better than this baseline, some performed worse. It’s tough to know where Robertson will fall on that curve. It’s unlikely, for example, that he’d have a .373 BABIP as a starter. Even though pitchers do have a degree of control over the types of contact they induce, .373 seems out of line for anyone. This is all part of the great unknown of this whole experiment.

Also a factor: Robertson’s discernible improvement in 2011. It wasn’t just in the results. Robertson added about a mile per hour to his fastball. This played a large role in his heightened strikeout rate, as did the “sneaky fast” nature of his fastball; that is, it gets on top of hitters faster than they might expect, thanks to his extended stride. There is a chance, then, that some of his improvement could be real, and could make his expected numbers look even prettier.

The one thing that could hold back Robertson is his repertoire. While he does have two quality pitches in his fastball and curveball, he doesn’t quite have that third pitch. He’s used a cutter, which has been effective at times. He also uses a changeup, but not at all frequently. He’d have to drastically increase its usage in the rotation. It’s not that using his changeup more frequently is out of the question; he really doesn’t have a chance to use a third pitch in the bullpen, after all. It’s that the third pitch adds another level of uncertainty to the conversion.

Finally, we have the issue of innings. Last year Robertson threw 66.2 innings, his highest total as a major leaguer. His previous high came all the way back in 2006, when he threw 82.2 innings combined between Alabama and the Cape Cod League. This is where a comparison with Ogando might work. In 2010 he threw about 75 innings between the minors and majors before making the jump to 169 innings in 2011. He did tire down the stretch, too. The Yankees couldn’t expect more than that from Robertson. It’s also unknown how Ogando will rebound from this increase in workload. He didn’t hurt himself in 2011, but there is still risk in the following year. Fatigue leads to poor mechanics, and poor mechanics can lead to injury, both in the present and in the future. The Yankees probably don’t want to take that risk with one of their best bullpen arms.

There certainly exists a case for converting Robertson to a starter. He took a significant step forward in 2011, and there’s a chance that his talents could play up well when throwing six, seven, or eight innings an outing. There are, unfortunately, a significant number of unknowns, uncertainties, and risks that go along with such a conversion. The Yankees are aware of these, I’m sure, and I don’t doubt that they’ve mulled the possibility, if only casually. It’s not a terrible idea in theory, but everything would have to break the Yankees way for it to work out. It’s understandable, then, if they wish to keep things as they currently stand. Robertson is plenty fine in his current role.

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Report: Nats have asked Yankees about Gardner
Kuroda "now definitely willing" to pitch on the East Coast
  • Thomas Cassidy

    Didn’t they try this with Joba? I’ll pass. He’s our future closer anyway if everything goes right.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

      Joba was a starter, in college and in the minors.

      • JAG

        I’d be very sad if they tried Robertson out before giving Joba another chance.

      • The Big City of Dreams

        But he was built to be a reliever.

        /Francesa’d

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      Joba was a starter his entire career until they called him up.

  • http://www.twitter.com/brandonholley B-Rando

    Interesting thoughts.

    K-Rob to the 1st!

  • Steve (different one)

    The problem, IMHO, is that he throws too many pitches per inning. He’d be at 110 pitches after 5 innings. Maybe he could change his approach and adapt, but his current approach may not translate. Love the guy though.

  • Foghorn Leghorn

    Since the market for SP sucks this year a few teams may look to do something like this. The Sox may move Bard to the rotation.

    • The Big City of Dreams

      The Rangers did it with Feliz

      • Anchen

        Feliz like Joba (or perhaps Wainwright is a better example) was basically a career starter though before getting called up. Bard was a reliever for most of the minors and since he got called up, same with robertson.

  • UncleArgyle

    Robertson has had success in the bullpen, so it would be foolish, FOOLISH I say, to even consider that he could have success in any other role. I mean other than David Price, Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano, CJ Wilson, Alexi Ogando, Ryan Dempster, and Derek Lowe, can you name a single pitcher who has successfully transitioned from the Bullpen to the Rotation in the last 15 years?

    • Thomas Cassidy

      Where is Santana now? Liriano? Dempster? Price wasn’t really in the bullpen. Ogando has had one year as a starter, and it wasn’t that great.

      He belongs in the bullpen.

      • UncleArgyle

        I was mostly joking. But I’m pretty sure Johan Santana would be considered a successful starting pitcher for his career, no?

        • Thomas Cassidy

          For a few years. But where is he?

          • UncleArgyle

            Johan was the best pitcher in baseball for about 4 years. I’m pretty sure if you made the Yankees that offer (best pitcher in the game for 4 years, before he blows out his shoulder) with Robertson or Joba they’d take it.

      • Ted Nelson

        Eh…

        Santana was a heck of a starting pitcher, anyone can get injured.

        Liriano wasn’t in the pen for much longer than Price.

        Dempster has averaged 3.8 fWAR the past four seasons.

        CJ Wilson, David Wells, Kenny Rogers, Curt Schilling, Pedro, Adam Wainwright…

        Robertson hasn’t started a game as a pro and you can definitely argue he should stay in the pen, but I don’t see an argument that pitchers can’t move between the pen and rotation.

        • UncleArgyle

          Adam Wainwright! Knew I forgot someone! Thanks. For the record, I leave Robertson in the Pen for a host of reasons, but I don’t see good reason why a reliever can’t be made a starter if he has the talent.

          • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

            Dude, Pedro Martinez. If he had his 1993 season these days, he’d have never started another game in his career.

            • UncleArgyle

              I laughed so hard I think I peed a little.

              • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

                It’s funny because it’s true.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      Not sure if serious.

      • UncleArgyle

        I was just trying to be funny. I guess I’m just still pissed about the whole Joba fiasco….

        • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

          Phew, I was worried.

          • UncleArgyle

            Lol my bad, I probably should have ended the rant with a

            /tongueincheek’d or something.

    • Bo Knows

      You forgot Pedro!

      • JAG

        Also Smoltz.

  • YankeesJunkie

    While an interesting idea I cannot really jump aboard. He just does not have the control to be a starter to go 6-7 innings consistently as say an Aceves could. It would be nice to see Robertson go out less frequently, but for both the 7th and 8th inning so that he could go 50 appearances for 90 to 100 innings.

  • 28 this year

    Honestly, this is the perfect year to move Joba to the rotation. He’s focuses 100% on building up arm strength, he’s starting slow. He needs to build innings. And he can’t possibly pitch more than about half a season or so. If all goes well, he could have a solid 30 innings in the minors plus another 70 innings at least at the major league level. Its the perfect year to have him move to starting and build back up to that routine. Ugh, it kills me to dream about what could happen. I just can’t help feeling like if you told Joba right now to start, he would absolutely kill it.

    • UncleArgyle

      I agree. Makes too much sense for the Yankees to try it though.

    • The Big City of Dreams

      No no no the 5th inning is too important for him to start. Why waste him as a starter when you need a great 5th inning guy.

  • Bronx Byte

    Don’t mess with success. D-Rob thrives with his role.

  • Mike MzX

    No, leave him alone. As it stands right now, the guy looks prime to be the only person who could take that ball when Mariano ultimately decides to call it a career. Even the great Mariano didn’t translate well as a starter, and more recently I think Hughes and Joba both suffered for their switching roles.

    Robertson is phenomenal at setup, leave him alone. The one problem the Yankees don’t have when it comes to pitching is the bullpen… don’t make it one.

    The day Mo decides to leave is going to be a painful one. However, if Robertson continues to excel as he has in relief, he’ll lessen that tough reality, at least for a while.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      As it stands right now, the guy looks prime to be the only person who could take that ball when Mariano ultimately decides to call it a career.

      This applies to…

      David Robertson, 2011
      Phil Hughes, 2009
      Joba Chamberlain, 2007

      • The Big City of Dreams

        lol every yr it’s someone new.

    • Bo Knows

      Mo had a handful of starts before being shifted to the bullpen.

      • Mike MzX

        Yeah and he wasn’t good. He shined in relief. Robertson has only gotten better year after year in relief, they should leave well enough alone.

        And the previous commenter had a good point, we have to see if the Robertson train continues.

  • Monteroisdinero

    Repertoire is the issue. We should be open minded but it is tough to be a quality starter without a 3rd pitch.

    Sincerely,
    Phil Hughes

    • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

      D-Rob’s cutter and changeup say hello.

      • Monteroisdinero

        He doesn’t throw his changeup enough because he doesn’t have to in a 1 inning stint. I am not sold on it but I would love for him to throw it more often as a starter and against tough lefties. He’s too good as a reliever/closer to be, to change though.

        Let us all hope for Manny B to be the answer.

        • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

          Exactly, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a third pitch. He’d most certainly use the changeup more if he became a starter.

  • theboogiedown

    Your Mother gave you too much free time, thus overdeveloping your imagination. Stop using it!

  • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

    Not a bad idea, but I’d keep Robertson in the bullpen. He should be Mo’s successor.

  • Jose M. Vazquez..

    If it’s not broken… I would much better turn Boone Logan into a starter. I believe he has some experience although, perhaps did not perform too well in that role. He is a lefty who throws hard and could probably do well in the role. Rethinking, why mess with the pitching. We have enough to win the way we are right now. The only upgrade that I could think of is Darvish.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

      Probably going to explore the Boone option at some point this winter. Repertoire, however, is huge with him.

  • A.D.

    Guessing the Yanks won’t explore this just cause I’d imagine they’d have already tried Robertson as a starter in the minors if they thought there was something there

  • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher

    If it ain’t broke….

  • David E

    The failed Joba Chamberlain experiment has turned me off of this kind of experimentation for some time.

  • OMG Bagels!

    I don’t think he could get into and out of jams inning after inning as a starter. When he does it as a reliever, it’s kind of fun. But it will bite him as a starter. I’ve also read interviews where he has said he’s a reliever and doesn’t think about starting.

    • Mike MzX

      I think he’s a guy that gets amped up under pressure. Coming in with the bases loaded, coming in with a tight lead in the 8th, this is where he shined all year. I don’t think that translates to starting as well, as the jams he’ll be expected to get out of will be ones he created, every time.

  • LiterallyFigurative

    NOOOOOO!!! (lol)

    The pen is the strength of your pitching corps. Why mess with it?