2014 Season Preview: The New Closer

Betances and Cabral standing out early in spring bullpen competition
Jennings: Several teams scouting Francisco Cervelli

Mariano Rivera has retired and he’s not coming back. After 16 years of enjoying eight inning games thanks to the best reliever in baseball history, the Yankees are beginning an era in which the ninth inning isn’t such a lock anymore. The bullpen anchor is gone, and even though we got a glimpse of what life without Mo was like when he hurt his knee in 2012, this is still going to be a new experience.

The Yankees have stopped short of officially naming David Robertson their new closer, but that is a mere formality at this point. Joe Girardi, Brian Cashman, and even Hal Steinbrenner have indicated Robertson will assume ninth inning duties this spring. That’s no surprise. Robertson has been excellent these last three years and has pretty much every quality you’d want in a future closer. He strikes guys out, he gets ground balls, and he has experience working high-leverage innings for a (mostly) contending team in a tough division in a huge market. All the boxes are checked.

At this point, I think we all know what Robertson is and what he can do. He’s primarily a cutter pitcher at this point, mixing in the occasional curveball when ahead in the count. He’s also cut down on his walk rate drastically these last two years, going from 4.7 BB/9 (12.2 BB%) from 2008-11 to a 2.6 BB/9 (7.3 BB%) from 2012-13. Robertson is not the most efficient pitcher in the world, but he has said this spring that he is making an effort to throw fewer pitches and get quicker outs this season. Maybe that leads to him striking out fewer batters but being available three days in a row instead of just two. We’ll see.

There seem to be two opposing schools of thought when it comes to the closer’s role: anyone can do it and not everyone can do it. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Not everyone likes pitching at the end of games — Jeremy Affeldt and LaTroy Hawkins are two notable players who have admitted as much — but way more guys can close than most people initially thought. The fact of the matter is we don’t know how Robertson will react to closing until he does it. I think he’ll be more than fine but what do I know? All we can do is wait a few weeks and see.


Instead of focusing just on Robertson, I want to spend some time exploring what the Yankees are looking at in the post-Rivera years. How the other half lives. That is, basically, a revolving door at closer. Sure, Robertson might be the guy for the next half-decade, but he has not been a closer yet and he’s due to become a free agent after the season. It’s not crazy to think he might not be the team’s closer long-term. Closers like Rivera, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Billy Wagner, and Trevor Hoffman are very rare. Not many guys do the job for ten years or more. There is generally a lot of turnover in the ninth inning.

As of right now, only three teams project to have the same closer on Opening Day 2014 as they did on Opening Day 2012: the Phillies (Papelbon), Braves (Craig Kimbrel), and Padres (Huston Street). (Aroldis Chapman and Glen Perkins took over as their club’s closer a few weeks into the 2012 season, but were not the guys on Opening Day.) Three teams, that’s it. You can go back and check if you want. Furthermore, all four LCS teams last year (Dodgers, Cardinals, Red Sox, Tigers) changed closers at midseason. World Series closers Koji Uehara and Trevor Rosenthal weren’t even their team’s Plan B. Uehara got the job after Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey got hurt, and Rosenthal got it after Jason Motte got hurt, Mitchell Boggs flopped, and Edward Mujica crashed late in the season.

That is the norm. Most teams wind up making changes at closer if not in season, than at some point in the span of two seasons. The Yankees are very fortunate to have Robertson, who is more Rosenthal than Mujica, but in a world without Rivera, they could be looking at a new closer every year or two. Remember what it was like before Mo? John Wetteland for two years, Steve Howe for a year, Steve Farr for three years … on and on. Let’s not forget the postseason either, Rivera was beyond brilliant in October and that is irreplaceable. That revolving door is what the next few years of the ninth inning could look like, especially if Robertson proves to be not up to the task or bolts as a free agent next winter.

For this coming season, the Yankees appear to have a more than capable ninth inning man in Robertson. If he can’t hack it, then whichever reliever happens to be pitching the best at the time figures to get a crack at the ninth inning. Maybe that’s Shawn Kelley or Dellin Betances or Adam Warren. Who knows? We’ll worry about that when the time comes. Robertson is as good as any prospective closer in the game, but because of his impending free agency, the ninth inning is still a question long-term. That’s the case for almost every team in baseball and new experience for the Yankees as we know them.

Betances and Cabral standing out early in spring bullpen competition
Jennings: Several teams scouting Francisco Cervelli
  • Eddardo Nuney

    If everyone could pitch in the 9th like Mo then there’d be a thousand of him and there’s not. Not everyone can handle the pressure that the 9th inning brings, especially in YS in the postseason. I know sabermetricians don’t believe in the closer and think Robertson should pitch whenever there is an emergency in the earlier innings. But as Joe Torre says, the game has a heart beat and pitchers are a creature of habit. They want to know when they’re coming in. Robertson will be just fine if they actually give him a chance, and since there’s not really any other viable option I think they will.

    • CountryClub

      Mo was a one of a kind. But his biggest achievement was his longevity and consistency. There are always closers that show up and dominate for a year or two. But then they flame out or get hurt.

    • ALZ

      People put too much emphasis on the closer role. Mo could do what he did because he was so good. There aren’t that many relievers that could do what he did for that long. 9th innings has pressure because people make it that way. In reality it is just like every other inning.

  • Monterowasdinero

    Tremendous pressure on Robertson and ridiculous shoes to fill. Not sure how we can lighten some of the pressure after 16 years of brilliance and pinpoint control Mo.

    Concerning but throwing his rarely used changeup might give hitters something more to think about and take some pressure off his cutter and control.

    • qwerty

      Robertson has enough weapons. His issues with closing have little to do with talent.

    • TWTR

      If he gets caught up in filling Mo’s shoes, he is setting himself up for failure. He just needs to be himself, which is almost certainly more than good enough.

      • monterowasdinero

        Sounds like it is all mental toughness then. Hope so. I know the pressure of starting the 9th inning is much greater than the 8th with Mo behind you.

        Lots of guys have the talent but not the mental toughness and consistency. Mo had it all with just one pitch. Just amazing.

        • TWTR

          I would call it confidence in his own ability.

    • ALZ

      He just needs to take a breath. It will only be different if he makes it that way. He has done this for years, the 8th inning is no different than the 9th.

      • Jorge Steinbrenner

        Yup. Throw your fucking pitches, and throw them well.

  • JGYank

    He’ll be fine. Ever since he started walking fewer guys, he really doesn’t have any weaknesses at all and he’s still improving in some ways like lowering his BB% and being more efficient while still racking up Ks. I’m more worried about Thornton and his declining velocity, Kelley’s HR rates, and how guys like Clairborne or Betances fill out the rest of the pen. And no matter how good or bad the pen is, I feel confident the rotation should do most of the heavy lifting and be better than the last few years when our bullpen was a strength but 1 or 2 guys in the rotation struggled like CC and Hughes did last year. There’s a chance all 5 starters could be solid.

  • TWTR

    I think Girardi is good enough in handling the pen that if he had to use a different closer every year, similar to the Rays, he could do so effectively.

  • Yankee$ (Formerly Pseudoyanks)

    Geez PepsiCo got Gatorade, Pepsi and Lays signs to all fit on that scoreboard…no room for Tropicana?

  • Jorge Steinbrenner

    “Robertson is as good as any prospective closer in the game, but because of his impending free agency, the ninth inning is still a question long-term. That’s the case for almost every team in baseball and new experience for the Yankees as we know them.”

    Couldn’t have said it any better.

    We will be cheering, and loudly.

  • lightSABR

    Good job making me cry, Mike. One of these days I’ll get used to Rivera being gone. But it sure hasn’t happened yet.

  • Mike HC

    Robertson is the least of their worries. And if he stays healthy and pitches well this year too, I think the Yanks would be the heavy, heavy favorites to re sign him.

    It is everyone else that is the problem, but between the young guys and possible cheap mid season trades, I think the team will end up just fine in the pen.

    • qwerty

      He should be a concern because if he falters then they have to rely on Betances, Claiborne and Kelly to close. That’s going to be a laugh riot if that happens.

  • W.B. Mason Williams

    Spoiled is what we’ve been.

    It hurts that I have to say that even in the context of last year’s miserable season.

    There isn’t a better candidate than D-Rob.

    Here’s hoping he does his best Mo impression for a long time in pinstripes.

  • The Great Gonzo

    I don’t remember who said it, but many moons ago it was said that the next Yankee closer will be (paraphrasing here) a place holder until the Next Great Yankee Closer. Meaning: no one could replace Mo, so the next guy to come in and close won’t be another Mo… just another dude. He will be a guy who blows the occasional save, gets rocked once every few months, and everyone would say “This guy is no Mariano….”. The next Yankee Closer was not supposed to be a guy we love, just some dude… It was supposed to be Soriano or Benoit or Putz or some shit.

    Robertson is going to break all our hearts if he ends up begin what the guy after Mo was supposed to be. Lets hope whoever said that was dead wrong.

    • I’m One

      It may not be this year. He could be just fine all season. And it may not even be next season. But even if he turns into a fine closer, he’ll never live up to Mo. No one can do that.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      Here’s how I see it:

      We don’t need “The Next Great Yankee Closer.” We will just root for him to be a great closer.

      I’m not saying Mariano will never happen again, but you’re not getting the lucky combination of extreme effectiveness and health for that period of time easy in this world. Throw out Kimbrel’s name all you want, but he’s got a mighty mountain to climb to even stand in the same room.

      • http://www.draftstreet.com/register.aspx?r=Jedile Jedile

        Kimbrel definitely has the talent to rack up a lot of Saves. But I just don’t think he will stay healthy enough in the later years. Pitchers of his nature seem to falter when they approach 30.

        • Jorge Steinbrenner

          Much less their early 40’s.

          Even he stays healthy until 30, he has more than a decade to go. Ain’t happening.

        • The Great Gonzo

          Kimbrel is gonna need to show me that level of effectiveness for a little longer than a couple of seasons to get in that conversation. Shit, Koji Uehara can make the same case…

          Small Sample Size, yadda yadda yadda

      • I’m One

        Right. Even if there is someone that approaches Mo’s level of greatness at some point, what’s the likelyhood he plays for the Yankees? Astronomically small.

        So we’ll just root for DRob to do his job well for as long as possible and hope there’s someone equally capable following him.

    • RetroRob

      Soriano showed a solid reliever can come in and more than hold down the closer’s role. D-Rob will be fine and his was to a 40+ save season.

      The greatness of Mo was his tremendous efficiency, ending the game in rapid fashion, and doing it for 16 seasons. D-Rob won’t be doing it for 16 seasons and he will make it a bit more nerve wracking, but he will be fine.

      • RetroRob

        “on his way” to a 40+ save season.

  • Nathan

    Why aren’t the Yankees trying to lock up Robertson now? Assuming he does well, his stock and price goes up. Besides, who else is out there that could be had and is as good as Robertson?

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      Because David Robertson is fully aware of your second sentence.

    • RetroRob

      No reason to on either side. The Yankees probably won’t even make D-Rob a qualifying offer next season since no closer is worth $15M. That was Mariano’s top salary, if I remember correctly, and he was Mo.

      Almost all teams now will not sign closers to lengthy deals at a high salary, so I don’t think the Yankees will have to worry about the competition. If D-Rob does his job this year, they can resign him. This is not a Cano situation where some other team will come in and blow them out of the water.

      • RetroRob

        It occurred to me after I submitted the comment that there might be a strategic reason to offer D-Rob a qualifying offer. He won’t want to accept it because he’ll want a multi-year deal. Yet if he doesn’t accept it, he will limit his market. The worst that would happen is he accepts it and the Yankees have a very expensive but proven closer on a one-year deal, limiting their risk. They can afford it.

        In reality, it will limit D-Rob’s market, increasing the likelihood the Yankees can sign him to a long-term deal, but at a lower AAV. Not sure the Yankees would take that risk, but it is worth the strategic play if they think D-Rob is asking for too much on a multi-year deal.

  • Nickel

    I think the real question is what music is he going to walk out to??

    A few weeks ago, I was listening to the radio and “Enter Sandman” was playing. I actually started to get slightly choked up. I need to get out more.

    • You Know John? You Can’t Predict Baseball

      He’s been coming out to Sweet Home Alabama in the eigth so far, so probably he sticks with that

      • Tanakapalooza Floozy

        Such an awful song from the standpoint of striking fear in hearts and riling up the fans. Great song otherwise.

        My entrance music would be Thunderstruck by AC/DC.