Via the Winnipeg Free Press, the Yankees have agreed to terms with their pre-arbitration eligible players, meaning guys with less than three years of service time. There’s 18 players in all, but the notables include Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Al Aceves, David Robertson, and Brett Gardner. No word on the money, but they’re all close to the $400,000 league minimum I’m sure. Joba and Hughes might be over $500,000 by now, and both will be looking at seven figures in their first year of arbitration eligibility in 2011.
It was tough to not fall in love with David Robertson last season. For followers of Down on the Farm it was the realization of the potential we saw over the past few years. For the uninitiated it was his sneaky fastball and astronomical strikeout rate. Sure, his walk rate was at times frustrating — the game Al Aceves started in Minnesota comes immediately to mind — but his stuff made many wonder whether he could slide into a setup role and — maybe, possibly — eventually become a closer candidate.
In September we received the bad news: Robertson’s elbow was barking and he’d have to miss some time for it to heal. He did come back in time to warm up at the end of the month and make a playoff run, in which he allowed no runs on four hits and three walks in 5.1 innings. The only downside was that he struck out just three in that span, far, far below his season mark of around 13 per nine. Did something change for Robertson as a result of the injury?
In yesterday’s post about Joba’s diminished velocity, commenter tommiesmithjohncarlos linked to Robertson’s velocity chart. He called it sexy, but after clicking the link I became a bit more concerned. You can check it out here, or view it below. In 2008, during his brief call-up, his fastball velocity sat in the low 90s. It was the same upon his call-up in 2009, but as you can see his average fastball velocity climbed after the All-Star break. As it got up to the 93.5-94 range, we see a break in the action. That’s the September injury. So how big a concern is this?
Correlation does not imply causation, so it’s difficult to say whether the increased velocity directly led to injury. The correlation certainly exists, though, so it raises some red flags. So does Robertson’s velocity upon return. Instead of averaging 93 or 94 mph, as you can see on the chart he was back down in the 92 mph range. That’s where he sat in the playoffs as well. From what I can tell, he never hit 94 after the elbow injury. This isn’t evidence that injury caused the velocity drop-off, of course. It could just as easily be that Robertson became a bit more cautious upon his return.
As Robertson’s velocity increased, he seemingly got better — not only in terms of strikeouts, but also in his walks. Again, the increase started after the first small break in the velocity plot, which represents the All-Star break. That gives us one full month of data, August. In that month he faced 45 batters, striking out 17 of them and walking just four. Just one hit a home run, and overall only three runners crossed the plate — two of which came when the team got blown out by Boston. Meanwhile, he had a ridiculously bloated BABIP, .494, though that hurts a lot less when you don’t allow that many balls in play.
Since there’s no clear conclusion on this case — I’m noting a trend rather than saying that X caused Y — I’d like to point out a few other awesome Robertson stats. In 2009 he faced 99 batters with the bases empty and 92 with runners on. In the latter category he absolutely dominated, striking out 33 to just 12 walks while allowing no home runs. He walked fewer batters with the bases empty, but also struck out fewer. He also did a damn good job of keeping the ball inside Yankee Stadium, allowing just one home run at home (84 batters faced). Finally, his poorest month earned run wise was July, in which he allowed seven runs to the 50 batters he faced. Yet his FIP that month was 3.82.
Thankfully, Robertson showed that he can get hitters out without a 93-94 mph fastball. It was a marvel to watch, and I hope he can still break it out in 2010. But if it had anything to do with his injury, at least we know he can survive without it. After all, he allowed just five runs to the 73 batters he faced from April through June, striking out 26 of them. Blazing fastball or not, I’m excited to see what Robertson can contribute this year.
Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens
The 2009 Yankees featured an excellent bullpen, and a big part of that came from the success of David Robertson. A 17th round pick in 2006 out of the University of Alabama, Robertson dominated the minor leagues and forced his way onto the major league roster just two years after turning pro. He had some hiccups during his 30-inning cup of coffee in 2008, but came back strong in 2009 to earn a regular spot in the bullpen.
We saw plenty of good from Robertson, jokingly nicknamed K-Rob, in 2009. His strikeout rate, 13.0, ranked second among major league pitchers with at least 40 innings. Using his fastball, which traveled a mile per hour faster than in 2008, he blew away hitters. According to FanGraphs pitch type values, Robertson’s fastball measured 4.7 runs above average, or 0.73 runs above average per 100 pitches. His curveball provides another weapon, as he can drop it as a change of pace. We saw more than one hitter’s knees buckle on a K-Rob hammer in 2009.
When examining the Yankees bullpen, I lumped Robertson in with the presumed bridge to Mariano, along with Joba/Hughes and Marte. Given the way he pitched in 2009 we can expect that he’ll get every shot to pitch in high leverage situations. But one thing remains troubling about Robertson: his walk rate. This has been an issue for him throughout his baseball career, dating back to his days as closer for Alabama. His strikeouts help cover it up, but his walk rates, typically in the mid-4s, are too high almost every year. Is this something he can correct in the future?
Certainly the possibility exists that Robertson can improve his walk rate. In fact, a similar pitcher with a familiar face did just that almost 15 years ago. From 1992 through 1994 Mark Wohlers pitched 134 big league innings and walked over 4.5 hitters per nine innings. Robertson doesn’t have that much experience — he didn’t hit the majors until 23 — but his walk rate hovers around that area. Wohlers compensated for the plentiful walks by striking out a ton of hitters, reaching 10.2 per nine by 1994, and allowing few home runs, just three in those 134 innings. Robertson, by comparison, has struck out 99 hitters in his 74 big league innings while walking 38 and allowing 7 home runs.
The good news for Robertson is that in 1995, when Wohlers turned 25, the same age Robertson will be for the 2010 season, he reduced his walk rate to 3.3 per nine, while raising his strikeout rate to a K-Robian 12.5 per nine. This resulted in a 2.09 ERA and his installation as the Braves closer. Wohlers continued the trend in 1996, lowering his walk rate even lower, to a downright awesome 2.4 per nine. The next year, however, the walk rate crept back up, and after that Wohlers was never the same.
The case of Mark Wohlers shows us that yes, Robertson can correct his walk tendencies. Wohlers not only did it, but did it at the same age as Robertson. True, Wohlers burnt out young, his last effective season coming at age 27, but given the general volatility of relievers I think the Yankees would be more than glad to get three year of Wohlerian performances out of Robertson, even if it means his flaming out early.
We really don’t know, however, if Robertson will make the correction. He can still be a useful cog if he continues to walk hitters at his current clip. But he’ll be a much better fit for the late innings if he throws more pitches in the zone, or otherwise gets hitters to swing at more pitches out of the zone. That much is obvious. What I’ll be looking at in the 2010 season is of the actual adjustments he makes. Clearly he’s a talented pitcher. Maybe everything will come together for him at age 25.
Credit: AP Photo/Matt Slocum
Over the next week or so, we’ll again break down what went wrong and what went right for the 2009 Yankees. The series this year will be much more enjoyable than the last.
The Yankees came into 2009 feeling good about their bullpen. After all, the same cast of characters posted the seventh lowest ERA (3.79), second lowest FIP (3.82), second best strikeout rate (8.66 K/9), and tenth best walk rate (3.53 BB/9) in the league last year. Unfortunately, that group of relievers was unable to repeat that performance in the first month of this season. Their FIP in April was awful (5.41) and their ERA even worse (6.46), and it was a major reason why the team was in third place with a negative run differential on May 1st.
Thankfully, the Yanks had enough bullpen depth to not just replace one or two pieces, but to make wholesale changes. The first step in the makeover came on April 25th, when Phil Hughes was summoned from Triple-A to take over for the injured Chien-Ming Wang. Al Aceves replaced the overmatched Anthony Claggett on May 5th, and David Robertson took the place of the injured Brian Bruney three weeks later. Edwar Ramirez and his 33 baserunners allowed (6 homer!) in 17.1 IP was banished to the minors mid-May, and Jose Veras was mercifully designated for assignment a little later on.
After allowing three earned runs or less in five of his seven starts, Hughes shifted to the bullpen in early June to make way for Wang. He became the primary setup man to Mariano Rivera in short order, allowing everyone else in the bullpen to settle into roles more suitable for their skills. Hughes held opponents to a .172-.228-.228 batting line as a reliever, posting a ridiculous 65-13 K/BB ratio and an unfathomable 1.83 FIP after moving to the bullpen.
Aceves, meanwhile, became Joe Girardi’s jack of all trades. He was used in long relief, short relief, in matchup situations, you name it. He allowed less than a baserunner per inning, and his 80.2 IP as a reliever was the most by a Yankee since Scott Proctor’s 100.2 IP back in 2006. Aceves effectively bridged the middle innings gap from the starter to Phil Hughes all by himself.
Most teams would be happy with a pair of guys like Hughes and Aceves in their bullpen, but the Yankees didn’t stop there. Rookie David Robertson developed from promising prospect into a bullpen force, leading all American League pitchers by striking out 12.98 batters per 9 IP (the second place guy, Joakim Soria, was more than a full strikeout behind him).
Once all of the new pieces were in place, the Yankee bullpen went from weakness in April to strength the rest of the way. They finished the year with a solid 3.91 ERA, and placed second in the league in strikeout rate (8.44 K/9) and third in walk rate (3.46 BB/9). The names had to be changed, but Girardi’s bullpen once again finished the season as one of the strongest in the game.
For seven innings last night, CC Sabathia kept the Yankees in the game. After a rough first inning he settled down, hurt only by a pair of Chase Utley home runs. But, because he’d done such a good job of keeping the Phillies off the base paths, they were both solo home runs. Unfortunately, with Cliff Lee in his groove, it would take a serious offensive effort just to make up those two runs.
What the Yankees needed was for the bullpen to keep it a two-run game so that maybe, just maybe the offense could pull off a late-inning rally. That did not happen. Phil Hughes walked the first two batters he faced, and while Damaso Marte did his job, David Robertson failed to record the inning’s final out without allowing the Phillies to extend the lead.
His first opponent was Jayson Werth. With a righty on righty matchup, this is the guy the Yanks wanted to retire. Robertson started him with a fastball that ended up a bit low for ball one. To the fastball he went, and he missed three straight times for a four-pitch walk. But did he really miss? As pitchf/x records it, the second and third pitches of the at-bat were strikes. The second pitch was debatable, hanging up at the top of the zone, a place where umpires don’t always call strikes. But the third pitch was right there, a 93 mph fastball that came in a bit high, but certainly within the zone’s confines.
Robertson then missed badly for ball four, a fastball low, loading the bases for Raul Ibanez. Girardi could have gone to Phil Coke, but with three righties following Ibanez, and considering Robertson’s favorable splits against lefties, it was probably the right move to leave him in the game. Robertson then went to work, and he set up Ibanez nicely.
The first pitch he kissed the low, outside corner with a fastball for strike one. He then tossed another low fastball that missed the bottom of the zone to even the count. Keeping the ball low again, Robertson placed his third pitch, a 93 mph fastball, on the inside part of the plate for strike two. With Ibanez down in the count, he had to be prepared for the curveball, but Jorge and Robertson went back to the fastball, this one high and outside. It was a nice change of pace, and that’s going to get a swing and miss sometimes. Ibanez, though, managed to foul it off.
With the count still 1-2, and with Ibanez having seen four straight fastballs, Posada and Robertson went to the curve. It missed by a decent margin, though, evening the count at 2-2. I’m not sure if they were going for the swing and miss, or just poor contact, but again Posada called for the curveball and set up on the low outside corner.
Robertson delivered, and Ibanez bounced one through the hole on the right side for a two-run single that opened up the game for the Phillies. The pitch was supposed to stay away, but as you can see below, Posada had to move his glove towards the middle of the plate. That allowed Ibanez to get enough of his bat head on it to get it into the outfield.
Just how much of the plate did that curve get? The pitch sequence strike zone plot from Brooks Baseball shows us.
It was low and kind of away, but not where Robertson and Posada wanted it. It was still a decent pitch, but not a great pitch. Ibanez, a good hitter, did what he could with it. Cano, playing a bit to his right, had no shot.
Had Robertson placed that pitch just slightly further outside, perhaps Ibanez would have bounced it right to Cano. He might have even swung and missed. But, because the ball was towards the middle of the plate Ibanez could handle it, and while it wasn’t the difference in the game it certainly changed the tone. Instead of being down two with six outs remaining, the Yankees were down four with the bottom of their lineup due up in the eighth.
“A game of inches” is a cliche for a reason. Robertson had done a good job setting up Ibanez, but made a small mistake on one pitch and it ended up costing them big. It’s the nature of the game, and it happens to the best of them. Just ask CC Sabathia who, after throwing three good pitches to Chase Utley in the sixth, left a fastball right over the middle of the plate.
After all this, I can’t help but wonder how the game would have unfolded if Robertson got even one of those strike calls against Werth. If he’d retired him, our moods might be different right now.
We have a few links to help you pass the time before the game tonight. The friggin’ rain better let up…
- In Baseball Prospectus’ World Series preview, Will Carroll says that David Robertson’s “shoulder would have him on a surgeon’s table if his team weren’t in the World Series.” Keep in mind that K-Rob missed time with an elbow injury in September, not shoulder. Also, shoulder injuries result in decreased velocity, and in his last outing Robertson sat 92.97-93.9 mph with the fastball, hitting the high end of that range on his final pitch of the day. Besides, I don’t think the Yankees would be foolish enough to carry an injured reliever on their World Series roster.
- Joe took a look at how the core of the Yanks’ roster was constructed last week, but John Sickels did a more thorough job over the weekend. Sorry, Joe. Sickels also compared the Yanks roster construction with that of the Phillies’. For a team that doesn’t produce any players, the Yanks sure do have a lot of homegrown players on their roster, no? Weird.
- In case you missed it, here’s Keith Law’s keys to the World Series (Insider only). He picks the Yanks in six, because of “a big bullpen advantage and a stronger offense.”
- Michael Lichtman at FanGraphs has a really long take on sacrifice bunts, particularly the ones the Yanks tried in the 8th inning the other day when the Angels botched some routine plays. RAB regulars know I’m not a fan of the sac bunt, but in that spot I was more than fine with it. They already had the lead; the bottom of the order was due up; and with Mo on the mound, one more run would have sealed the deal.
- Here’s an Indians fan’s take on tonight’s CC Sabathia-Cliff Lee matchup. It’s long, but I’ll cut to the chase: He’s pissed.
- Make sure you check out Visual Baseball. How can you not love baseball infographics?
- Finally, Ben is still blogging about the Yankees for USA Today’s team face-off site. You can find the blog right here. In his most recent post, he presents the results from yesterday’s RAB World Series prediction poll. Check it out.
For 162 games this year, Joe Girardi had a fairly consistent bullpen approach. While the generally theory is to get the ball to Phil Hughes in the 8th and Mariano Rivera in the 9th, Joe had, through a series of mid-season auditions, figured out the best approach to the three or four outs in between the time when he removed his starting pitcher and when he brought in Hughes, and by the time early August rolled around, David Robertson had assumed the role.
Now, Robertson wasn’t given the role. He had to earn it. Early on in the season, Brian Bruney had that spot after losing the 8th to Phil Hughes, but Bruney couldn’t hold it down. After Bruney, the role was Alfredo Aceves’ to lose, and after a shaky July brought about by some shoulder pain, Aceves lost it. It was then that David Robertson earned that position of trust, and he quickly emerged as the Yanks’ third best reliever.
On the season, Robertson had some pretty impressive numbers. He struck out 63 of the 191 batters he faced, good for a K/9 IP of 13.0. Although he walked 4.7 per 9 innings, by year’s end, he had reduced that walk rate. In the 7th, he was just as good. He faced 30 batters in the 7th inning — a small sample size for sure — but struck out 12 of them and allowed just two 7th inning runs. By most accounts, he was the Yanks’ third best reliever in 2009.
And then we have Joba Chamberlain. As we know, on the year, Joba was less than consistent and not as effective as we hoped. Sporting a lower velocity that many believe came about after his August 2008 shoulder injury and less control than we had seen in the past, Joba threw 157.1 to mixed results. He had a 4.75 ERA and a K/9 IP of just 7.6. His walk rate was up, and opponents hit .274/.363/.439 against him. By season’s end, no one really trusted him.
No one, that is, except Joe Girardi. When the playoffs rolled around, the Yanks announced that Joba would be in the bullpen, and we waited to see how Girardi would deploy Chamberlain. After watching the last few games, now we know: Joba Chamberlain will pitch before Phil Hughes in a spot customarily reserved for the team’s third best reliever.
Needless to say, Joba has disappointed. He has faced 12 batters this postseason and five of them have hits. His fastball still is topping out at around 95 and his control, as we saw yesterday, is non-existent. Robertson, meanwhile, has faced 14 batters this season and just two of them have hits. He has allowed two others to reach, but those were on intentional walks. He pitched out of a bases-loaded, no-out situation against the Twins in the ALDS and was invaluable against the Angels during the Game 2 marathon on Saturday night.
As Girardi has gotten too cute with his pitching changes, as, in the words of Mike, he makes the game of baseball look harder than it actually is, it’s time to go back to what worked. The Bridge to Mariano should remain David Robertson in the 7th — Phil Coke is a lefty pops up — and then Phil Hughes. That approach worked during the regular season and probably would have given the Yanks a 3-0 lead yesterday. Joba hasn’t earned anyone’s trust, and should not be pitching in key situations in a close ALCS.
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As a postscript to Girardi’s approach last night: I know a lot of fans have bought the excuse that David Robertson did not match up well with Howie Kendrick. (For instance, see this defense of Girardi.) He still managed to overmanage though. If Robertson doesn’t match up well with Kendrick, then have D-Rob walk Kendrick to face Jeff Mathis, a batter who cannot handle a fastball for his life. Instead, in a tie game on the road, Girardi burned his best available reliever after all of 11 pitches. If Mathis still hits that game-winning blast, then fine. At least the Yanks go down with their best on the mound and not their 7th pitcher in 4.1 innings.