When Mariano Rivera retired after 19 years with the New York Yankees following the 2013 season, he signed off on a remarkable career as baseball’s all-time saves leader with 652 and is clearly on a smooth path to the Hall of Fame. The question for the Yankees was, what’s next?
Or more specifically, who’s next? The term “next man up” is often used in the National Football League since there are so many injuries in that sport. But really the situation is the same for every pro team. If someone retires or gets hurt the games keep on coming, the schedule doesn’t pause, and teams must go on with a fresh player inserted into the lineup.
Robertson for Rivera
Enter David Robertson, the 2014 closer for New York. As The Sandman rode off into retirement in Panama last fall, the Yankees were faced with a critical personnel change. After being able to count on Rivera as a lights-out protector of leads for so long it would not do to count on an average reliever instead of a shut-down man.
Likewise, there was going to be tremendous pressure on whoever succeeded Rivera. Rivera had turned closing into an art form. He was so good for so long Yankees players and fans were spoiled. But how do you follow Olivier performing Shakespeare? That’s a lot to ask of anyone. Any pitcher that was shaky or failed in the closer role after Rivera was going to get booed out of the Bronx.
Lone bright spot
What no one could have foreseen this season as the Derek Jeter era also comes to an end is that the Yankees would face all sorts of injury problems and failed experiments at various positions, but that the brightest spot of all would be occupied by the closer.
With two months remaining in this season of discontent in New York, Robertson has accumulated 30 saves. He is definitely not the problem on a mediocre team that is at best a long-shot to make the playoffs. Indeed, it can be argued that the 5-foot-11, 195-pound right-hander is the team’s Most Valuable Player. His earned run average is an excellent 2.68.
Robertson, 29, served a lengthy apprenticeship as a middle reliever before getting this chance. He received the opportunity he craved and he lived up to the demands of the job after hanging around the New York bullpen since 2008 as a setup man. Waiting just off-stage in 2013 as Rivera made his farewell tour Robertson finished 5-1 with a 2.04 ERA.
There was never any doubt that the former University of Alabama pitcher was going to succeed Rivera, but until a pitcher handles the day-to-day requirements of being a closer he is an unknown quantity. Not everyone can do it, frequently coming into games with men on base and the result on the line. Any closer is always on a short leash, too. Unlike the batter who is a star if he cracks three hits in 10 at-bats, the closer must record a 90 percent success rate or receive hate mail.
Closers are specialists and they had better be special or they will be demoted in a New York minute. Patience is not an option with closers because poor results are too costly.
This year Robertson has pulled off one of the most difficult feats in sport. He replaced a legend – the best ever at his position – and his work has been so good that nobody complains about missing the original.