David Robertson recently signed with the Phillies on a two-year, $23 million deal, with a team option for $12 million. Having fired his agent, he actually represented himself during the negotiations, so he gets to save some money from the roughly five percent commission an agent normally gets.
I think he did well, but one has to wonder if he could have gotten that third year guaranteed if he had an agent involved. Joe Kelly and Jeurys Familia got three years while being inferior options to Robertson, though their being younger was probably why they were able to get that extra year.
We all know that relievers tend to be volatile commodities. Robertson, however, has managed to be shockingly consistent throughout his 11-year career. He was nothing special during his first three years in the league with a 4.19 RA9 over 135 1⁄3 IP, but then he had a career year in 2011, turning in an outstanding 1.22 RA9 and 3.7 WAR.
He was striking out nearly 37 percent of batters faced, but he was consistently walking too many batters with a career walk rate of over 12 percent. He clearly figured something out in 2012, because he saw a remarkable improvement in his control. His walk rate dropped below eight percent, and it never got much higher than that except for a blip in 2016.
It is rare for a free agent signing of over two years for a reliever to work out, but Robertson is one of those examples. I imagine that the four-year, $46 million Robertson signed with the White Sox was not well-received by analysts, and I don’t blame them. The While Sox got lucky, however, because he had a 3.45 RA9 and 35.6 K% during his 2.5 years there. They were able to leverage that stellar performance into a trade that sent Robertson back to the Yankees, getting back then-prized prospect Blake Rutherford in the deal.
Robertson continued his excellence back in New York with a 2.93 RA9 while continuing to strikeout over a third of batters faced. His RA9 during his second stint with the Yankees does not tell the whole story (it rarely does), even though his peripherals were more or less consistent. He had a 1.03 RA9 during half a season in 2017, and then saw that shoot up to a 3.88 RA9 in 2018.
During 2017 in New York, Robertson had a high strand rate and benefited from a .216 BABIP. His BABIP remained low in 2018, but his strand rate went from too high to too low. He also suffered terrible luck with bases loaded. It was only nine plate appearances, but he gave up 12 runs on a walk, two doubles, and a grand slam.
In case you’re curious, that comes out to a .750 BABIP. Strangely, he has struggled throughout his entire career with the bases loaded, having surrendered a line of .269/.311/.513 over 90 PA. Obviously that is a nothing sample size, and it is absolutely not a commentary on Robertson’s ability to handle pressure, but it is interesting.
Some might expect Robertson to be the Phillies’ new closer, but I am not so sure that is a given. He has plenty of experience pitching before the ninth inning, and manager Gabe Kapler is forward-thinking enough to not conform to roles. My guess is that he will want flexibility with Robertson, which I think will be best for the team.
Over at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan pointed out something interesting about Robertson: He has reverse splits for his career. The right-hander has been more effective against left-handed hitters. I recently wrote about James Paxton having reverse splits, and unlike with hitters, why a pitcher’s reverse splits can be real. Robertson lacks a changeup and Paxton’s velocity, but one thing they both have in common is a hammer of a curveball. According to Brooks Baseball, lefties have hit only .103 with a .143 SLG against Robertson’s curveball for his career.
Robertson has faced over 1,300 lefties in his career, so we are not dealing with a small sample size here, though one does have to bear in mind that those plate appearances are spread out over 11 years. Given all the evidence before us, I think it is fair to conclude that Robertson really might be better against left-handed hitters. That being said, I would not fault anyone for choosing to remain skeptical.
If the Phillies fail to get a left-handed reliever that is anything more than a LOOGY, they should be okay with Robertson on the team. They got one of the better relievers in baseball at a fair price. The bullpen is the last place I would want to spend to get an edge, but adding a win or two at this price in what will be a super competitive NL East is well worth it.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.