David Robertson made the unusual choice to represent himself in free agency. One of his biggest selling points: his 137 career saves, 13th most among active relief pitchers.
Then he joined a team that doesn't use a traditional closer.
In signing Robertson to a two-year contract Thursday, the Phillies secured one of the most consistent late-inning relievers in baseball over the last decade. They also got a right-hander who is particularly lethal on left-handed hitters. But although they guaranteed Robertson $23 million ($10 million this year, $11 million next year, and at least a $2 million buyout of a $12 million club option for 2021), they didn’t assure that he would pitch exclusively in the ninth inning or even in save situations.
Instead, the Phillies intend to use Robertson to get important outs whenever the situation arises. That’s the progressive way that manager Gabe Kapler prefers to deploy his relievers. He outlined as much before the sides reached an agreement, and Robertson dug the idea.
“As long as I’m getting an opportunity to pitch in the back end, I’m happy,” Robertson said on a conference call. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth [inning]. I just want to be at the back end of the bullpen when the big outs need to get made.”
How’s that for the perfect mentality to thrive in “Bullpen By Gabe?”
The Phillies targeted lefties Andrew Miller and Zach Britton and, to a lesser extent, prized closer Craig Kimbrel in free agency before landing Robertson. Kimbrel, who remains unsigned, has made clear his preference for pitching in conventional save situations. But Miller, like Robertson, doesn’t feel tethered to a specific role or inning. He signed a two-year, $25 million contract with a vesting option from the St. Louis Cardinals, a deal that was a blueprint for another 33-year-old reliever moonlighting as an agent.
“It definitely is nice to see that, for guys like me that will pitch in any situation and are willing to go in and get big outs in earlier innings, that there are good job opportunities,” Robertson said. “There’s a lot of great relievers out there on the market this year, and I think a lot of them have shown that they’ll pitch in any point in the game. Maybe baseball’s heading in that direction.”
Robertson came up as a setup man with the New York Yankees and took over as the closer after Mariano Rivera retired. He closed for the Chicago White Sox, then got traded back to the Yankees in 2017 and was used primarily in the seventh and eighth innings. Over the last two seasons, Robertson entered in the sixth inning 15 times, the seventh inning 36 times, and the eighth inning 50 times. He made 23 multiple-inning appearances and 30 appearances with runners on base.
“I would expect that he will pitch the ninth inning at times," general manager Matt Klentak said. “But I also know that, with Seranthony [Dominguez] and [Hector] Neris and others back there, that we are likely to continue to use guys in a variety of roles late in the game."
The Phillies were attracted to Robertson for reasons that go beyond his flexibility. He has made 60-70 relief appearances in nine consecutive years. Since 2011, his ERA has never risen above 3.47, his WHIP above 1.364. And he’s the only pitcher ever to average at least 10 strikeouts per nine innings in each of his first 11 major-league seasons.
Robertson also has been tougher on lefties (.188/.268/.278) than righties (.222/.302/.364) throughout his career, a plus for a bullpen that leans heavily right-handed with Dominguez, Neris, veterans Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek, Juan Nicasio, Edubray Ramos, and Yacksel Rios. Among Robertson, Hunter and lefties Jose Alvarez and Adam Morgan, the Phillies believe they will be able to handle Freddie Freeman, Juan Soto, Robinson Cano, and other lefty-hitting sluggers in the National League East.
It’s conceivable that Robertson will close out games against teams with tough left-handed hitters and Dominguez will do the same against righty-dominant lineups. Or Kapler might have other ideas based on matchups and other factors.
Robertson insists he’s cool with whatever.
“This is a place where I’m going to get a lot of opportunities to pitch in the back end of the bullpen,” Robertson said. “If I’ve got to pitch in the sixth, seventh or eighth, or even the ninth, it doesn’t matter to me.”