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David Robertson hasn't been as dominant as he was in 2011, and that's just fine. It isn't impossible for him to get back there, though, and it starts with using the curveball again.
There seems to be a bit of a stigma, especially as Yankees fans, about criticizing elite players. Make mention of Cano's tendency to chase or Sabathia's rough stretch and it's usually met with "you should watch Kelly Johnson" or "our best pitcher is Lucas Harrell." The first one has actually happened more than once and I assume the second one would if I knew an Astros fan. That assumes there are Astros fans and that they would put up with even mild complaining, though.
Even with the added benefit of what has basically been a limitless payroll for years, there should be room to gripe about the stars. Cano does wave at bad pitches, Sabathia hasn't been what's expected lately, Miguel Cabrera loves food and David Wright plays for the Mets. Even the best have their flaws and they're fair to bring up. It doesn't mean the angry villagers must be summoned for a good old-fashioned torch and pitchforkin', it just means they do annoying things are going to make people angry.
In that way, a lot of this complaint is in the mold of different from what we've seen or what we expect. David Robertson was about as dominant as possible in the setup role in 2011. He walked a lot of people, which kind of gets put in that oh boo hoo feel bad for the Yankees sarcasm lockbox, but almost always found a way to get out of things unscathed. His performance was unsustainable, but Craig Kimbrel has more or less dispelled the notion of gross unsustainability being unsustainable for a reliever. It's an unusual case because Kimbrel is from another planet, but it is possible. While still lights out this year, he isn't like last year's brown out. Robertson is slightly different, largely because he's taking a bullet out of his own gun.
In his breakout 2011, Robertson threw his curveball about 21 percent of the time. Batters swung at nearly half of them, whiffing on 17 percent and doing next to nothing with the ones they did hit. (.172 SLG) That same season the cutter made up just over a quarter of his pitches. Hitters swung and missed at only 8 percent of them, but combined with the curve and fastball, it gave hitters something else to worry about.
It's unclear when, but at some point between the end of last season and the start of this one, Robertson became convinced he is Mariano Rivera. Maybe the injury and pressure of being the assumed closer in waiting corrupted his mind. Something happened, though. His cutter usage has more than doubled this season and basically become his go-to pitch. There's throwing more of a pitch that works and there's throwing more of a pitch to a fault because it's at the expense of other stuff that works.
Take what has happened with his cutter this season. Even a brief glance shows that his cutter is catching way too much of the plate. Thrown at a reasonable rate he can get away with that. At least, he got away with it that one season. With over 200 more to his name this season, while they're being thrown for more strikes, they're missing bats less and have gotten squared up to be hit more.
The cutter over all approach is making itself more obvious down the stretch, like most negatives will. In the last three appearances in which he's allowed a run, (9/6 vs. Tampa Bay, 9/11 vs. Boston and 9/19 vs. Toronto) Robertson threw 84, 65 and 73 percent cutters respectively. He managed to find room for just 12 curves over those three appearances. Not surprisingly, the lack of mixing pitches in any significant manner got him hit. The most egregious examples being six straight cutters to Adam Lind (singled on a seventh pitch fastball) and seven straight to Mike Aviles (single). Adam Lind saw seven pitches and not a single one of them was a curveball. This is Adam Lind against the curve in 2012. Not far behind him in the can't hit the curve line is Mike Aviles. Seven cutters, nothing else.
The day after the debacle against the Blue Jays, something happened. He threw the curveball! He threw the curveball in a mix with his new love cutter and the fastball. The results were predictably better. Moises Sierra down swinging on three pitches (surprise, pitch three), Kelly Johnson gone swinging on five (again) and J.P. Arenciba out swinging on a cutter. Yes, Robertson has a very good curve and is much more effective when he's throwing it. It averages out to about as much break as Yu Darvish's curve. His curve is nigh unhittable. When you have a curveball that can break like that, you throw it.
This is such a minor gripe that it almost feels wrong writing about it. Yeah, this car is really cheap, fast and reliable, but I wish the air bag was softer. Robertson is going to be a rock for the bullpen whether he decides to throw his curve more often or not. It's just that little extra thing that could elevate him, and the rest of the bullpen, during the most important stretch of the season. Not that it's needed, but a pillow attached to the air bag would be kind of nice when everything around you is getting smashed up.