A decision will have to be made as to whom is going to record the saves for the Yankees.
All things considered, the best bet to take over in the ninth inning is Rafael Soriano.
As great as Rivera has been, his reputation has been built in the post-season and not in the regular season. Any team can find someone to accumulate the negligible save stat. In certain cases, there have been pitchers—Brad Lidge in 2008 with the Phillies—who were the difference for their team making the playoffs or not because of one brilliant year. During the Yankees’ run with Rivera as their closer, they were so deep and talented that if they didn’t have Rivera, they still would’ve been in the playoffs. What they would’ve done when there is in serious debate and it’s unlikely they would’ve won 5 titles without Rivera—he was the main difference between the Yankees and their World Series opponents during that time.
But this is a situation in which the misinterpreted WAR is a useful stat.
It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that Rivera’s highest WAR was in 1996 at 5.4. That was his one full season in the big leagues when he wasn’t the closer. Setting up for John Wetteland, it was Rivera who did the old-school, heavy lifting the type which the naysayers of the new era of save-collectors have ridiculed as being totally different from what they used to do.
Goose Gossage has been the most vocal in this vein.
And he’s been right.
Without Rivera in 1996, the Yankees weren’t making the playoffs. Much like the Rivera knee injury that may have ended his career, it was an accident of circumstance that led to Rivera’s rise from failed starter to Hall of Fame reliever under Joe Torre. Torre discovered a formula that had been partially used by the 1990 Reds with The Nasty Boys Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton. The Reds’ mediocre starters were asked to get them to the sixth or seventh inning with a lead and the game was handed over to the superlative bullpen.
The 1990 Reds went wire-to-wire and swept the heavily-favored Athletics in the World Series.
The Yankees maintained that template after Wetteland was allowed to leave as a free agent following the 1996 season and brought in several set-up men to do the work Rivera did by himself.
Now, with Rivera gone, the conventional wisdom suggests that the Yankees will simply elevate David Robertson to the closer’s role and everyone else—Soriano, possibly Phil Hughes—will be used in the seventh and eighth innings.
But that’s a mistake.
It’s Robertson who’s doing the heavy lifting now. Rivera was a devastating weapon in the ninth inning, but Robertson might have become more valuable with his ridiculous strikeout numbers (12.2 per 9 innings) and an ability to magically get out of trouble that’s resulted in him being nicknamed “Houdini”.
For him to enter in the ninth inning as if by rote would render his skills relatively useless.
I suppose they could leave the current configuration as is and do something outside-the-box (that would probably work) and use Hughes as the closer, but the Yankees have shown no evidence of going so completely against the grain and their own misguided organizational rules and regulations for their pitchers to think that they’d do that.
Soriano has successfully closed before and has never gotten comfortable with pitching in the earlier innings. Perhaps giving him the ninth inning will revert him back to what he was with the Rays in 2010 when he saved 45 games, made the All-Star team and was eighth in the Cy Young Award voting.
Soriano can’t handle post-season pressure and has been disturbingly susceptible to the home run ball. That would lean me in the direction of Hughes as the closer. Either way, the heavy lifting should be left to Robertson without the onus of the save stat hanging over their heads and dictating strategy in lieu of doing what’s right to win the game in the now.
Worrying about what happens in the post-season isn’t as great a concern as getting there. Without Rivera, the stiffer competition in the American League and the resulting shifting of the pieces due to his loss, a playoff berth is no longer a guarantee for the Yankees.