David Robertson, or: Location, Location, Location

It was a really big deal when, on Tuesday, the Orioles beat the Blue Jays and the Yankees lost to the Rays, causing a tie atop the AL East standings. Just weeks earlier, the Yankees had had a ten-game advantage, and losing that kind of edge — to the Orioles! — was unimaginable. Then, Wednesday, the Orioles lost to the Blue Jays and the Yankees beat the Rays, restoring for New York a slim lead. So it was a really big deal when, on Thursday, the Orioles beat the Yankees in Baltimore in a series opener, tying the division once more. The Orioles clearly aren’t going to go away, and while we can’t actually know that, it sounds good, and it gets people amped for the stretch run.

Those who didn’t follow along will see that the Orioles beat the Yankees 10-6. In so doing, the Orioles slugged a half-dozen home runs, and remember that the game was not played in Yankee Stadium. Those who have taken a closer look, or those who watched, will see that the Orioles pulled ahead in the bottom of the eighth after the Yankees staged a massive rally in the upper half. A 6-1 game turned into a 6-6 game, which turned into a 10-6 game. After the Yankees tied it up, they probably felt good about handing the ball to David Robertson. Minutes later, they felt a lot worse.

We all know Robertson for being a terrific reliever. He was posting silly strikeout rates before every reliever in baseball started posting silly strikeout rates. A year ago Robertson was an All-Star, and he picked up some votes for the AL Cy Young and the AL MVP, and while those voting processes are flawed and while Robertson obviously never stood a chance to win either award, he was dominant. He remains pretty dominant. Robertson strikes out roughly a third of all the batters he faces.

Last year, Robertson faced 272 batters and he allowed one of them to hit a home run. J.J. Hardy, on August 29. Last night, Robertson faced three batters and he allowed two of them to hit home runs. Allow me to summarize David Robertson‘s 13-pitch appearance in Baltimore Thursday night:

-David Robertson relieves Justin Thomas
-Adam Jones homers
-Matt Wieters singles
-Mark Reynolds homers
-Boone Logan relieves David Robertson

That’s a disaster, as 6-6 turned into 9-6 in an inning and a game of incredible significance. Jones’ solo shot to lead off broke the tie that had just been established moments earlier, and here’s what Jones had to say about that:

”That’s the biggest hit I’ve ever had in my life. Everything else up to this point has been leading up to this,” he said.

We don’t have to take this further — Robertson showed up, and Robertson was bad, fortunately or unfortunately depending on your loyalties. But we’re going to anyway because that’s what we do here. Not only did Jones homer; he homered in a 1-and-2 count. Not only did Wieters single; he singled in an 0-and-2 count. Not only did Reynolds homer; he homered in a 3-and-2 count. David Robertson got to two strikes on all three batters he faced, and he put none of them away. This is David Robertson, who accidentally strikes out his neighbors when he goes to make coffee.

What went wrong for Robertson? It turns out it’s very uncomplicated. The 0-and-2 pitch he threw to Wieters was actually a fine pitch, a high and tight fastball right where Robertson wanted it to be. Wieters just did a good job of hitting it. Robertson’s final pitches to Jones and Reynolds, however, were mistakes, and bad ones. Let’s examine.

Jones first, obviously. Robertson got ahead with two quick strikes, then a curveball slipped out of his hand and sailed over Jones’ head to the backstop. Still, Robertson was ahead in the count, and catcher Russell Martin had an idea:

Martin wanted Robertson to come with a high fastball, above Jones’ belt. It would look good to Jones on the way in, like high fastballs do, but in theory he’d swing under it or behind it. Robertson’s perceived fastball velocity is already through the roof on account of his stride length. The perceived velocity of high fastballs is only greater. The plan seemed sound; the execution was suspect.

The red dot is where Martin wanted the pitch to be. The baseball is where the baseball wound up. Robertson missed badly, such that he threw a 1-and-2 fastball at the thigh over the inner half of the plate. Jones destroyed it and the Orioles were again out in the lead.

Wieters followed with a single. That brought the scorching Reynolds to the plate, and the count ran full. You only have so many options as a catcher in a full count in a close game, as you usually don’t want to call for something out of the zone. Martin settled on an idea.

Fastball, at the knees, on the outer edge. Of the four quadrants of the strike zone, pitchers love to target the quadrant down and away, because that’s where most hitters have the least success. Robertson would’ve loved for this fastball to go where it was supposed to go, but it didn’t. It went somewhere else, somewhere way worse.

Again, red dot is intent, and baseball location is baseball location. I thought about inserting a Gameday still to further drive home the laughable location of this pitch, because it was just right down the middle, but I’m not going to do that. I don’t think it’s necessary. Just recognize that this was a fastball right down the very middle of the strike zone. Robertson didn’t miss his spotcompletely, but he missed his spot in the worst possible way, and Reynolds took him deep. Earlier, the Orioles took the lead, and here, the Orioles got their insurance.

That’s the story of how David Robertson came apart and the Orioles took their lead right back. Now then, one thing we have to recognize is that not every hittable pitch gets hit or hit hard. Pitchers very frequently get away with mistakes, because hitters are not automatic. Another thing we have to recognize is that pitchers miss their spots all of the time. I love looking at before/after pitch-location images, and I’m constantly watching the catchers’ gloves during games. Once you see how often pitchers miss, you can’t un-see it. Pitchers miss, and Robertson missed.

But Robertson missed badly, at the wrong times in the wrong game, and it’s uncharacteristic of Robertson to struggle. Many have probably been wondering how what happened happened, and this is how it happened. Robertson’s a great reliever, but not because of his two-strike fastballs near the middle of the plate.

Incidentally, this is probably one of the reasons why Catcher ERA doesn’t really show anything. Catchers can call for what pitches they want, and what locations they want, but the pitchers have to approve the pitches, and then the pitchers are the ones responsible for where the baseball actually goes. The catchers can give them an idea but the catcher can’t make the pitcher hit his target. Russell Martin was David Robertson’s catcher last night, but don’t go blaming Martin for Robertson getting torched. Martin’s ideas were fine. That’s all that they were.

For both teams, there are 25 games left in the regular season, and the Orioles and Yankees have the same record. It’s not all because of David Robertson, but Robertson wishes he didn’t suck against the Orioles more strongly than he ever has in his life.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


14 Responses to “David Robertson, or: Location, Location, Location”

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  1. Cory says:

    Tough luck for Robertson. That game, though, felt like a post season game. I felt like I was watching the Cardinals light up the Rangers all over again.

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  2. Ian G. says:

    Neither here nor there, but go watch a highlight clip of Jones’ home run off of Robertson. Jeter’s reaction to the ball leaving Jones’ bat is priceless.

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  3. Kyle says:

    I wouldn’t say that catcher ERA doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it’s not even half the story. But that’s more than nothing. I can’t find the infographic that went up during the O’s game the other night, but 3 of Baltimore’s SP had ERAs lower by a full 1.00 w/ Wieters catching.

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    • In theory, with a huge sample and with appropriate controls and adjustments, CERA would make some sense. But there’s a reason why the people who have studied it have never really found much of an effect. The noise just overwhelms the signal. There is so much damn noise.

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      • Steve says:

        Jeff, with so much statistical noise, does it make sense to lend credence to the managers and coaches who swear that catchers make a difference, sometimes a significant one? Does intuition count for anything? Not challenging the scientists, just an honest question.

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      • Even with pitch-framing research, I think we can tell that some catchers make a real difference. We shouldn’t just blindly trust the baseball people who make the decisions, but we also shouldn’t assume that catchers are more or less the same across the board.

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  4. DaveP says:

    “The red dot is where Martin wanted the pitch to be. The baseball is where the baseball wound up.”

    Hahaha! After reading this, I knew I was reading a Jeff Sullivan article.

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    • Kelly L. says:

      That and “This is David Robertson, who accidentally strikes out his neighbors when he goes to make coffee.” Which nearly made me spit out my coffee.

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  5. frankbtxt says:

    Some mention needs to be made about Robertson’s suddenly non-existent curveball.

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  6. M says:

    Jeff, would it be possible to get a scatter plot of Robertson’s last few outings? Am I imagining it, or does it look like he’s throwing from a slightly lower/different arm slot?

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  7. roadrider says:

    Martin’s ideas were not “fine”. They were exceedingly dumb. Robertson had two strikes on both Jones and Reynolds and both basically swing at anything. Why throw a fastball anywhere? I can only think that Robertson lost confidence in the curve after that one that slipped out of his hand but come on – it’s a devastating pitch that neither Jones nor Reynolds could hit with a paddle. You can’t give up on it after one got away.

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