MLB: Kansas City Royals at Chicago White Sox

There is reason to hold out hope on Robertson

On July 21, White Sox GM Rick Hahn came just short of declaring the 2016 White Sox season dead in the water, prompting a flurry of discussions about an impending rebuild. Would it happen at the quickly approaching trade deadline? Would the Sox wait for the distant offseason? Questions loomed, theories mounted, Chris Sale left the clubhouse abruptly and early with no immediate explanation, and panic ensued.

The Aug. 1 deadline passed quietly on the South side, and left the mediocrity of the White Sox still intact as it moseyed away. Despondent as ever, fans checked off each game in August wondering why they had to bother with this month that felt like nothing more than purgatory anyway. The season’s second half on the South side was nothing more than a white walled, windowless waiting room in which to expel impatience for the slowly arriving offseason.

Now, that offseason is barely more than three short weeks away, and the dirt is yet again being kicked up on the real question at hand: what will happen to this team? For a moment, let’s say they do blow it all up. There are a few valuable assets it would be hard to see go, because it would be counterintuitive to trade away pieces of a young, controlled, affordable core such as Sale, Jose Quintana, or Jose Abreu when attempting to rebuild. If the Sox are looking to start small and shed some extraneous payroll, the first piece that needs to be discussed is closer David Robertson.

As part of the infamous 2014 offseason haul that left the baseball world buzzing, Robertson signed a lofty four-year $46 million deal with the Sox. It seemed steep even at the time when money was of little object for a team that was a World Series contender in December, but if an organization is going to go for a quality closer in free agency, then they better be ready to pay the price.

Robertson was impressive during his first year on the South side, despite a career-high seven blown saves, posting his lowest career walk rate and striking out 34 percent of batters he faced — the third-highest mark of his career.

But during a 2016 season in which everything that could have went wrong for the White Sox did, Robertson simply added to their bounty of troubles. This year, Robertson has seen his strikeout rate plummet to just 26 percent, a low which he has not seen since 2010, when he was with the Yankees. The interesting thing about Robertson is that this isn’t the first time he’s suffered such a poor season. Robertson is actually posting some nearly identical numbers in 2016 to the ones finished with in his 2010 campaign in the Bronx. Take a look:

2010 3.82 3.37 3.55 78.4 8.8 26 12.1
2016 3.68 3.16 3.78 78.8 9.8 26.4 12.3

The FIP and DRA differ between these two years, mostly due to the amount of home runs Robertson is giving up this season (Robertson has actually lowered his HR/FB rate by almost four percent from last year, though), and the change of environments between the two seasons. Other than that, in the two most concerning categories for a closer, walks and strikeout rates, the seasons are a match.

So what’s the purpose of pointing out that Robertson has had two identical seasons, six years apart? Well, he ended up bouncing back. Eventually. Check out what happened in Robertson’s next two seasons after his poor 2010 campaign with the Yankees:

2011 1.08 2.24 1.88 89.8 2.3 36.8 12.9
2012 2.67 1.98 2.44 81.5 9.6 32.7 7.7

In 2011, Robertson was good. So good in fact, that it wasn’t sustainable, and the extremely low ERA is mainly due in part to that extremely high strand rate. The walks stayed high in 2011, but the strikeouts returned–Important point No. 1.

Then in 2012, everything evened out. The walks went down–Important point No. 2. The strikeout percentage stayed good, the left on base numbers returned to a more sustainable level and the home run rate wasn’t as suppressed. Robertson was good again, and normal good. So is there hope for Robertson to have a good rest of his White Sox contract? Possibly.

Now, is that to say that the White Sox should stick with Robertson for another year or the remainder of his contract? No. But it is a telling sign that if they do decide to wait it out, Robertson may look a bit better on the trading block than he would after such a shabby season.

If the White Sox decide to trade Robertson now, they’ll be left with a dismal bullpen with no solid foundation and no direction for a closer, and they certainly won’t be able to capitalize on his value. Down years are never a good time to attempt to leverage value out of a player, especially one who is still owed $25 million over the next two seasons. So, they should wait it out.

It’s a sticky situation for the White Sox, as an offseason approaches in which they need to leverage as much of their unwanted talent as possible for the trade market, but one of their main bargaining chips is coming off one of his career-worst seasons. The bright side of the situation at hand is that Robertson has suffered a year like this before, and he bounced back. Of course, he wore a younger man’s clothes back then, but at 31-years-old, it’s not impossible. Another year of Robertson on the South side wouldn’t truly hurt anyone, so why not?


Photo courtesy of Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

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