NEW YORK — If not for a letter to George Steinbrenner a dozen years ago, David Robertson might never have become the New York Yankees’ closer.
The story goes like this.
The baseball coach at Indiana’s Culver Academy wrote a letter to the Yankees’ owner in July 2000, asking Steinbrenner to sign an infielder from his alma mater who had been overlooked in baseball’s amateur draft. D.J. Svihlik lasted just 13 games in the Yankees’ minor league system but so impressed the team with his baseball IQ that he was kept around as a scout.
During one of his first weeks on the job in 2003, he came across Robertson while checking out a prospect at high school game in Alabama. Selected with the 524th pick of the 2006 draft, the unassuming right-hander with the boyish face now finds himself in one of baseball’s most scrutinized jobs – as Mariano Rivera’s successor, at least in name.
“There is something to be learned from his case when it comes to evaluating players,” Svihlik said this week. “To this day, to this very day, I’m not going to sit in the draft room and jump up and down for a 5-foot-10, 5-foot-11 reliever. I still don’t do that just because I signed David Robertson. But what it makes you realize is that sometimes there are players that are outliers, and David was an outlier.”
New York didn’t make any effort to sign Robertson at first.
Instead, the Yankees planned to follow him in the summer at the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the Cape Cod League, where he was a late addition to the roster under Scott Pickler, the coach at Cypress College.
While the team had preferred Robertson rely primarily on his fastball and slider, Pickler had other ideas.
“He had two things after I watched him throw the first couple times. Whether it was right or wrong, I just said we’ve got to go inside up there,” Pickler remembered.
“I don’t throw inside, coach, and I don’t throw a curveball,” the coach said Robertson replied.
“Well, all right, this is the time to work on it,” the coach told him.
Pickler also made Robertson get rid of a quirky way he got his signs – sticking his arms straight out toward the catcher and peeking over the top of his glove.
“It’s an act. You don’t need it. You’re good enough without it,” Pickler told him. “And so he responded, ‘Yeah, OK, coach.’ ”
The Yankees noticed the changes right away.
“Once he added the curveball he was a different animal,” general manager Brian Cashman said.
Robertson asked for a $250,000 signing bonus and the Yankees offered $150,000.
A scout went to senior vice president Mark Newman for permission to go to $200,000, and Newman got Cashman’s approval.
Robertson moved from low-A to high-A to Double-A in 2007, breezed through Triple-A and made his big league debut with the Yankees in June 2008.
Robertson became Rivera’s primary setup man by last June and was a first-time All-Star a month later.
His 12.27 strikeouts per nine innings is the highest in big league history for a pitcher with 200 or more innings, according to STATS LLC, bettering Rob Dibble’s 12.17.