This annotated week in baseball history: Nov. 29-Dec. 5, 1969

On Nov. 29, 1969, Mariano Rivera was born. Richard looks back at the career of the greatest short reliever of all time.

Leo Tolstoy—author of War and Peace, Anna Karenina and other thick Russian books that sit impressive and unread on bookshelves everywhere—once wrote that there is no greatness where simplicity, goodness and truth are absent. This struck me as an especially appropriate quote to describe the performance of Mariano Rivera, the Yankees’ impeccable closer.

Simplicity

I’ve never seen a scouting report for Rivera, but I know exactly what it looks like. So does most everyone who has seen Rivera pitch. According to Fangraphs.com data, last year 93 percent of the pitches Rivera threw were cutters. No one else in the major leagues with as many innings as Rivera threw one pitch so often, let alone managed such success. Tim Wakefield, by way of comparison, did not even throw his knuckleball 85 percent of the time.

Rivera has said at various times of the cutter that he will throw it as the first pitch of an at-bat, or the last. He describes the pitch as “a gift from the Lord,” though hitters might disagree. In one of the great quotes of all time, longtime Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney once said of the cutter that “You know what’s coming, but you know what’s coming in horror movies, too. It still gets you.”

Of course, simplicity is not just in the one pitch Rivera throws, but in his style of pitching. Rivera does almost nothing to cause himself trouble. He walks almost no one—around one per nine innings non-intentionally the last four years—and gives up even fewer home runs, leading active players in fewest per nine innings. Those who beat him have to do it themselves—a rare feat, as the next category reveals.

Goodness

Since Rivera became a full-time reliever in 1996, 2007 was his worst season. That year he had a 3.15 ERA (143 ERA+), 30 saves and threw 71 innings. So disappointing was it that it marked the first season since ’98 that Rivera failed to make the All-Star team or receive MVP support.

On the other hand, it is essentially the same season that won Kazuhiro Sasaki the Rookie of the Year Award in 2000. It is interchangeable with Kerry Wood’s 2008 season for the Cubs, one that earned him a two-year contract for more than $20 million with the Cleveland Indians. So high is the standard for Rivera that a year which for others brings awards and new contracts is for him deemed poor.

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Is it any wonder Yankee fans love this man? (Icon/SMI)

And of course, that is because of the standard Rivera has set in his previous years. Besides 2007, his highest single-season ERA since he became a full-time reliever in 1996 was 2.85 in 2000. Since Rivera started closing in 1997, he has posted an insane nine full seasons with an ERA under 2. In that same period, Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner—the most frequently listed pretenders to Rivera’s throne—have posted a combined six seasons, a total generously including Wagner’s 15-inning “season” from this year.

I don’t mean to imply in the earlier section that Rivera is somehow underappreciated. He has appeared on 10 All-Star teams, finished in the top five for the Cy Young award five times and received MVP support nine times.

Having passed 1,000 innings, Rivera is now scattered across the all-time leader board. He is first in ERA+, partially a benefit of being a reliever but a dominating figure nonetheless, first in ERA, first in WHIP, fourth in strikeout-to-walk ratio and 22nd in strikeouts per nine innings. Those numbers are variable to the fluctuations as with any still-active player, but Rivera’s remarkable consistency would seem to make it unlikely that he will fall from the top spots.

One can divide up Rivera’s performance into greatness in different components in almost any way. Rivera has blown just one save at home since 2006, a 2007 game I had attended, much to my consternation. (The Yankees rallied to win in the bottom of the ninth, by the way.) In his closing days, Rivera has allowed 3 or more runs just 12 times, less than 1.5 percent of his appearances. Pitching in a save situation, Rivera has a microscopic 1.87 ERA

Finally, no discussion of Rivera’s career is complete without mention of his postseason performance. On the biggest stage, he has been—improbably—even better than his regular-season performance. While he has not been without some missteps in the playoffs, Rivera’s overall record is brilliant: 8-1, 39 saves, 0.74 ERA in more than 130 innings. Rivera has been named both ALCS (2003) and World Series (1999) MVP. He has allowed just two home runs in the postseason, which is equal to the number allowed by Hoffman (in 13 innings) and one fewer than Billy Wagner (in 11.1 innings).

Truth

So the truth is simple. At least as short relievers go—and maybe relievers in general—Mariano Rivera is the greatest who has ever lived. And while there are some excellent young closers, Jonathan Papelbon, Joakim Soria and Jonathan Broxton among them, it will be a long time before anyone can legitimately contest that title. Rivera will likely sail in to the Hall of Fame, and deserve his place.

And another truth is simple, and the reason for this paean. Rivera is—by a margin almost too large to calculate—my favorite active Yankee and might be my favorite ever when all is said and done. It is not only Rivera’s greatness that I admire, but also his demeanor on the mound, his resiliency—Rivera is one of just nine pitchers to blow a save in Game Seven of the World Series, but has a 0.66 ERA in the playoffs since—and above all else the tremendous amount of joy he has brought me.

Baseball is a team game, but more than 500 times, it has been Mariano Rivera who throws the last pitch of a Yankee victory. He has been on the mound for four World Series-clinching games—more than any other pitcher—and while I could spend an entire article describing why I love to watch him pitch, that I love it is more than enough truth.

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Comments

  1. JimD said...

    I don’t think the “short” reliever qualifier is needed.  There aren’t that many relievers, period, that have pitched over 1000 innings.

  2. Bob Rittner said...

    My daughter is a baseball fan but not immersed in it in the same way I am, so she was only dimly aware of who Rivera was when I took her to a Yankee game years ago in which Rivera pitched. As she watched, her comment was that he was the most elegant pitcher she had ever seen. She was simply enthralled by the beauty (elegance) of everything from his walk to the mound to his demeanor there to his motion.

  3. Terry Elliott said...

    A joy to watch—every windup, every delivery. Has made more good hitters look bad than any pitcher ever. And when he blows one, he owns up to it. Pitchers are rated on makeup, among other things, and no doubt Rivera is the model they compare against.

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