Mariano Rivera’s 1,000th appearance in a Yankees uniform has triggered a slew of analytical articles examining various aspects of his greatness. Oddly enough, the most interesting ones didn’t come from the mainstream New York press.
One of the best was by David Pinto, formerly of Baseball Prospectus and now on BaseballAnalytics.org. Another is from, of all places, a college paper on the West Coast.
Pinto notes, in “The Excellence of Rivera,” that “Rivera induces swings. Batters swing at 49.4 percent of his pitches, which puts him in the 94th percentile among all pitchers in the majors in that time. Look at what they are swinging at, however. Batters swing at 38 percent of the pitches that should be called balls. That is the 100th percentile, the best in the majors. Rivera gets batters to see balls as strikes, and swing at them. In general, batters tend to get worse results when they swing at balls.
“That’s not the only effect of the cutter, however. Of the pitches batters take, 36.1 percent of them are strikes. That may not seem like much, but the major league average is 31.8 percent, and Rivera’s number ranks him in the 95th percentile. Not only is Mariano great at getting batters to swing at balls, he’s almost as good at getting them to take strikes.”
Yet another interesting take on Mariano comes from California, where Jacob Jaffe, a senior, wrote “On the Greatness of Mariano Rivera” for The Stanford Daily: “Longevity is great and all, but what makes the 41-year-old Rivera special is how successful he’s been over that span. His 572 saves are second all-time, but even that number doesn’t tell the whole story. His career ERA of 2.22 and WHIP [Walks and Hits to Innings Pitched] of 1.00 would both be considered exceptional for a single season, but as career numbers they are mindboggling. Excluding his rookie season, he’s allowed one home run every 21.65 innings.”
What makes Jaffe’s analysis so astute is that he extends the argument from Rivera’s performance into a bigger picture: “Consider a guy like Sandy Koufax, known as one of the best pitchers in history. He played in an era where pitchers dominated overall, which made the league lower the mound and shrink the strike zone after Koufax retired. Even so, Koufax’s career ERA is over half a run higher than Rivera’s, his WHIP is higher, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is substantially worse and he gave up home runs roughly twice as often. Yep, one of the best pitchers ever playing in an era where the rules and the game favored the pitcher still gave up more gopher balls than Rivera did to all those juicers.”
And since, 2006, Jaffe points out, his ERA and WHIP are even lower, 1.8 and 9.0 respectively: “In that span, he’s allowed only one run in 28 postseason innings.” Mariano’s one pitch, the cutter, “might as well be named after Rivera at this point, [and] has got to be the best pitch in baseball history.”
That, I think, covers the greatness of Mariano Rivera so far as statistics go. On TheAtlantic.com, Jake Simpson touches on another aspect: “Perhaps the only uncouth thing Mariano ever did was to push hard for the closer’s job after a sizzling 1996 season, leading the Yankees to ditch reigning World Series Most Valuable Player John Wetteland and hand the reins to Rivera. Fifteen years, four titles and a legendary career later, that seems like a pretty good call.”
I want to add two things to these comments. This is just a thought, but if Mariano is getting batters to take pitches that look like balls but are actually strikes and to swing at pitches that look like strikes that are actually balls, is it possible that maybe, just maybe, he’s been throwing more than one pitch all these years and fooling everybody into thinking that it’ s just one? What if he’s got two pitches and has every batter going up to the plate expecting just one? It would not surprise me to see him, upon retirement, finally admit that he’s been fooling batters, TV commentators, and maybe his own catchers all these years with two distinctly different pitches, different grips and all. Or maybe . . . it’s even three.
One more point, though, and a larger one. As Simpson notes, Mariano badly wanted the closer’s job after the 1996 season, and the Yankees gave it to him and let John Wetteland go to the Texas Rangers, where he became their closer. In 1997, the Yankees did not win the pennant, losing the AL Division Series to the Cleveland Indians, 3-2, losing three games by a total for four runs. I’m not going to suggest that if John Wetteland had been there that they wouldn’t have lost anyway. But I am suggesting that the player they missed most was Mariano Rivera. That is, not Mariano the closer but Mariano the set-up guy who, in 1996, was probably the greatest set-up guy in baseball history just as he would become the greatest closer in baseball history.
Closer — I guess that’s my point. Closer wasn’t a natural position on a baseball team, like shortstop or catcher. It was a role created by managers. Or rather, it was a role created by managers with a boost from statisticians who determined that saves are the best measure of a relief pitcher’s talent. Bill James has insisted for several years that the traditional save role — that is, bringing in your best relief pitcher only in the ninth to protect, usually. a one or two-run lead — is not the best use of that ace pitcher. James likes the phrase “in a critical point in the game.” In other words, when a one-or-two inning stint from our “relief ace” (a term James prefers to “closer) can have far more impact.
A practical application of that theory would be: It’s ridiculous to keep your relief ace sitting in the bullpen in the seventh or eighth inning of a tie game and then waste him in the final inning of a game where you have a three-run lead and almost certainly are going to win anyway. Interestingly enough, it’s a concept that Yankee fans should be familiar with because Casey Stengel used it all the time with his great Yankee teams from 1949 through the 1950s. If Casey had a 2-0 lead in the sixth inning of an important game and the other team loaded the bases with no outs, he wouldn’t hesitate to use his best pitcher to put out the fire. Nor, conversely, would he hesitate to load up on his best pinch hitters early in a game where he had an opportunity to trigger a blowout. When asked why he used either strategy, his answer was straight: “Because I want to win the game.”
I can’t help but think how many pennants and World Series the Yankees might have won — make that would have won — over the years if they’d had a good hold guy to get the ball to Mariano in the ninth. Or, if they’d used Mariano in the critical situations where he could have had the most impact and acquired good relievers to close out the game after Mariano had preserved the lead. I think there’s a very good chance they might have won maybe twice as many World Series. That’s just speculation, of course, but I guarantee you they would have won more than they did.
And why didn’t they do it that way? For the simple reason that the “saves” statistic was stuck in everyone’s mind. After all, saves are the main statistic they pay relief pitchers for accumulating. If only someone had instituted a “pitched-in-critical games” stat, Mariano might have been more than the best reliever in baseball history. He might have been the most valuable pitcher, or even player, in baseball history.