Posted March 10, 2013

Incredible numbers of the incomparable Mariano Rivera

Mariano Rivera

In 18 big league seasons, Mariano Rivera has thrown 13 wild pitches and only four in his last ten seasons. [Matt Slocum/AP]

In 18 seasons, Mariano Rivera has thrown 13 wild pitches and only four in his last 10 seasons. [Matt Slocum/AP]

By Cliff Corcoran

Mariano Rivera’s intention to retire after the coming season is “an open secret” according to ESPN’s Buster Olney, one Olney expects Rivera will make official as soon as this weekend. That announcement will signal the end of one of the greatest careers in baseball history. Rivera’s unchallenged status as the greatest closer in the history of baseball and the universal respect and admiration he has engendered throughout the game is as unique as his combination of consistency, longevity and sheer dominance on the mound.

Part of what makes Rivera such a unifying figure is just how clearly he has dominated his field. His position as the game’s career saves leader is common knowledge, but what’s most remarkable about his 608 saves is that they are 27 percent more than the third man on the all-time list (Lee Smith), 43 percent more than the man in fourth-place (John Franco) and more than twice as many as the next man on the active leader list. Looking at that list, Jonathan Papelbon is the only closer who would seem to have even the slimmest chance to catch Rivera, and he’s 32 and would need another 351 saves to tie Rivera — 10 more than Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers’ career total.

What has made Rivera great, however, is not just his ability to accumulate saves. It’s how consistently dominant he was in his 16 full seasons in the major leagues prior to last year’s season-ending knee injury. His saves record points to that — only twice did Rivera save more than 45 games, but he shares with Trevor Hoffman the record for most seasons with 30 or more at 14 (Smith is next with 10)–but that’s only a small part of the evidence.

More telling than his saves is Rivera’s lead in adjusted ERA. With a mark of 206, Rivera is the all time leader in ERA+ among pitchers with 1,000 or more innings pitched. Second place is Pedro Martinez at 154 (with 100 being average). Yes, he accomplished that as a short reliever, but there are no other short relievers with career marks anywhere near his. Hoyt Wilhelm is closest at 147 followed by Dan Quisenberry at 146.

Rivera’s run prevention is even more remarkable when you look at it season-by-season. In the entire history of baseball, Martinez and the Rangers’ Joe Nathan are tied for second place with the most seasons with 60 or more innings pitched and an ERA+ of 200 or better. They have five such seasons each. Rivera has 12. Rivera is also the only pitcher ever to have more than one season with at least 60 innings pitched and an ERA+ of 300 or better, doing so in 2005 and 2008. In fact, Rivera has more seasons with an ERA+ above 200 than below, falling short of that mark just five times in his career, including his rookie season which consisted of just 19 games.

How about this, in his 16 full seasons as a relief pitcher Rivera has averaged the following:

2.02 ERA
225 ERA+
0.97 WHIP
8.3 K/9
1.9 BB/9
4.33 K/BB
0.4 HR/9

That’s a career year for your average closer. Rivera did it for more than a decade and a half while averaging 71 innings and 38 saves a season.

If any of this sound familiar, it’s because I pointed some of the above out when Rivera was on the verge of the saves record in September 2011 (and twice before that per the links in that piece), and I have to swipe my favorite breakdown of Rivera’s numbers from that piece wholesale.

Dominance. Longevity. Consistency. That’s what made Mariano Rivera great, and nothing demonstrates that better, to my eyes, than the following chart, which attempts to locate Rivera’s peak by looking at his performance in overlapping nine-year slices of his career, a span chosen because his primary rivals for the title of greatest relief pitcher ever (Hoffman, Wilhelm and Goose Gossage) each had peaks that lasted exactly nine years. Here are Rivera’s nine-year slices:

Seasons IP ERA+ bWAR
1996-2004 661 1/3

218

33.0

1997-2005 632

222

31.4

1998-2006 635 1/3

223

31.1

1999-2007 645 1/3

210

29.9

2000-2008 647

213

30.5

2001-2009 637 2/3

225

30.7

2002-2010 617

231

30.2

2003-2011 632 1/3

238

30.4

Note that the first and last of those nine-year periods overlap by just one year yet the overall level of performance is largely unchanged, and every one of those slices beats the nine-year peaks of Hoffman, Wilhelm and Gossage.

Baseball loves hyperbole. The superlative seems to have almost completely blotted out the comparative in the discussion of the game and its players’ accomplishments, rendering such declarations meaningless. However, when it comes to Rivera, the comparative need not apply. He really was the greatest.

8 comments
Guitarman31
Guitarman31

As good as Mariano is, I feel like he is severly overrated. I cant dispute the fact that he hes the best numbers of any closer to play the game, but I guess what I should be saying is closers in general are overrated. Their job is to come in with the team in the lead, (nowdays) for only 3 outs and pitch that last innning without blowing it, 50 or so times a season. I just feel like the job is overly glamorized by the save statistic. If I had a HOF vote I would end up voting for Rivera on the first Ballot because he is without a doubt the best to ever fill the role of the closer, but just as a whole I feel like their overrated. If I were the manager of the Yankees, I feel like Rivera would have been better used to put out the fire in situations that truely call for clutch pitching, for instance, a tie game in the 7th inning with no out and the bases loaded. Thats when I would want my all time great reliever to come in, shut down the offense and keep my team in the game. If all goes south and the starter gives up a bases clearing double or triple, then Rivera might never even get in the game. Im just trying to stir the pot here, so by all means everyone give me your thoughts, because Ive had this feeling about Rivera and the rest of the closing elite for a while now.

Vince22
Vince22

Wow - this author is in need of some serious perspective. Before you build that statue of Mo - please ask your yourself: If he's so great, why wasn't he a starter? With numbers like his, not sure why would you want to limit his innings to a third of a typical starter. And his numbers alone do not tell the whole story: Anyone who doesn't think his numbers are artificially inflated by serving as the closer for arguably the best team in baseball year in and year out through his entire 15+ year career needs to have their head examined. Also, it's interesting how given all the Yankee bravado about how winning championships is the only thing that ever matters, there's yet again no mention of Mo's blown save in game 7 of the world series and how he threw Scott Brosius under the bus in the aftermath. It would seem the true value of a closer would manifest itself in a close series that goes the distance - not when you're dominating some vastly inferior team in four straight. Mind you - the best closer widely considered before Mo was his predecessor, John Wetteland - also the 1996 WS MVP. Perhaps Mo's biggest accomplishment was choosing never to mess with a very good thing.

GlennRaucher
GlennRaucher

Jason: There will be someone who votes "no." And they will use either of these two excuses:

 

1. He was "only" a relief pitcher.

2. If Babe Ruth didn't get in unanimously, no one should.

 

Neither are anything more than a BBWAA writer's massive ego getting in the way.

tjpeluso
tjpeluso

Mo shouldn't just be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, he should be a unanimous selection.

JasonMacBride
JasonMacBride

If Mo is not a first ballot Hall of Famer there may never be another one.

Michael10
Michael10

@tjpeluso On the basis of his being the greatest baseball player of all time?

Michael10
Michael10

@JasonMacBride Maddux will go first ballot next year, then Randy Johnson, then Ken Griffey Jr. So will Chipper. Ivan Rodriguez and Pedro Martinez will probably go first ballot, too. Jeter, Pujols and Ichiro. Even Cabrera is probably near first ballot status after the minimum ten seasons. Not sure what the worry is...