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No. 95: Mariano

I I was a smart man — I’m not smart man, Jenny, but I know what love is — I would rank Mariano Rivera pretty much ANYWHERE but right here at No. 95. That’s because there are certainly two divergent schools of thought on Mariano:

1. He absolutely does not belong in the Top 100 at all.
2. He absolutely belongs MUCH higher than 95.

I don’t think we — and by “we” I mean the whole baseball community — have ever figured out how to judge closers. I mean, compared to health care, it’s not a big deal. But I don’t think we really know what to make of them. It’s one of the weirdest parts of baseball. We will be going along, year by year, ignoring every Al Hrabosky and Goose Gossage and Rawly Eastwick and Kent Tekulve who comes along. And then one year, blammo, Bruce Sutter wins the Cy Young Award with a season that looks very similar to those other guys. Why? My guess: It has something to do with shiny objects — sometimes a reliever has a season that for one reason or another, catches our eye. Maybe it has a good story. Maybe there’s a single stat that takes hold. Whatever the reason, we follow the shininess and marvel and then forget all about closers until the next shiny object comes along.

I remember in 1984, when the Tigers dominated baseball, we were suddenly and rather inexplicably told that Willie Hernandez was far and away the most valuable player in baseball. I really remember this coming as kind of a shock. Really? Willie Hernandez? What? In the end, Hernandez did not only win the MVP award, he crushed everybody in the voting. He crushed Don Mattingly (who hit .343 with 110 RBIs), he crushed Cal Ripken (who posted a 9.9 WAR season but received just one 10th place MVP vote), he crushed his teammate Kirk Gibson, who hit 27 homers, stole 29 bases and was a major contributor to the highest scoring offense in baseball.

Hernandez had quite a few things going for him: A sub 2.00 ERA (which always impresses); a gaudy looking 9-3 record with 32 saves; a long stretch where he did not blow a save (he did not blow one until Sept. 28, and by then he had the MVP award all wrapped up).

A fine year. But MVP? Exactly one year earlier, Dan Quisenberry had all those things for a division winner. He had the sub 2.00 ERA. His record was just 5-3, but he had 45 saves. He didn’t receive a first place MVP vote. Not one.

Or how about 1982? Moon Man Minton had a sub 2.00 ERA, a gaudy 10-4 record and 30 saves. He didn’t receive a first place MVP vote.

Or how about 1979? Jim Kern? He went 13-5 with a 1.57 ERA and 29 saves. Needless to say he didn’t get a first-place MVP vote.

Basically, for years, one or two relievers would have a Willie Hernandez kind of year. And nobody cared. And then, for some reason, we’d get all excited about closers again. That happened again in 1987 when the voters bizarrely gave Steve Bedrosian the Cy Young Award. Bedrosian didn’t have the best year for a right-handed relief pitcher. Todd Worrell and Lee Smith both had better years. Mark Davis was a weird choice for the Cy in 1989. And Dennis Eckersley’s Cy-MVP sweep in 1992 still seems to me one of the weirdest things to happen in the awards.*

*The weirdest thing I ever remember happening in sports awards, unquestionably, was when the AP gave Washington kicker Mark Mosley the MVP award in 1982. That was a weird season, obviously, with the strike and so on. But that does not excuse this bit of looniness. How good would a KICKER have to be to deserve the Most Valuable Player award? Think about that for a minute. But what took this one to a new level of absurdity: Moseley wasn’t even that good. He did make 20 of 21 field goals, which I guess is nice. But he MISSED THREE EXTRA POINTS. What’s more, he did not make a field goal of 50 yards or longer all season.

Here’s something else I just realized — I assumed that Moseley must have made a bunch of game-winning kicks to wow the voters. But you know what? I looked it up. He didn’t even do that. He made one fourth quarter game-winner all season. I’m all out of guesses on that one.

We do follow the shiny objects. Eckersley was wonderful relief pitcher. He almost never walked anybody, he struck out people, he was tough. But, seriously. he pitched 80 innings — how good would those 80 innings have to be for the pitcher to be the most valuable player in the entire league? Obviously the conclusion in 1992 was: As long as those innings are mostly in the ninth and you only give up 17 runs all year, you get the award.

Only when Jay Howell did the same thing in 1989, he didn’t get any MVP votes — not even a 10th place award. Nor Bill Landrum in 1989, Jeff Montgomery in 1989, Larry Anderson in 1989, Alejandro Pena in 1989, Jesse Orosco in 1989 — THAT”S JUST 1989. What Eckersley did was obviously great, but it wasn’t especially rare. For some reason, that was the year the BBWAA decided relieving must be rewarded.

And no relief pitcher — including our guest of honor Mariano Rivera — has come close to winning an MVP award since.

So what do we make of this? Well, look, I love Mariano. We all do, but I’ve written at length about my deep appreciation of Rivera. That said, I wasn’t going to include him or any other closer on this list. No offense, I just don’t think they contribute enough. Mariano Rivera threw 1,283 innings — or, if you prefer, fewer innings than Sterling Hitchcock, Bob Moose, Dan Schatzeder, Brandon Webb, Kip Wells, Melido Perez and LaTroy Hawkins among 790 others. Mariano Rivera was, in fact, a failed starter, and if he had succeeded in the rotation, the Yankees would have preferred never to put him in the bullpen. A good starter is almost certainly more valuable than a great closer.

So … I had him out. But then I had a competing thought. Mariano Rivera is not just a great closer. He’s the greatest closer in the history of baseball, and it isn’t close. The man he is often compared with — his contemporary Trevor Hoffman — was a fantastic pitcher, a probable first- or second-ballot Hall of Famer, a dominant force. And Hoffman is not even in the same zip code as Rivera. Hoffman pitched 200 fewer innings than Rivera and still gave up more home runs, walked more batters and had an ERA a half run higher, even though he pitched half his games in San Diego’s pitcher’s dream ballparks. (Rivera, remarkably, was even better AWAY from Yankee Stadium than he was at home). And of course their postseason performances were nothing alike.

Oh, those postseason Mariano numbers. I love to write them out just because of their shock value — he pitched 141 innings, went 8-1 with an 0.70 ERA, 42 saves, 110 strikeouts, 21 walks and two home runs allowed. His postseason WHIP: 0.759. These are not human numbers.*

*Occasionally, Goose Gossage will come out and kind of grump about how Rivera, as great as he is, didn’t have to pitch two- and three-inning saves like pitchers of his time. It’s true, but Rivera is probably the wrong guy for Goose to bring up. In the postseason, Rivera had 33 outings where he pitched two or more innings. That was 69 1/3 innings. You know how many runs he gave up in those outings? Four. That would be: Four. Or, if you prefer, IV. That makes an 0.52 ERA, if you are scoring at home. I think Mariano might have handled the extra load.

So that’s it: The way Rivera towers over every closer ever is why he’s one of my 100 greatest players. And his limited innings and specialist role is why I have him relatively low on the list. This definitely should get people angry on both sides of the argument.

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46 Responses to No. 95: Mariano

  1. Question Mark says:

    Pretty controversial Joe, I wouldn’t put Mariano Duncan anywhere near the top 100.

  2. Chad Meisgeier says:

    Probably a fair placement. I would put him a bit higher. Love the article idea. For me, I would go No. 95 : Frankie Frisch.

  3. Tom G says:

    I see Rivera around 25 to 30 among all pitchers, which would probably put him near this place among all players, so don’t be too sure views on him are so divergent.

    In some ways 1283 really isn’t low for innings, if we’re only talking about innings pitched at a level indicative of the Top 100 . Imagine if he went six years as a starter with an ERA of 2.21, then a bunch of years starting 30 games with an ERA around five. Those added innings wouldn’t have been worth much to the Yankees. And having all those incredible innings from him in the beginning of games and in games that aren’t close wouldn’t have been worth as much to the Yankees, Ridiculous for anyone to insist the 3000 inning pitcher should rank much higher

    He pitched at an All-Star level for 17 years. If a starting pitcher did that he would be in the top 10 on this list

    • Ed says:

      But it’s MUCH easier to pitch at that level for an inning at a time than to do it for a full start. If Rivera was capable of pitching that way for a whole game, he would have been a starter. If he was capable of pitching even remotely close to that level for a whole game, he would have been a starter. The same is true for someone like Craig Kimbrel.

      It’s an extreme example, but look at someone like Luke Hochevar — guy was one of the worst starting pitchers in the league for years before they finally stick him in the bullpen. Only having to face a few batters per outing? He’s lights out. That’s what happened with most elite relievers.

      Rivera is undeniably the greatest closer of all time, but you’d have a hard time convincing me he was ever one of the 20 most valuable pitchers in any individual season of his career, much less all-time.

      • Geoff Buchan says:

        Certainly Hochevar was great this year. But in how many innings? The small sample sizes are why so many relievers have great looking stats in just one year. Most are pitching above their heads.

        If he does it for a few years in a row, then we can talk.

        Rivera did it for (most of) two decades in a row.

      • It’s not much easier. If it was relievers would have 10-15 year careers. Most flame out after 4-5 years. And Rivera did it for 20 years.

        • Ed says:

          Because the vast majority of relievers are already failed starters. You’re talking about subset of people who generally speaking weren’t good enough to be starters for whatever reason (lack of stamina, etc). Rivera’s peers are a weaker talent pool.

          Do you really think people like Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish, etc. (i.e., the top 15-20 starting pitchers each season) wouldn’t have numbers that matched or even bettered Mariano Rivera’s if they were only throwing an inning at a time (and 70 innings total for the year)? What kind of numbers would Pedro Martinez have put up in his prime?

          The fact that Rivera did it for such a long time is obviously impressive, and it’s why he’s clearly the best closer of all time. But he’s still nowhere near as valuable as any quality starting pitcher who had a long career. I don’t know exactly where I’d place him among the best pitchers of all time, but I can’t imagine he’d crack my top 50.

          • Tom G says:

            It is not a matter of difficulty, it is a matter of helping the team win. Schilling is the only other pitcher listed so far, he gave up 1286 earned runs in 3394 career innings (counting postseason) for a 3.41 ERA. Rivera is at 2.09 over 1405 innings. To get to same ERA over the same number of innings as Schilling, the Yankees would have needed an additional 1989 innings while allowing no more than 960 earned runs (4.34 ERA), which is worse than average. Maybe a whole bunch of years as a starter pitching worse than league average would have been mildly helpful to the Yankees. But the few innings Rivera did pitch were extremely high leverage, so trading those for 1400 equal innings from a starter would have been a major loss for the Yankees.

            Any example of a modern pitcher you would rank between 50 and 60 all time? Completely certain if we were to do the same analysis Rivera would look far better than whomever it was

          • invitro says:

            “you’d have a hard time convincing me he was ever one of the 20 most valuable pitchers in any individual season of his career”

            A pitcher satisfying this criterion is likely not in the top *1000* players of all time.

            I looked at a few pitchers with a goal of finding the highest-ranked (by career WAR) pitcher whose best season was not in the top 20 of that year. Well, that is too hard a task for me right now, but here’s an example: Kirk McCaskill’s highest-WAR season is 1989, with 4.6. This is #17 for 1989. He is #781 among pitchers in career WAR. He looks typical to me among pitchers around this rank.

          • invitro says:

            “But the few innings Rivera did pitch were extremely high leverage,”

            Is this really true? Is there an objective way to decide? I have doubts that, for example, the 9th inning with a 2-run lead or deficit is higher leverage than the 1st inning.

      • Kimbrel was never a starter, though, so you can’t compare them. He may have been an awesome starter, but we’ll never know.

        • JaLaBar says:

          I think it would be fair to say that Rivera didn’t become the pitcher he turned out to be until he became a reliever. Didn’t he discover HIS cutter after the move to the pen? So he never really found out how he’d have done as a starter WITH his cutter.

          I tend to think, if players saw it a lot more regularly as a starter, it wouldn’t have been AS effective.

          • iamhungey says:

            Except the cutter didn’t come in until 1997 and he was a great set up man in 1996. Whether he could have been a decent starter, we’ll never know since he was never given a shot after his rookie season.

  4. Ross Holden says:

    I think I would rate a closer the same way I would rate someone with an outstanding but short career. Their greatness was surely shown, but the amount they contributed was less than a starter or everyday player. So I would do what Joe did. Rate him lower than any other player who was best at their position, but still higher than others with maybe the same WAR who weren’t as dominant. A career WAR of 56 is good, but it took him 19 years to do it, largely because of the limited innings pitched. I would rate him higher though than a starter who needed that many years to get the same WAR.
    I think 95 is good placement.

  5. I think Rivera needs to be higher. How many of those 1,283 innings were high leverage innings? The percentage is probably pretty high. I would say (guess) it’s 70%. So that’s about 900 innings. How many starting pitchers have pitched 900 high leverage innings? Probably not a lot. Pedro Martinez pitched 2,827 innings. If 30% of those innings were high leverage, that’s about 850 innings pitched. It would be interesting to see a list of highest leverage innings pitched. Not sure it could be done though.

    • Geoff Buchan says:

      I was thinking along these lines myself. You’d want basically “weighted” innings, where the weight for an inning is a function of the game score at the start and how late in the game it is. Early innings, especially in close games, should still count quite a bit, but the idea is that you want to give more credit for pitching late in very close games.

      This does open the question of whether the closer is properly deployed: arguably it’s more important to use him in a tie game than certainly a 2-run lead, or maybe even a 1-run lead, yet typically they don’t come in unless it’s a save situation (or they need work in a blowout). But I’d note that Joe Torre used Rivera differently in the playoffs – not only using him for more than 1 inning, as JPos said, but also much more often bringing him in for a tie game, or even when the team was down a run.

    • PhilM says:

      Win Probability Added is only calculated post-1945, so we don’t have all pitchers: but Mo is #3, and not far behind #2:

      1. Roger Clemens 77.69
      2. Greg Maddux 59.44
      3. Mariano Rivera 56.64
      This is the “pure” WPA, unadjusted for leverage: so high leverage moments earn high WPA. I’d say he was pretty clutch.

      Pedro is #5, behind Tom Seaver.

  6. 18thstreet says:

    Turns out someone wrote a pretty good piece about the 1982 NFL MVP award for Grantland:

    • Cuban X Senators says:

      In addition to what that article indicates . . . there were at least 2 game-winning kicks (including an OT and the playoff clenched) in just 9 games, in addition to a game in which Mosely scored all 12 points for the team in a win . . . I think another thing at play was simple xenophobia.

      Mosely was the last of a dying breed. 20 years before there were no soccer-style kickers in the NFL. 10 years before half were soccer-style and by 1982 I think Mosely was already the last. There were still announcers around in the late-70s who seemed to snort out “soccer-style kicker” as a pejorative, as if “I don’t know why we have to tolerate this, but here’s another soccer-style kicker. Why can’t everyone just kick the ball right? (And what’s with all these Datsuns I keep seeing folks driving, doesn’t everyone want an LTD?)”

      Mosely kicked straight on. He was a red-blooded American boy, dammit. Sure, he might not get in there and play a little defensive tackle like the kickers from the 40s, but my god, he weighs 200 lbs and probably could. At least he ain’t some Garo or Jan from some European country no one cares about and who came to the US on a ski-jumping scholarship. He grew up with this game.

  7. Wilbur says:

    Someday, someone’s gonna use their 12 man staff by having nine pitchers pitch three innings every third game (with three extra pitchers for extra innings or to replace an ineffective pitcher or just to give a pitcher a day off), or have nine pitchers pitch one inning every day, or some variation of this.

    Will it be effective? We won’t know until someone tries it. And I believe it could happen in my lifetime.

  8. Rick R says:

    People seem to forget that the last out is the only out in which the score counts. Securing this last out is of the utmost importance to winning ballgames. No one in history did this better, more consistently, for a longer period of time, and in more important games, than Mariano Rivera. It is no coincidence that the Yankees were in the playoffs 16 times during his 19 year career, winning 5 World Series, just as it is no coincidence that on those rare occasions when Rivera faltered, the Yankees lost. He has the greatest adjusted ERA in history, and it’s not even close. He has the lowest WHIP in 100 years. His record of 42 post-season saves may never be broken, and his regular season record of 652 saves may last just as long. Mariano Rivera is a Hall of Famer the way Walter Johnson is a Hall of Famer—a nonpareil in the history of baseball. He needs to rank far far higher on this list—around #25 I think.

    • rpmcsweeney says:

      Mariano is great, and a certain HOFer. But #25 all time? Greg Maddux is 25th on the all-time career WAR list. Not a foolproof metric, true, but I’d be hard pressed to agree that Mo is the equal of Maddux.

    • Geoff says:

      And Ray Guy is a Hall of Famer the way Johnny Unitas is a Hall of Famer — a nonpareil in the history of football.

      Oh, wait…nevermind.

    • largebill says:

      “People seem to forget that the last out is the only out in which the score counts.” Actually, scoring at any point of a game counts. After securing the last out it can not change is a more accurate way of expressing the importance of a closer. However, even that over states the importance of one inning compared to the others. Yes the 9th is usually more important that the 1st, but that ignores a couple other factors. First, starting pitchers don’t just pitch the 1st inning they often pitch the first 6 or 7 innings. Secondly, most games are won or lost long before the 9th inning.

  9. Herb Smith says:

    Hey, you spilt the baby, but you did it well. Remember when Mike and Mad Dog put out a sports book (10 years ago or so)? They had a ranking of the top ten baseball players in history; numbers 1-9 were normal, typical guys. Number 10 was Mariano.

    That’s how some people actually think of him. It’s absurd, but Rivera appeals to the heart more than the head. Even I, an anti-closer type of guy, would be offended if Mo was left off the Top 100. So 95th seems about right.

    • And Mike and the Mad Dog areboth in the bag for the Yankees… Like most of the posters arguing and lobbying hard for Mariano. It’s pretty transparent. Top 100 all time is a HUGE stretch for a one inning pitcher.

  10. Schlom says:

    This is, quite frankly, a crazy ranking. Rivera is unquestionably the greatest reliever of all-time – but so what? No one can name the greatest pinch-hitter of all-time because any batter that was any good was a starting player. Same with pitchers – anyone that’s good is a starting pitcher. Almost every reliever is a pitcher who wasn’t good enough to start. I’m sure there are probably at least 50 pitchers that could be as good a reliever as Rivera but no team is dumb enough to try to find out.

    Also, could Rivera’s post-season dominance just simply be luck? His regular season BABIP was .265, in the postseason it was .219. He had more balls in play too, with a 20.9 K% vs. 23.0 K% in the regular season as well as more groundballs (1.24 ratio in the playoffs, 1.10 for the recorded portion of his career on Fangraphs and it was probably lower). And of course he never gave up HR’s in the postseason, just 2 in 527 total batters faced, if he had the same rate in the regular season he would have given up 19 instead of the 71 he gave up (although his GB ratio appears to have been much higher in the playoffs).

    • Cuban X Senators says:

      You know what’s funny . . . right up until the time when Willie Hernandez won that MVP you could and did debate the best pinch-hitters in the game or of all-time. Back when managers had 5 or 6 batters on the bench (even in the AL) PH was a career. Manny Mota, Jose Morales, Terry Crowley (fer chrissakes), Dusty Rhodes, Smoky Burgess, Gates Brown, Rusty Staub.

      Like closers many guys were great for a few seasons, but few could sustain the performance across many years.

      • Chris H says:

        Bill James once wrote a memorable essay (memorable to me, anyway), about Mota, a player whose skills had become so narrow that even hitting .400, he couldn’t stick on a baseball team. In 1997, at the age of 39, Mota hit .395 and had an OPS of 1.021 – but that came in a total of 49 games, in which he had a total of 50 plate appearances.

  11. Lawhamel says:

    Also, could Rivera’s post-season dominance just simply be luck?


    Let’s run those numbers back:

    he pitched 141 innings, went 8-1 with an 0.70 ERA, 42 saves, 110 strikeouts, 21 walks and two home runs allowed. His postseason WHIP: 0.759. These are not human numbers.*

    Attributing that to luck/BABIP seems pretty far afield . . .

  12. Toar Winter says:

    Yankee haters abound! Rivera is the greatest reliever ever, and the greatest postseason pitcher ever. Debunk specialists and high-leverage innings all you want– stat heads need to realize that ’empirical evidence’ is not absolute, nor inherently objective, especially if it’s used to present a subjective narrative. The Great Mariano is well-deserving of a Top 100 spot, and could easily be placed higher. I’m glad Poz could see past his Yankee bias to even include him– it’s his first step into a larger world.

    • largebill says:

      Now somehow Poz has “Yankee bias?” Please elaborate. He, like all humans, has personal favorites that are mostly players he has interacted and had good relations with such as Ibanez, Quisenberry, etc. However, I’ve never detected any bias in his opinions regarding awards & HoF voting.

    • Paul Priore says:

      Are you mental.
      He,s a fucking rapist!!!!!

  13. Lawhamel says:

    As for where closers should rank – I would say they are a much different breed from a pinch hitter, say, who affects one at bat. Since at least the late 1970’2 – early 1980’s, and in some cases earlier, the closer (a one or two inning specialist) is as much a part of the roster as any other position on the team. He plays less, but so does a DH. When are we going to come to terms that these positions impact the team in every game, and thus need to be viewed differently than we currently treat them? David Ortiz does not play 1B every day for the Red Sox. He is still the most valuable player on that team, despite “only playing half the game”. Rivera was, with Jeter and Posada, and in varying years others, the most valuable player on those Yankee teams. A closer has become a must-have position – just like a shortstop or any other position. Just ask the Detroit Tigers of the last few seasons. If they had Rivera, they might have a ring . . .

  14. Lawhamel says:

    By the way, Adam Wainwright had the most complete games of any starter in the majors last year with 5 – five. 80 years earlier, in 1933, Dizzy Dean and Lon Warneke tied for the major league lead with 26. 40 years earlier, in 1973, Gaylord Perry had 29 complete games to lead the majors. The game has changed. It is changing even more over the last few seasons, where bullpens loaded with power arms are now coming in waves starting in about the 6th inning. We need to recognize the true stars of the second half of the game.

  15. MtheL says:

    Sorry Joe, but the oddest sports award win has to be Palmeiro’s 1999 Gold Glove for First Base Defense even though he started 128 games at DH that season and just 28 at First Base. He must have made A LOT of amazing plays during those 28 games…

  16. Richard says:

    I’ve pretty much given up on arguing the situation of the best player in the most overrated position/role.

    But given the Mariano Rivera Farewell Tour this year, I find myself wondering – when did such “farewell tours” start? Henry Aaron only got a Night. Babe Ruth didn’t get a Day until a couple of years after he retired…. When did we start the deification process?

    • Andrew says:

      I’m in my 20s, so my first-hand baseball knowledge only goes back so many years. But the first season long farewell tour I distinctly remember as such was 2001 for Ripken and Gwynn.

  17. mrgjg says:

    Mo pitched in 32 different post-season series and in only one did he have an ERA over 3.00 and that was against Cleve. in 1997 when he gave up 1 run in 2 IP. That was his worst post-season performance. In two other post-seasons he had an ERA of 3.00.
    In 29 of 32 p.s. he was under 2.00 and in 22 of 32 he was 0.00.

  18. Mohammed says:

    Joe, Mariano makes it to the Mt. Rushmore of all-time yankee greats. #95 for him is waaaaayyyyy too low. He has got to be at least top 15.

  19. amazin69 says:

    I can go along with many anti-Rivera arguments (plus, you know, steroids…is Piazza going to be on the list?), but as far as the lack of multi-inning saves, Goose Gossage is a hell of a person to bring THAT up. Given that it was pretty much Goose’s bitching about how he wanted to pitch the 9th and ONLY the 9th and he wanted to start the inning rather than come in during it which completely changed the role from “fireman” to “closer”.
    Rivera has been very good at a very specific role that really only took off over the past 30 years; is that enough for Top 100? I’m not even sure he’s better than Quisenberry or Fingers or heck, Firpo Marberry, as far as career contributions by a relief pitcher goes. But this one is more subjective than anything this side of the Negro Leagues issue (same problem translating the accomplishments, IMO), so why not?

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