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.