Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mariano Rivera Defies Logic

At the age of 41, Mariano Rivera is currently on pace for 61 saves this season. Yes, we all know that "Saves" are an overblown statistic. Yes, we know logically that pitching one inning in the ninth inning isn't that much more important than pitching well in any other inning. But geez, you know, this writer keeps coming back to teams that have trouble finishing games out. The Mariners lost yesterday because of their closer. And that was after the Orioles blew their own save. The Cardinals would have the best record in baseball if not for blown saves. The Astros lost a handful of games because their closer couldn't get the job done. But year after year, Mariano Rivera gets the job done.

And then you listen to former Yankees who provide color commentary for the YES Network say repeatedly that there would have been no Yankee dynasty without Rivera. And you watch game after game where seemingly every pitch hits the catcher's target with pinpoint precision. You see guys like Eric Hosmer get his first look at Rivera last night. Rivera made a mistake during Hosmer's at bat and left a pitch right in Hosmer's wheelhouse. Hosmer swung and missed it. You watch this guy game after game throw those same two types of fastballs and nothing else and 99 percent of the time, it's a lock. It's simply amazing.

And what of Rivera's influence on the game? Before Mariano Rivera, you never heard much about a cut fastball. Now it's a deadly pitch in Roy Halladay's arsenal. It's a big pitch for Jon Lester. Cut fastballs are everywhere now. The pitch has become this era's hot pitch much like the split-fingered pitch became the big thing after Bruce Sutter. What about the psyche of apposing teams who feel like they have to get ahead of the Yankees before the late innings because they have no confidence that the Yankees will blow a lead late?

This writer is definitely split on the subject of closers. The Fan is on record in saying that a closer should never win a Cy Young Award. There is simply no way that the value of an inning a game and 70 innings a season is higher than the value of a good starting pitcher with 220 innings. This Fan knows that the "save" is a flawed statistic and one worthy of the scorn of analysts. At the same time, dominant closers change the dynamic of the games they participate in. Teams don't want to relinquish a lead late to Rivera and whatever other closer is hot in any given season.

And the other thing about the great Mariano Rivera is his consistency. People talk all the time about relievers having good and bad years. People mention how creating a good bullpen is one part luck and one part timing. Guys like Brad Lidge, Jonathan Papelbon, Jonathan Broxton, Bobby Jenks and others come and go and are effective and then they're not. And always, there's Mariano Rivera doing the same thing season after season.

Mariano Rivera's highest homer per nine inning ratio since 1995 was in 2009 when it was 0.95. In every other season, it's never been higher than 0.63 and the figure sits at 0.48 for his career. He hasn't given up a single homer this year. At the age of 41, Rivera has a seven to one strikeout to walk ratio. When Rivera walks someone, it's always a surprise. His walks per nine innings this year is 1.08. Rivera has a career BABIP against of .261. That's a lot of bad contact. In the last five seasons (including the present one), Rivera has averaged twelve pitches an inning. Twelve! Amazing.

It is probable that Rivera won't get 61 saves. For one thing, the Yankees' offense hasn't really gotten rolling yet and when they do, there are a lot more laughers and less need for a save. But he does have an outside chance of catching Trevor Hoffman by year's end in career saves. But even having the conversation at his age with just two types of fastballs as his only weapons, is a phenomenon in and of itself.

So yes, the save is not a well-respected statistic. Yes, it is overrated. Yes, a team is going to win 91% of all games they head into the ninth with a lead. But after saying all of that, Mariano Rivera is the most fascinating and amazing athlete this Fan has ever watched. In fact, the legend of Rivera is so big in this writer's mind that each time he pitches, there is a cringe that this might finally be the day that Rivera bows to age and becomes human. The legend is so large that the Fan wants Rivera to walk off into the sunset intact. The man's dignity and grace are just as high on the scale as his amazing longevity and success. There has been no one like him. And that's how the Fan wants him to remain.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article on Rivera. It's great for the fans to be able to appreciate a great ballplayer untainted by scandal or who is not a jerk.

He isn't Jeter who is in decline but still shows flashes of his former glory or a Willie Mays who becomes a sad shadow of his greatness. The man is a legend who has a incredible past and even more incredible keeps adding to his mystique right now.

William J. Tasker said...

Thanks, Anon. Great comment.