MLB Notebook: Rivera's greatness is in the numbers
"In most Big League ball games, there comes an inning on which hangs victory or defeat. ... Big League managers mention it as the "break," and pitchers speak of the "pinch." ... And in most of these pinches, the real burden falls on the pitcher. ... That is the real test of a pitcher. He must be able to live through these squalls. ... It is in the pinch that the pitcher shows whether or not he is a big leaguer. He must have something besides curves then. He needs a head, and he has to use it. It is the acid test." -Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson, "Pitching in a Pinch"
Since the midsummer of 1995, Mariano Rivera has embodied this perspective with unmatched grace and success. During his first taste of relief work in 1995, then in his one full season as a setup man, and through his 17 campaigns as a closer and his 141 innings in the postseason, Rivera has not only used his head to escape from a pinch. He has brought uncommon command, unmatched calm, and undeniable guile (not to mention a nasty cutter) to a role that has evolved and taken on significant importance in today's game.
In a 2013 season in which closers such as Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara and Greg Holland are posting numbers that require blinking and refocusing to affirm their existence, Rivera has put the finishing touches on a line that has grown quite familiar: 40-plus saves, an ERA hovering around 2.00, and a bunch of strikeouts for every one walk.
This familiarity and repetitiveness is perhaps Rivera's greatest achievement, for in his career, the spectacular became commonplace. But the numbers are indeed otherworldly, and any sort of shaping or bundling can still elicit awe.
Rivera's first postseason relief appearance came in Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS, and he finished that outing with 3 1/3 innings of two-hit, no-run ball with five strikeouts and no walks.
It was one of 33 games in his postseason career that Rivera worked at least two innings in a relief appearance. In those 33, he hurled 69 1/3 innings, was charged with four earned runs, fanned 57, walked eight and didn't allow a home run.
Those 33 are more than double the tally of the No. 2 guy: Tug McGraw, who was responsible for 15 such outings. Rollie Fingers comes in third with 13, and Goose Gossage had 10.
Rivera's WHIP in these 33 outings was 0.63. There are 18 other pitchers who have had at least seven postseason relief appearances of at least two innings. None of them had a lower WHIP in those outings.
Rivera has more postseason saves (42) than the next two guys combined. He has thrown the seventh-most innings for any postseason pitcher (starter or reliever), and his ERA stands at an all-time best 0.70 (minimum 30 innings). Harry Brecheen (0.83 ERA), Babe Ruth (0.87), Sherry Smith (0.89) and Sandy Koufax (0.95) own the next four lowest postseason ERA's.
Rivera has, of course, been uncannily consistent in his career, and that consistency is not only notable for its level of excellence, but for its arrangement.
Rivera has compiled seven seasons with at least 40 saves and an ERA below 2.00. No other pitcher has had more than two. Perhaps more amazingly, four of his seven have come since he entered his age-34 season. The rest of baseball history has produced six total seasons: two by Dennis Eckersley, and one each from Randy Myers, John Smoltz and Fernando Rodney. Texas' Joe Nathan became the sixth player to do so on Saturday.
Rivera has eight seasons with at least 30 saves and a WHIP below 1.00 -- the most in history, with Trevor Hoffman having seven. Six of Rivera's eight have come since he entered his age-35 season. Again, that number is boldly at the top, with no other pitcher having more than three.
Like a fine wine
The numbers show that Mariano Rivera has actually been more productive in the second half of his career.
Age-27 through Age-34
Age-35 through Age-43
As the all-time leader in saves, Rivera headlines a group of 44 pitchers with at least 200. Here's a look at this set of 44, and a profile of their numbers as relievers:
• Rivera owns the lowest ERA, at 2.06. Billy Wagner (2.31) owns the second lowest.
• Rivera owns the lowest WHIP, at 0.974. Joe Nathan (.995) holds the second lowest mark.
• Rivera owns the third best K:BB ratio (4.26), with Dennis Eckersley (6.29) and Jonathan Papelbon (4.81) authoring better marks.
• Rivera is seventh in hits per nine (6.82), and all the way down at 20th in strikeouts per nine, at 8.29. But while he hasn't fanned batters at a rate as high as many others, his slugging percentage against (.284) and OPS-against (.542) are the lowest.
A table-setter, too
Rivera's 1996 season -- before he became the Yankees' closer -- is one to recall. In throwing 107 2/3 innings, he is one of 343 pitchers in history to have at least 100 innings in a season and make zero starts. Among this group:
• Rivera's 240 ERA+ is the ninth highest, while his raw 2.09 ERA is tied for 57th.
• His 0.994 WHIP is tied for the 22nd lowest
• His 10.87 strikeouts per nine are the third highest, and his 6.10 hits per nine are tied for the 16th lowest.
• Removing the five pitchers among the 343 for whom complete data is unavailable, Rivera's .486 OPS against is the second lowest, behind Ted Abernathy's .463 in 1967. His 24 OPS+ against is the best.
Loyal to the end
It was mentioned earlier that Rivera is one of 44 pitchers with at least 200 saves. Melding the numerical with the narrative, he holds an interesting place among this near four dozen -- Rivera is the only pitcher to accumulate at least 200 saves and pitch for only one franchise.
Thus, aside from all of the other special collections of players that can have him as a member (including, one imagines, that group of immortals in Cooperstown), Rivera can be the closer -- if there is a need for one -- on the all-time super team made up of players who played for only one franchise. One such starting nine -- with Rivera waiting for the first notes of "Enter Sandman" to usher him into the pinch -- would look like this:
C Johnny Bench (Cincinnati Reds, 1967-83) 1B Lou Gehrig (New York Yankees, 1923-39) 2B Charlie Gehringer (Detroit Tigers, 1924-42) 3B Mike Schmidt (Philadelphia Phillies, 1972-89) SS Cal Ripken, Jr. (Baltimore Orioles, 1981-2001) LF Ted Williams (Boston Red Sox, 1939-60) CF Mickey Mantle (New York Yankees, 1951-68) RF Stan Musial (St. Louis Cardinals, 1941-63) SP Walter Johnson (Washington Senators, 1907-27)