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Jaffe: On the greatness of Mariano Rivera

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I hate the Yankees.

I should just start by getting that out of the way. If you’ve read any of my columns over the past couple years, I’ve probably made a reference to how evil they are in almost every one. Which is what makes this column that much more ridiculous. I can’t believe I’m doing it, but I’m going to talk about how great one of the Yankees is.

Why? Because Mariano Rivera is really, really, really good, and if even I can admit it, I can’t see who would disagree.

Rivera just pitched in his 1,000th game for the Yankees. That’s right, there are three zeros in that number. That’s the equivalent of pitching in every game for over six full seasons, which is almost unheard of. In fact, pitching in 1,000 games for one team was unheard of until Rivera notched a scoreless ninth inning yesterday. And that’s not even counting another 100 games of postseason and All-Star Games.

Longevity is great and all, but what makes the 41-year-old Rivera special is how successful he’s been over that span. His 572 saves are second all-time, but even that number doesn’t tell the whole story. His career ERA of 2.22 and WHIP of 1.00 would both be considered exceptional for a single season, but as career numbers they are mindboggling. Excluding his rookie season, he’s allowed one home run every 21.65 innings.

Consider a guy like Sandy Koufax, known as one of the best pitchers in history. He played in an era where pitchers dominated overall, which made the league lower the mound and shrink the strike zone after Koufax retired. Even so, Koufax’s career ERA is over half a run higher than Rivera’s, his WHIP is higher, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is substantially worse and he gave up home runs roughly twice as often. Yep, one of the best pitchers ever playing in an era where the rules and the game favored the pitcher still gave up more gopher balls than Rivera did to all those juicers.

And it’s not just Koufax. Look at any of the all-time greats. Cy Young himself can’t compare to Rivera in any of these categories except home runs, but home runs had hardly been invented yet in the pre-Ruth era. Since then, even the best pitchers–Warren Spahn, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, you name it–can’t match Rivera in any of these categories.

Stats not enough for you? How about clutch situations? Rivera pitches the most important inning in baseball, the ninth, better than anyone in history. How about the playoffs? Rivera’s playoff ERA of 0.71 is the best in history. His K/BB ratio is over five, his WHIP is under 0.8 and he’s given up just two home runs in 139.2 postseason innings. And his 42 playoff saves are the most in history.

Yeah, but he’s getting old, right? As a lifetime Yankee hater, my answer is “if only.” Since 2006, his ERA and WHIP are even lower, 1.98 and .90, respectively. In that span, he’s allowed only one run in 28 postseason innings.

If you’ve watched Rivera at any point over the last 15 years, you’re probably screaming one thing right about now: “And he only throws one pitch!”

That cutter, which might as well be named after Rivera at this point, has got to be the best pitch in baseball history. For the past decade and a half, Rivera has thrown this one pitch over 90 percent of the time, and it still baffles hitters. It’s not that fast (low-90s), it doesn’t have that much movement, but the timing of the movement and the location are just good enough that the best players in baseball haven’t been able to figure him out. Even for someone that’s rooted against him during every one of his 17 Major League seasons, there’s something incredibly impressive about a guy that can walk to the mound a thousand times and tell the hitter exactly what he’s going to see and still be able to get him out.

With this resume behind him, Rivera is clearly a Hall of Famer. That much is not in doubt. He’s now made a fairly irrefutable case as the best reliever of all time as well.

Frankly, I don’t think that’s strong enough. The Yankees have been, as hard as it is for me to say, the class of the Major Leagues for the period of time Rivera has been there. More than anyone other person–more than Joe Torre, George Steinbrenner and definitely more than Derek Jeter (don’t get me started), Rivera has been responsible for the Yankees’ modern dynasty.

At this point, Yankee fans and Yankee haters alike have to come to terms with the fact that Mariano Rivera is one of the best pitchers in baseball history. Period.

I’ll leave you with one final statistic, and like many in baseball, it requires some explaining. Because players from different eras are so hard to compare, baseball stat freaks have found a way to control for era and ballpark, and the result is a statistic called ERA+. For ERA+, higher numbers are better than lower numbers, and the average is set at 100. The second-best ERA+ in history is Pedro Martinez’s 154. In total, 767 players have an ERA+ between 100 and 154.

Rivera? 205.

I will always hate the Yankees and I think everyone else should, too. But when your team is losing to the Evil Empire in the ninth inning, don’t turn off the television in frustration. Yes, your team will lose, but at least you can watch one of the best pitchers in baseball history.

 

Jacob Jaffe disregards the fact that “Moneyball” says it’s statistically much easier to be a closer than a starter. Discuss the differences with him at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu.

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