Friday, May 13, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #20: Mariano Rivera

When I first became a baseball fan, it was clear to me that the Mets were the New York team. And yes, the Yankees played there too. By the time I'd been a baseball fan for nine seasons, the Yankees hadn't made the postseason in any of them. I'd learned about their success throughout history, but it felt like just that, history, not something that applied to the here and now (which twenty years later, exists as the there and then of 1995). It didn't seem like there was much reason to care about them one way or another. I was about to learn the error of my ways though, and would soon loathe them in a way previously reserved for the guy my first girlfriend dumped me for. Hating the Yankees quickly became one of my core baseball principles, and the importance of that principle would only grow. Through it all though, there was one Yankee I could never bring myself to hate.

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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Closers, for the most part, have relatively short lifespans. To look at the list of top closers for one season and then to look at the list for five years earlier or later is mostly to look at very different  sets of names. There are exceptions of course, but not many, and none who stand out the way Mariano Rivera does. He was one of the best closers in baseball during 1997, his first seasons in the role; he was one of the best closers in baseball during 2013, the final season of his career; he was one of the best closers in baseball in almost every one of the fifteen seasons between those two.

Saves are far from perfect, but they are a big part of what the closer is supposed to do. There are 80 pitchers in baseball history who have ever recorded 40+ saves in a season. Only half of those 80 reached 40+ saves a second time. Not even half of those 40 (19) did it a third time, and not even half of those 19 (9) did it a fourth time. Rivera saved 40+ games in nine different seasons, and only twice during his 17 years as a closer did he fall short of 30 saves.

Saves are a matter of of opportunity, and playing for a good team tends to lend itself to more opportunities to close out victories, but it isn't just (or even mostly) the saves. If you want to look at run prevention instead, Rivera just looks even better.

There are 188 relief pitchers in baseball history who pitched 60+ innings in a season while posting an ERA+** of 200 or better. Only 39 relievers turned in two seasons that good. Only 10 had three such seasons, and only one had more than six. Of course it was Rivera, and he had an incredible twelve seasons with an ERA+ of 200 or better. And I chose 200 as the benchmark because it's round, not because it makes Rivera look better. In all twelve of those seasons, Rivera's ERA+ was actually 226 or better. Only four other pitchers in history have more than even three seasons that good.

**ERA+ takes pitchers' runs allowed and adjusts for the context of the era and stadiums they pitched in, so that numbers from a time like the mid to late 1960s, when pitching overwhelmed hitting, and from the mid 90s to early 2000s, when hitters had the upper hand, can be reasonably compared. An ERA+ of 110 means a pitcher was 10% better than the league average, an ERA+ of 120 means a pitcher was 20%, and so on.

Rivera was supposed to be a starter, but that didn't work out. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had to be talked out of trading him away. (It should be noted that the Yankees found success again during the mid 90s, after their worst extended stretch in franchise history, only when Steinbrenner's fingerprints were removed from most of the roster decisions.) Rivera transitioned into a relief role, discovered his cutter (arguably the greatest pitch in baseball history), and became the best in history at finishing out ballgames.

My most vivid memory involving Rivera involves Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Rivera was only about a third of the way into his career at that point, but had already established himself as the closer in baseball. He'd pitched 77.2 postseason innings to that point, and had a 0.70 ERA. He had a 6-0 record and 24 saves, with only one blown opportunity (Thank you very much, Sandy Alomar!). He felt unbeatable.

I was in my senior year of college during the fall of 2001, and watching Game 7 at my apartment with my two roommates and my then girlfriend. Having suffered through the Yankees winning four of the previous six World Series, and having watched my beloved Indians lose the other two Fall Classics during that stretch, my hatred for the Yankees had blossomed like a beautiful flower, and then spread like a merciless weed.

The Diamondbacks took the lead, but gave it up, and to lead off the top of the 8th, Curt Schilling gave up a home run to Alfonso Soriano, putting the Yankees ahead. There were still two innings left, but I knew the game was over. Rivera would be brought in to pitch those two innings, and that would be that. My entire college career was going to being nothing but Yankees World Series victories. I retreated to my bedroom to shout obscenities into my pillow.

Suddenly someone was lying in my bed next to me, and because one of my roommates was the sort of guy who enjoyed making miserable situations even worse, I thought it was him, having come to taunt me. I wheeled around with my elbow out, nearly knocking my girlfriend's teeth out. I suppose even that roommate of mine understood that the situation was too dire to make light of.

As you almost certainly recall, Rivera didn't close out the game. He got through the 8th, but then gave up a double and two singles, plus a hit batter in the 9th, allowing two runs to score, and bringing an end to New York's reign of terror. I danced on our coffee table, screamed like a banshee, and celebrated what I've since come to think of as Yankees Death Day, my favorite holiday of the year (celebrated every year since except for 2009). That game didn't signal the end of Rivera's postseason wizardry though. In 62 postseason inning after that night, Rivera was even better than he had been before, with a 0.58 ERA.

I hated the Yankees. My emotions about them are at more of a simmer than a burn right now, because they haven't been much good in recent years, but that flame will never be extinguished.

I hated Jeter, and Pettitte, and Williams, and Posada, and Martinez, and O'Neill, and Torre, and Steinbrenner, and Clemens, and A-Rod, and the yokels sitting in the bleachers, and the snobs sitting behind home plate.

I hated everything.

Mariano Rivera though, he was always somehow different. I was too struck with fear to have any room left over for disdain. Too filled with misery at the sight of him taking the mound, and too in awe of his excellence to have the energy left over for something as petty as hate.

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