Rivera: Stud With Misleading Stats

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - September 28, 2011
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Would I be thrown under the bus if I said Mariano Rivera was the best ever at his position? I think not. Would I be cast down with the wicked and unwashed, or worse yet forced to spend a summer as a Dodgers intern, if I said Rivera was No. 2 or No. 3? Perhaps. Them Yankee fans can be quite a boisterous bunch. But would I be wrong? Who knows. Who cares.

Because whatever one may think about the Yankee game-finisher, two things are clear. No. 1: He is unquestionably one of the best to ever ply the trade. No. 2: His save totals reflect current managerial philosophy rather than any true record of his ability. Rivera is a stud. His cutter has turned more Louisville ash into kindling than an other pitcher in history. But his record is a joke.

The fault doesn’t lie with Rivera or any pitcher who makes his living one inning at a time. The blame goes to coaches, managers and front office personnel who have changed the position from one of daring importance to overpaid cleanup duty where challenges are rarely faced.

Until the 1990s saves were earned. A team’s best reliever was not just its closer but the one person management trusted to put out fires, hence the fireman label. These were the guys who came into the game with the bases loaded and no outs in the seventh inning. To enter a game with a three run lead in the ninth inning was a waste of skill. That job was left up to what today would be the set up man or the set up man’s set up man. Today, a closer will be inserted into a game only if there is a save opportunity. This is akin to scheduling your highest paid starter only against teams at the bottom of the division. It’s ridiculous. And it’s only getting worse.

According to Baseball Between the Numbers; Why Everything You Know About the Game is Wrong, in 1980 only 13.4 percent of relief appearances began in the ninth inning with no one on and no outs. By 2004, that number had climbed to 65 percent.

Goose Gossage, Rivera’s pinstripe and game-closing predecessor, averaged 4.6 innings per save in his career as a full time reliever. Rivera: 1.89. Gossage won 124 games in relief, and, yes, lost 107. But that was the nature of the business when relievers earned their salaries.

One can even debate if the position, as it is used now is effective or even necessary.

Dave Smith, a biologist at the University of Delaware and founder of retrosheet.org, a website devoted to the unwielding world of baseball data, found that the winning percentage for teams with leads after eight innings have remained almost unchanged. That is to say they’ve won the great majority. He even found that some very bad teams were more than average after eight. The 1978 Mariners won just 56 games with 80.4 percent of those coming after an eighth inning lead. They were the worst of the bunch from 1901 to 2003.

I’m not going to tell you Gossage, Rollie Fingers or Bruce Sutter was better than Rivera. But each was put into more bad situations and with more on the line than any modern reliever, even Rivera.

What the closer of closers did was remarkable, but some perspective is in order. No stat has been more watered down than the save. Even the home run which had devolved into chemically inflated parlor trick has more credibility.

So just relax.

Like many great players before him, Rivera’s success is one part perspiration and one part evaluation.

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