I keep telling Adam_The_Yankees_Fan that one day I’ll put into a post the reasons I discount Mariano Rivera as a Hall-of-Famer. Well, today is the lucky day! Since the Red Sox apparently actually made a run at Rivera this off-season, it’s also not a bad idea to point out the reasons it’s a good thing he returned to the Bronx. It’s actually a fairly easy case to make.
Simply put, for every game an American League manager selects the best player he has available at ten positions. He lists those players as his “starters.” Last year, how many times did Mariano Rivera make that list? Zero. The year before? Zero. The last ten years? Zero. In his career? Ten. That’s it. Ten. If he’s not the best on his team, how is he one of the best all-time? But, you’ll tell me. Rivera isn’t a starter. He’s a closer. That makes him just as important as a starter. Bunk. Closers are closers because they aren’t good enough to be starters. Don’t believe me? Look at Joba Chamberlain. He was a very good reliever. Probably could have been the closer of the future. But, the Yankees knew he would be more valuable as a starter, if he could pull it off. So, Rivera’s very own manager made the choice to make his best pitchers starters. Clearly, Rivera is not one of those pitchers. But, you’ll complain, closer has become a new position. Just because it is only used at the end of the game, you’ll say, doesn’t mean he wasn’t selected to be the best at this new position. I’d have to remind you, though, that there are still only the ten positions. All a closer really is is a specific substitution. Does Dave Roberts belong in the hall of fame because he was an elite pinch runner? What about Dave Stapleton for his top notch performance as a defensive replacement? Bobby Kielty was a pretty good pinch hitter. Are they now deserving to be an all-time great? Why is this substitution suddenly so important?
But, OK. Just to get on with the post, I’ll let you call closer a new position. Let’s see how Rivera compares to other pitchers. How many times has Rivera led the league in wins? Zero. How many times has Rivera led his league in ERA? Zero. He’s never pitched enough innings to qualify. How many times has Rivera led his league in Strikeouts? WHIP? Any stat of substance? Zero. But, you’re thinking, he’s a closer. He’s the best closer ever. They invented a stat just to let closers earn more money. What about saves? In Rivera’s seventeen seasons how many times has he led the league in saves? Three. Yup. Three. Derek Lowe led the league once. So did Tom Gordon. I’m just saying.
OK. So, maybe Rivera hasn’t had the best season ever. Maybe he’s like Dave Stewart. A top pitcher every year, but always seems to have another person have a better year. What about Rivera’s career numbers? If Rivera’s the best closer ever, he must have the most of that closer stat all-time. Nope. He’s not the career saves leader. Last season, he wasn’t even the active career leader. OK. What about career numbers in other categories? He’s amassed enough career innings that he might qualify for career rankings. And, you’d be right. In his career, Rivera is the active ERA leader, ranking 13th all-time. He’s also the active career leader in Walks per nine innings, and WHIP. Isn’t that impressive? Well, not exactly. Remember, Rivera’s a closer. As such, there’s a cap as to how poorly he can perform. Let’s say a starting pitcher shows up to a game completely off. Maybe he’s distracted by a family matter, or injured, or drunk. He could go out and have a terrible start. Carl Pavano once gave up six runs to the Red Sox before recording an out. That will land a big hit to your numbers, and skew them a bit. Just from one bad outing. But, say Rivera comes to a game completely off. He enters the game in the bottom of the ninth with a one-run lead to “save” and gives up a hit to every batter he faces. He’ll probably only give up two runs. Five at the most if he gives up a grand slam. So, Rivera’s poor performances are capped by the fact that he only pitches the ends of games. He can’t give up seven runs in four innings. He’s never out there that long. That’s why relievers always have great numbers. They aren’t in games long enough to let bad days affect them. So, all their numbers are incomparable.
Ok. So, Rivera is hardly ever the best pitcher on his team. Never the best in the league in any one year. He’s near the top in some career stats, once you allow his stats to be skewed. Sound like a Hall-of-Famer yet? Not to me. Ahh. But, the postseason. That’s where Rivera makes his case. Right? The best closer in the history of the postseason, they say. OK. Let’s look at that closer stat again. In his career, Rivera has 42 saves, and he’s blown 4 (or maybe 5). That’s an amazing 91.3% success rate. That’s unheard of. Really? Let’s see. In the 2009 season, Jonathan Papelbon saved 38 of 41 chances for a 92.9% rate. In 2007, Pap converted 92.5% of his chances. In 2007, JJ Putz converted 95.2%. In 2007, Jason Isringhausen converted 94.1% of his chances. And, in 2008 Brad Lidge went 41/41. What’s the point, other than the fact that stats for blown saves are hard to find? Rivera’s postseason career save percentage is about what you’d expect a closer to achieve if you give him 46 chances. Whoop-de-doo. It’s just that other closers don’t get 46 postseason chances.
One last thing about Rivera. Although, this is less about Rivera and more about the perception of him. More about the way people talk and think about the Yankees, as opposed to other teams. I saw a blog once discussing Jeff Bagwell’s Hall of Fame chances. A comment was left by someone saying that he didn’t think Bagwell belonged in the hall because he was a teammate of Ken Caminiti. He wouldn’t consider any of the Astros of that era because he didn’t trust their numbers not to be artificially inflated. That’s fine. That’s his opinion. He’s not the only person I’ve heard express a similar opinion. How can so-and-so be clean if they were teammates with so-and-so? It’s interesting, then, that Rivera has shared a locker room with Andy Pettitte, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Roger Clemens, and Jose Canseco.
So, how can I possibly think Rivera belongs in the Hall of Fame?