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Yankee Preview Saturday: Mariano Rivera
2004-02-27 21:36
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

"C" is For Closers: Enter Sandman

By Chris DeRosa

After the 1999 World Series, Yankee closer and series MVP Mariano Rivera said that he would give it four more years and then return to his native Panama to be an evangelical minister of a church he was building there. Going into 2004, I’d say that on the balance, New York fans should be happy that great pitchers don’t always follow through on their retirement plans.

The Yankees too should be happy, and about as optimistic as possible about a 34 year-old relief ace who has paid visits to the disabled list in each of the last two seasons. Shoulder and groin injuries limited Rivera to only 46 innings in 2002 and cost him last April. After struggling a bit in May, things seemed to click for him and he tore through June and July throwing about as well as ever. August, however, was one of the worst extended stretches of Rivera’s career:


Aug 1st: Blew 2-1 lead in the 8th (broke Tejada’s bat but Soriano couldn’t field the ball).

Aug 3rd: Came into Pettitte’s 1-0 shutout with man on in 9th, let up single and double to lose game.

Aug 6th: Rangers hand him second consecutive loss.

Aug 7th: Rangers roughed him up again in a shaky save

Aug 15th: Gave up homer to Jack Cust (the Orioles have been toughest on Mo historically).

Aug 16th: Luis Matos homered to tie game in 9th (the game the Yanks won because Cust fell down twice)

Aug 20th: NY lead 8-2 in the 9th when KC greeted him with four straight hits. Yanks squirmed out of it 8-7.

There were a couple of good ones in there too, but the Yankee bullpen was in agony. The team had gone into Boston in late July and opened the series with a win to take a 3.5 game lead in the AL East. From there, they went 9-9, with seven of the losses charged to the bullpen. Armando Benitez, Al Osuna, Sterling Hitchcock, Jesse Orosco and Chris Hammond surrounded Rivera’s bad stretch with memorable meltdowns of their own. Six poor performances in eleven August outings – ouch. Was he losing it?

He wasn’t. A light workload for the rest of August helped him bounce back and have a good September. In the end, it was a fine season. He worked 70.2 innings and allowed only 61 hits and 3 homers. He set career-best marks in walks allowed (10) and ERA (1.66). Considering the number of games Rivera missed on the DL (in 1998, 2002, and 2003), Joe Torre worked him at a harder pace than he had in any season since he became the closer in 1997:

Year     Games “Available”     Batters Faced     BF/GA
1996          162                 425            2.62          
1997          162                 301            1.86
1998          149                 246            1.65
1999          162                 268            1.65
2000          162                 311            1.92
2001          162                 310            1.91
2002          105                 187            1.78
2003          137                 277            2.02

His fine totals notwithstanding, Rivera did react entirely well to this quickening of pace. Here are the records of the 12 relief aces with at least 30 saves last year when pitching on no days’ rest:

Unrested Closer              ERA     IP        H       Run     ER     HR     BB     K
John Smoltz                  0.41     22.0     11       2       1       0       3     23
Troy Percival                0.75     12.0       2       1       1       1      4    12
Keith Foulke                 1.11     24.3      15       3       3       2      9    20     
Billy Wagner                 1.35     26.7      17       4       4       1    11     31
Eric Gagne                   1.82     29.7     17       6       6       0       6      54
Eddie Guardado              3.18     17.0     15       6       6       1      3     17
Uegeth Urbina               3.46     26.0      21     10     10       2     13     31
Tim Worrell                  3.46     26.0      24     10     10       3       5     20
Mariano Rivera              3.48     20.7      29       9       8       2       1    19
Jorge Julio                  3.52     15.3      13       6       6       1       3    17
Joe Borowski                4.86     16.7     13       9       9       2      4    18
Rocky Biddle                 4.91     25.7     30     15     14       3       9     19

Among the elite closers, John Smoltz, Keith Foulke, Billy Wagner, and Eric Gagne were all called upon without rest as often as Rivera, but were their normally deadly selves. Mariano was a lot more vulnerable when he had to work in consecutive games, allowed 29 hits in 20.7 innings. His 1.66 ERA is also a little deceptive. Just looking at how many RBIs a closer gave up can be a quick and dirty corrective counterweight to his ERA when you want to know what kind of year the guy had in the pinches:

30-Save Closers                     BF     RBI     RBI/BF
Eric Gagne                           306     10       .033          
Billy Wagner                        335     17       .051
John Smoltz                         244     16       .066
Keith Foulke                        338     25       .074
Joe Borowski                       280     25       .089
Eddie Guaradado                    260     24       .092
Troy Percival                       206     20       .097
Mariano Rivera                    277     30       .108
Uegeth Urbina                     316     36       .114
Jorge Julio                      273     36       .132
Rocky Biddle                      330     44       .133
Tim Worrell                        335     45       .134

Mo was as hard on lefties as ever, but right-handed hitters got better swings than usual (.283/.336/.398). None of which is to say Rivera didn’t have a very good year and isn’t a good bat to have another one in 2004. Certainly his October performance gave no cause for alarm. Rivera threw 16.7 innings and allowed only one run, which dropped his lifetime postseason ERA to 0.75.

Against Minnesota, Rivera notched a pair of no-hit, no-walk two-inning saves. In the Game 3 frenzy in Fenway, he set down six straight Boston batters to protect the Yankees’ 4-3 lead. After the game, Roger Clemens marveled at his apparent serenity, “You take your worst… you take your two favorite superheroes, and I’ll put Mo up against both of them. He could take on anyone.”

Game 5 of the ALCS was another 2-inning save. Boston touched him for a run in the 8th when Todd Walker tripled and scored on a ground out. Game 7, of course, was perhaps the greatest outing of his career. With the game tied at 5 and the pennant on the line, Rivera shut out Boston’s superb lineup for three innings. Though Aaron Boone’s homer ended the game, it was Mariano whom the Yankees lifted onto their shoulders, in what seemed in that unclear moment like a fitting inversion of what he had done for them.

From Starter to Reliever

Single players, much less relief aces, don’t really carry teams, but Rivera pitched in all four wins against Boston and made as good a choice as any as Series MVP. He hurled eight innings with one run on five hits and no walks. The sight of Mo collapsed on the Yankee Stadium mound (a strange one in so much as a pinstriped player was still circling the bases) seemed to close a circle from the beginning of the Yankees’ current run:

                ip      h      r     er     bb     k     dec.
4 Oct 1995       3.1     2     0     0       0      5      W
16 Oct 2003     3.0     2     0     0       0      2      W

In game 2 of the 1995 ALDS against Seattle, Mariano also pitched three scoreless innings and got the win on an extra-inning homer. The game was tied with two outs in the top of the 12th when Ken Griffey Jr. homered off Yankee relief ace John Wetteland. Edgar Martinez followed with a single. Rivera struck out Jay Buhner, and then just went on throwing strike after zooming strike for three innings.

Though Rivera’s 67 innings made him the 8th most heavily used pitcher on the team that year, one imagines that Buck Showalter could not have been too happy to turn to a rookie with a 5.51 ERA in that situation. He had already used the two relievers he most counted on to preserve leads (Wetteland and Bob Wickman), and Mariano hadn’t fared well in two regular season starts against Seattle.

At that point Rivera was still penciled in as a future starting pitcher. Many fine relief aces are failed starters. In ten starts, Rivera pitched 50 innings, going 3-3 with a 5.94 ERA. In nine relief outings (most of them in September), he held opponents to 8 hits in 17 innings (2-0, 4.24 ERA). It seems foolish at this point to debate the Yankees’ evaluation that his stuff was better suited to relief, but if you look at it, you can’t really say that he was a thoroughly failed starter.

About two-thirds of Rivera’s appearances were starts in his mostly successful five years in the Yankees’ minor league system. He debuted on May 23rd, losing to the Angels. Jim Edmonds tagged him for a three-run homer, the first of 11 long balls Rivera would give up in his rookie season. He won his next start, a 5.1 inning stint against Oakland, but lost a rematch with the A’s when he gave up a grand slam to Geronimo Berroa and a 2-run shot to Ruben Sierra. Edgar Martinez blasted a three-run homer in the first inning of his next start, which put him out of the Yankee rotation for three weeks [In the late 90s, Edgar the Hammer hit Rivera almost at will, which is something not too many other hitters can say. Even after going 0-4 in 2003, he’s 9-15 off Mo lifetime with five extra base hits and two walks].

Rivera seemed to be getting his bearings as a starter upon his return in July. On Independence Day, he had his best start, holding Chicago to 2 hits in 8 innings and striking out 11 batters. For the month, he went 2-0 in four starts, pitching 25 innings with a 2.52 ERA. Nevertheless, he started only two more games.

Steinbrenner and Showalter broke up over the loss of the Yankees’ first playoff series since 1981. The new regime did not immediately pronounce Rivera a reliever in 1996. Their first instinct was to try to teach him a change-up. “To be a starter, he has to have a change,” Torre told The Daily News on April 24th. Although Rivera had “a closer’s velocity,” the manager told the Bergen Record the same day, he would rely on Jeff Nelson and Wickman to set up Wetteland, meaning that even with the ’96 season underway, the Yankees intended to groom Rivera in long relief for an eventual starting role.

Of course Rivera seized the set up role and had arguably his best season, pitching 107.7 innings with 130 strikeouts and only one home run allowed. The 1996 season was the first full-length season of the mid-90s slugging era (the league ERA was 5.00), so not many starting pitchers compiled traditional-looking Cy Young candidacy stats. Rivera finished third in the voting and the Yankees let John Wetteland walk in order to make him the closer.

Of course the other big change for Mariano in 1997 was that he began to rely heavily on the cut fastball, as opposed to mostly four-seamers with the occasional slider mixed in.

Spare us the Cutter

In 2002, ESPN.com ran a poll, based on a Jayson Stark column , in which fans could vote for the most devastating pitch in baseball. Mariano Rivera’s cut fastball finished second to Randy Johnson’s “fastball-slider combination,” which I guess means it actually finished first.

Andy Pettitte became famous for his cutter before Mariano did for his. Pettitte also became famous for being a heart-throb before Derek Jeter did, but we tend to forget these things. People used to talk about how Pettitte’s cutter sailed in right-handed batters and tied them in knots. But comparing Pettitte’s cutter to Rivera’s is like comparing a butter knife to Excalibur. New York fans have seen pitchers like Pettitte and Al Leiter make fine use of the pitch, but they lose a lot of velocity when they cut their fastballs. Their cutters seem to arch in there and break down. Rivera’s has been likened to a 94-mph breaking pitch. It burrows in on lefties like a wood-seeking missile, but is almost as fast as his four-seamer and betrays little downward drip.

It is one of those pitches that is so effective as to require an origin story. He didn’t always throw it, at least, not on purpose. I taped the ESPN Classic version of that 1995 ALDS Game 2. He was a different pitcher then, but not radically so. He worked up in the zone more, but he worked about as quickly then as now. His motion may be slightly more streamlined now, but there were no awkward edges that had to be sanded down. At one point he threw a buzz-saw pitch outside that the announcer described first as a slider, then, after the replay, he said perhaps it was actually a “good cut fastball.” His fastball was jumping so much they didn’t know what the kid was throwing.

Before the 2001 World Series, Rivera told Adrian Wojnarowksi of The Bergen Record that he discovered the cutter by accident playing catch with Ramiro Mendoza. Two years earlier, he explained to Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, “I didn’t do anything. It was natural.” He started using it in games, and the rest was history. “It was just from God.”

By God, I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean Mel Stottlemyre. But I don’t know. If you had told me in 1997 that the Yankees’ brilliant set-up man with the exploding mid-90s heater was going to see his strikeouts plummet from 10.9 per nine innings to 8.5 and 5.3 over the next two years, throwing cut fastballs to conserve pitches, I would have said, “That idiot Stottlemyre is trying to ruin Mariano the same way he ruined Gooden!” OK, actually, I did say that.

Dwight Gooden is cursed to be remembered as two separate men, “Dwight Gooden” and “the young Dwight Gooden.” When you talk about Sandy Koufax’s stuff, or Steve Carlton’s, you don’t feel compelled to specify, “the mature Koufax,” or “Carlton in his prime, not with the White Sox.” But with Gooden, the separation between 1985 and 1986 was so striking visually that it seems to demand this distinction. Looking back at it now, when it is apparent that 1986 was actually one of Gooden’s best seasons, someone who wasn’t following at the time might be surprised to learn that for much of the year, Mets fans were wondering when he was going to get back on track.

NL hitters tacked more than a run onto his ERA, and his strikeouts fell from 8.7 per game to 7.2. Few observers were content just to say, “Shut up, people, he can’t have a 1.53 ERA every year.” Maybe we were imagining it, but it sure seemed like his fastball just didn’t have the same hop to it. Some said hitters had learned to lay off his high heat. Tim McCarver said the umps had taken the high strike away from him (Yankee fans may recall that the same year, Rickey Henderson said the umps had taken the high ball away from him).

Others, however, drew a direct line between Gooden’s drop-off and the reports that in spring training, Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre had convinced him to stop going for strikeouts and save his arm by putting more balls in play. There was mention of the cut fastball in Dwight Gooden’s arsenal going back to 1984, but it took on a whole new life in the spring of ’86. During Gooden’s late July slump, Stottlemyre admitted to the New York Times that “I have downplayed the strikeouts with him for the simple reason that he doesn’t need to strike out 10 batters to have a strong game. The important thing is[,] put zeroes on the scoreboard. I probably made too great an emphasis with him on getting ground balls, and not enough on getting pop-ups.”

Not everyone thought this was the best approach for a young pitcher with a world class fastball. The Times reported Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog saying in July of 1987 of his rival’s pitchers, “They’re 22, and somebody tries to teach them to pitch like a guy who’s 30. Gooden’s that way. In spring training last year, all you heard about was his new cut fastball and his two speeds of curveballs. You got a guy who can throw 94 miles and hour, let him throw. He starts cutting the fastball, taking something off it, he loses the fastball he once had. And he’ll never get it back.”

Bill James, who has demonstrated several times that power pitchers last longer than finesse pitchers, was just as blunt in the 1987 Baseball Abstract. Noting that the pitching coach himself was a ground ball pitcher who had his last good year at 31, the analyst wrote: “… if Mel Stottlemyre wants Dwight Gooden to last as long as possible, he’d better stop this crap about throwing ground balls and tell him to concentrate on striking out as many batters as he can.”

After returning from Smithers in 1987, Gooden himself announced that he was junking his cut fastball. “It was a matter of him cutting his pitches even when he didn’t want to,” Stottlemyre told the Bergen Record on June 7, “There is a carry-over from the cut fastball to the regular fastball.” Gooden’s drug suspension buried the story of his attempted conversion to a put-it-in-play type pitcher. People needed no reason besides drugs for his inability to get back to his 1985 level. Indeed, it is impossible now to separate the factors that may have prevented him from having a Hall of Fame career. Did he mess himself up with drugs? Had Stottlemyre monkeyed around with the rarest of talents? Or was it simply that he just pitched way too many innings between 18 and 21 years of age? By the time Rivera was enjoying his first great season, teammate Dwight Gooden was hanging on as a finesse pitcher. Rivera reminded him of himself “a long time ago.”

Mel Stottlemyre must have had the same thought, because there is an alternate version of Rivera’s cutter discovery story. The same reports that have Stottlemyre teaching him a change-up in 1996 have him teaching Rivera the cutter as well. A fuller explanation from Tom Haudricourt in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (October 5, 1999):


Because Rivera has the ability to blow his fastball past hitters, Torre and Stottlemyre thought he might be getting a bit strikeout happy. They also fretted about the toll it would take on Rivera’s arm as pitch counts continued to rise.

With that in mind, Stottlemyre worked with Rivera on using different grips and arm angles with his fastball, making the ball rise or dip when he wanted. Rivera also learned to “cut” the ball in on left-handed batters, sawing off their bats and preventing them from leaning over the plate.

As a result, Rivera no longer lives and dies by the strikeout….

“I think once Mariano got over the fact that he would think about striking people out, he became a real good reliever,” Torre said. “Now you see him go through some innings throwing six, seven pitches, which enables us to have him available more so than before.”

Does this happen on other teams? Does the Boston pitching coach say, “We’re concerned about Pedro striking out so many hitters.” Are there people in the Marlins camp telling Josh Beckett, “Let them hit the ball, son. We want more grounders out of you.”

Did Stottlemyre really repeat his dubious Gooden experiment with another golden arm? I don’t know, but if he did, you could consider it something of a vindication. Rivera managed a remarkable transformation in which he dropped a lot strikeouts and yet remained a power pitcher (the strikeouts have actually been creeping back up in recent years). Maybe Rivera’s low-K style has helped him stay as sharp as he has through age 34. And Torre was not wrong when he noted that his ace gets out of his share of innings in under ten pitches, and this increases his availability for multiple inning stints.

Is This the Way to Cooperstown?

In fact, I think Torre should have left Rivera in Game 4 of the 1997 ALDS after Sandy Alomar Jr. took him deep. Alomar’s shot only tied the score and he was throwing fine. They yanked him out of there to save him for Game 5, but Game 5 never came for Mariano. Blowing the Yankees’ chance to clinch the Division Series interrupted Rivera’s assembly of his postseason legend. Despite an excellent season in 1998, USA Today ranked the Yankee juggernaut’s relief ace only seventh among the eight playoff closers. Trevor Hoffman, Mike Jackson, and Tom Gordon had had their best seasons, Rod Beck had 51 saves, John Wetteland had… seniority, I guess. At least the writer liked Mo better than Kerry Lightenberg. Even after the series, Larry Dierker was less than effusive in his series commentary for The Sporting News: “[Rivera] reminds me a lot of Billy Wagner from our team, but he has better control. I don’t see him having much command of the breaking pitch, though.”

Didn’t need no stinking breaking pitch, Larry. It took two postseasons to overwhelm the Alomar homer and make Rivera’s rep as a bat-breaking October demigod. He won the World Series MVP award in 1999. In Game 3 of the 2000 ALCS, he broke the record for consecutive scoreless innings in postseason play. Cool record – once belonged to Whitey Ford and Babe Ruth.

[Disclaimer: As with any postseason record, Bob Costas and assorted other guardians of the integrity of the national pastime would like you to know that previous record holders did all of that wonderful pitching in World Series games – not in these despicable little playoff games that don’t even count for anything. Of course, we can’t have the few children who are interested in baseball growing up thinking that Mariano Rivera, pitching against these sub-World Series performers like Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Jason Giambi, was doing anything remotely similar to Whitey Ford facing clubs like the mighty 1960 Pirates].

The end of the 2001 World Series (1B, throwing error, comebacker, 2B, HB, bloop, OK?) was, of course, the worst thing ever to happen. Interestingly, it was right after the series that I first started hearing people talking about Rivera as a Hall of Famer. You know you are doing pretty well when you blow Game 7 of the World Series and touch off a Hall of Fame debate about yourself.

Hall of Fame talk surrounding a player can have a variety of meanings. If it is about a guy starting out, like Albert Pujols, the question is, will he sustain it? For someone on the way out, like Fred McGriff, the question is did he meet the standard, did he hit enough homers or whatever? Stumping for Rivera in mid-career is asking for validation about either a) the centrality of the closer to a championship team, or b) the centrality of the postseason to the whole baseball experience.

It would be reasonable to think that the Hall of Fame ought to enshrine pitchers basically in order of the wins they contributed to their teams by saving runs over the course of their careers, with slight adjustments for peak performance, postseason play, leadership, having invented the curveball or whatnot. That is more or less the sabermetrician’s basic player greatness model, right?

On that scale, Rivera has a long way to go; impossibly long actually. For example, Baseball Prospectus, after attempting to adjust for park and era, estimates chic sabr-candidate Bert Blyleven saved 1408 runs over what a replacement level pitcher might have (PRAR). They have Mariano Rivera worth only 477 runs above replacement so far. Win Shares has Blyleven leading Rivera 339 to 128. Even with the new efforts to give more credit to pitchers in high-leverage situations, closers just aren’t going to climb Raw Greatness Mountain.

So to make a Hall of Fame case for Rivera, you first have to think that relievers get to compete in their own category. If you do, then Rivera is a contender. Mike at Mike’s Baseball Rants has undertaken a major study of relief pitchers to try to determine the value of the runs they’ve saved as adjusted for the efficiency of their use pattern. Despite being in the somewhat inefficient “closer” pattern, Rivera holds his own against the stoppers and firemen of yore. Mike’s system ranks Rivera as the third greatest relief pitcher of all time, behind Hoyt Wilhelm and Rich Gossage (although as an active pitcher, his ranking may suffer through the end of his career).

And that’s without the postseason record. In his January 20th piece, “Closed Out of Cooperstown,” Tom Verducci came down in favor of the de facto one-per-decade Hall of Fame reliever standard, which is reasonable enough. After likening Rivera to a place-kicker and Troy Percival, he does admit, “Of course Rivera has been knighted as The Greatest Postseason Reliever in History.”

The passive construction of this sentence fails to do justice to the achievement. Rivera wasn’t just handed this title by some sort of lazy sportswriter peerage. To say that he is the “greatest postseason reliever” is granting him nothing beyond the obvious. The real question is whether he is in fact simply the greatest postseason player of all time.

I’m not sure you could ever reconcile postseason performance quality and opportunity to everyone’s satisfaction, but Rivera has an awfully impressive combination of quality of play and playing time logged. It’s not a slam dunk. Babe Ruth’s teams won seven championships, and he could have been World Series MVP four or five times. I’m just saying Rivera has to be in the argument with Ruth, Bob Gibson, and not too many others. If he’s the greatest postseason player of all time, with a substantial specialist’s career, I think that makes a pretty decent case.

Buster Olney, in an interview with Bronx Banter, said “I think a lot of the players on the other teams believe that Rivera is essentially the difference between the Yankees winning two championships and winning four or five. Because the Yankees had what other teams didn’t have: a closer who would not lose in the ninth inning.”

I don’t want to overrate the closer’s role in particular but from 1995-2003, the Yankees played .602 ball in the regular season, and .653 ball in the playoffs. There were two Yankee players in this run who really stepped up their games in postseason: Orlando Hernandez and Mariano Rivera. To say Rivera would not lose in the ninth inning perhaps takes you into the clutch ability debate. The baseball intelligentsia cannot abide fans who pop the clutch for Jeter, Pettitte, or Tino (hey, has Jason Giambi gotten any credit for hitting two homers off Pedro in Game 7 yet?) because they know performance in small samples is not predictive.

This point is lost on the Church of Clutch, because to them, calling someone a clutch player is not really a prediction anyway, but more like an appreciation of past favors. It is on this level that Rivera’s postseason numbers are relevant. Not that he would not lose, but that for a crucial stretch of games he did not, not often anyway. Our modern baseball experience is big and little dynasties dominating small divisions and racking up tons of postseason games. There are guys like John Smoltz, Bernie Williams, and Mariano who might not quite stack up as traditional Hall of Famers, but have been our October fixtures for a decade, annually contesting baseball’s most important games. Nobody has been better in those games than Mo. If you want the Hall of Fame to reflect that, I won’t argue the point.

Chris DeRosa lives in Oakhurst, NJ and had the absurdly good luck to be at both the ’95 ALDS Game 2 and the ’03 ALCS Game 7 to see Mo pitch. You can reach him at christopherderosa@yahoo.com

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