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An Excursus on Picking Mariano Rivera’s Best Season
2007-02-22 09:52
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

By Chris DeRosa (Guest Columnist)

Reading Sherman's book, I got to wondering how many analysts would choose 1996 as Rivera's best season. It's chief rivals are 2005 and 1999. It would probably be easiest to sort through the cases of the closer seasons, and then compare to the set-up year in '96.

We can easily rule out 2002, when injuries limited him to 46 innings; his debut season of 1995, when he was a starter with a 5.51 ERA; 2000, with his career-high relief ERA of 2.85; and both 1997 and 2006, which were fine seasons but boasting no advantages over his very best seasons.

2005 was the year Rivera had his best conventional rate stats: a career low 1.38 ERA (and a career high ERA+ of 323). He allowed his smallest percentage of baserunners (.235 on base percentage against), and was just as effective in denying power (hitters slugged .230 off him, missing his career best by only .002). He also had his best ever-rate of stranding inherited runners, allowing only 2 of 18 to score. He threw 78.3 innings, went 7-4, and saved 43 against 4 blown saves. In an unspectacular postseason, he allowed 1 run in 3 innings with two saves against the Angels.

In 1999, he was nearly as sharp in 69 innings, allowing a .239 on base percentage and a .237 slugging percentage. He went 4-3 with a 1.83 ERA with 45 saves against 4 blown saves. Of 27 runners inherited, he stranded 22 and permitted 5 to score. He also was the most efficient he had ever been, notching an out every 4.8 pitches, a career best. At this point, you would still have to put 2005 first. But then you get to the postseason. 1999 is in his top three: 12.3 scoreless innings, with 2 wins and 6 saves (and the World Series MVP Award). Counting their postseason and regular seasons stats together, 2005's ERA advantage shrinks to 1.44 to 1.55. And there's more: Rivera allowed only 1 unearned run in 1999, whereas he allowed 6 in 2005. If charged for all runs, inherited, earned, and unearned, in the regular and postseason, Mo was less scored upon in 1999 (2.21, 81.3 innings) than 2005 (2.32, 81.3 innings).

Rivera allowed an even smaller average of total runs the year before, in 1998. In 61.3 regular season innings, he allowed only 13 runs, all earned, and allowed only four of 24 inherited runners to score. In 13.3 postseason innings, he allowed only 6 hits, 2 walks, and no runs at all. In 74.6 combined innings, he allowed 2.05 runs per game, a career best. He also his highest percentage of good results: 3 wins, 36 saves, and 6 postseason saves, against no losses and only 5 regular season blown saves. Overall, though, it is hard to pick 1998 as his best year. The results may have been the cleanest, but he was hit harder (.270 on base percentage, .309 slugging percentage) than in 1999, and he didn't pitch as much.

2001, when he saved 50 games and got more batters out (236) than in any other year besides 1996, was his career high in win shares. I'm a big win shares fan. Asking them to pick a closer's best season, however, is among the last things win shares should be asked to do. It was a really good year, but he wasn't as dominating as in other seasons, and given that, I wouldn't pick the year he got beat by the Diamondbacks in the World Series as the best of his career.

2003 rates a mention. After going 5-2 with 40 saves and a 1.66 ERA in the regular season, he had arguably his best postseason: 16 innings pitched, 7 hits, 1 run, 0 walks, and 14 strikeouts. This includes his epic three-inning stint against Boston in ALCS game seven. On the downside, though, he was asked to deal with a career high 35 inherited runners, and almost half of them, 17, scored. In terms of his own runs, the regular season and postseason combined gave him about as good a mark as 2005, 1998, and 1999, but I wouldn't want to pick a year when he had such a hard time with inherited runners. The postseason record is a temptation, but he shut out postseason opponents in 1999 anyway. I think 1999 is still the top candidate.

There is a case for 2004 based on the sheer volume of good results. In the regular season, he had 4 wins and 53 saves against 2 losses and only 4 blown saves. In the postseason, he pitched well, gaining a win and 2 saves while allowing 1 earned run in 12.7 innings. It was also his best fielding season, making outs on a career-high 41 plays against 1 error. But although he pitched well, he had three blown saves in the postseason, one when he came back to get the win against Minnesota, and two against Boston in the ALCS. The second there was an impossible save, but the first was the disaster that let Boston back in the series. He also blew the emotional regular season game when the Red Sox attacked Alex Rodriguez. For me, it is too many black marks to pick the season over 1999.

1996 was Mo's best strikeout year by far: 130 Ks. He held one of the hardest hitting leagues in history to a career low .228 slugging percentage. Compared to 1999, he walked more hitters (.258 on base percentage vs. .239 in 1999), and hence had a higher ERA 2.09 to 1.91. He did worse with inherited runners, stranding 16 and letting 6 score. His postseason was excellent, 1 run in 14.3 innings. Overall, slightly sharper in 1999, but then there is the big ticket item: in 1996, Rivera pitched 107.7 innings, getting 316 batters out, 112 more than in 1999. And that's a lot mo' Mo.

The fact that he was not yet the closer is not a big thing to me. I have no doubt whatsoever that Rivera's 7th and 8th innings could have been 8ths and 9ths if he had been used that way. We've seen enough of this guy to know that. I also suspect that the added situational importance of his 1999 closer innings is not that large, and not at all larger than the 112 extra outs. Baseball-Reference.com (one of the world's greatest baseball websites), has now merged in data from Retrosheet.org (the other one) to provide access to an amazing amount of game information that it would have taken a huge amount of work to compile before. With a few clicks of a button, you can see what the score was every time Mariano Rivera entered a game, and what it was when he left. These summaries of Mo's usage pattern are from B-R:

Rivera chart

Rivera made 61 appearances in 1996, and 66 in 1999. In 1996, he had more games in which he pitched more than an innings, and in 1999, he had more games in which he pitched on consecutive days. As the setup man, he pitched in 17 games when the score was tied or the Yankees were behind, and as the closer, he pitched in only 8 of those. But overall, in both seasons, he made 37 appearances when the score of the game was within two runs. I can't see that situational importance in 1999 outweighs the extra quality pitching in 1996.

No, the objection to choosing 1996 as Rivera's best season isn't the role, it's the style. It is hard to choose as Rivera's best year one before he was regularly throwing the cut fastball, his signature pitch. Reliance on the cutter turned him from a high strikeout pitcher into one who would overpower hitters right on their bats, often splintering them in the process. From 1996 to 1999, he cut almost a full pitch off his pitches per out rate, and he became a different pitcher.

So who would you want, the guy who made that amazing first impression, blowing everyone away, oblivious to the whole mid-90s batting storm? Or the guy who carried you through the last decade, making short work of the last three or four outs, picking hitters apart with a few cutters? In the end, I can't choose—they're my two favorite players.

Comments
2007-02-22 10:03:59
1.   Shaun P
I think it was Knuckles who first posted about this, but its worth mentioning again:

http://tinyurl.com/2rkw7g

Given the choice between '96 Mo and '97-'07 Mo, I'll take both, please. And twice on Sundays!

2007-02-22 10:08:39
2.   Yankee Fan in Chicago
The amazing stat -- which I caught watching Game 4 of the 96 series the other night -- is that he had 107ip in 1996, which doesn't include I think the 15 ip in the postseason that year.

Indeed, given that as you say he threw more pitches per atbat in those day, isn't it amazing that Torre didn't blow out his arm that year?

2007-02-22 10:10:11
3.   Jim Dean
2 Me too! If we start cloning him now, can he be ready in 2027? And then just keep a steady stream ready.
2007-02-22 10:10:47
4.   nemecizer
Chris, great article. However, it did make me wince a bit with the knowledge that Mo won't be with us forever, and that that will be a gaping hole in our team.

My biggest nightmare every March is that this will be the year that Mo declines precipitously. One day it will happen. But please, God, not now. Give Mo another good year in the sun.

2007-02-22 10:22:29
5.   rbj
4
Heretic! I denounce you for merely suggesting tha Mo could ever be anything than divine. He'll always be with the Yankees.
2007-02-22 10:26:25
6.   Alex Belth
"My biggest nightmare every March is that this will be the year that Mo declines precipitously..."

I'm with you. I have that nightmare too.

2007-02-22 10:41:39
7.   Ken Arneson
Well, for what it's worth, at this year's A's Fan Fest, the every hitter who was asked "Who is the hardest pitcher to face" still answered Mariano Rivera. When I start hearing another answer, I'll send you a preseason warning to start your nightmares.
2007-02-22 10:52:23
8.   markp
I like 96. One of the great seasons by a reliever in MLB history. Unlike a lot of (most) other guys, he survived the 100+ IP in relief to have a great career. A lot of guys went south immediately after being (ab)used like that.
2007-02-22 11:17:48
9.   ny2ca2dc
456 Is the fear of a precipitous decline (leaving aside for the time being an injury) just an emotional one? Isn't a slow/steady/moderate decline over a couple of years more likely (again save for a cripling injury)?
2007-02-22 11:30:33
10.   tommyl
8 Joe however, has not. He's tried to make every setup guy he comes across pitch like Mo did that one year and most have had their arms fall off. I wish Joe would get that Mariano is a once in a lifetime kinda guy.
2007-02-22 11:40:11
11.   Cliff Corcoran
10 Tommyl read the "Stevie Hearsay" piece on the sidebar under Suggested Reading--Mo isn't the first player Joe pitched like that, he's just the only one to survive it.
2007-02-22 11:48:33
12.   Sliced Bread
A most enjoyable excursus there, Chris. Excellent stuff.

If I had to choose between '96 and '99, I'd go with the later vintage, the one who had evolved into a more efficient pitcher with his cutter.

Early Mo (pre cutter) was a spectacle to behold, but you can't ask a closer to be any more efficient than he was in '99 -- and his postseason performance, topped off with a Serious MVP? Mo himself would tell us it doesn't get better than that.

2007-02-22 12:15:59
13.   tommyl
11 Thanks Cliff! That's the second time I've read that and its a great piece. I had managed to forget that Mo wasn't the first reliever to be abused by Torre, nor will he be the last (see Proctor, Scott). I know there's personality and trust issues involved, but every reliever, including Mo has to make a mistake sometime. I remain mystified why some pitchers seem to get a long leash (see Beam, T.J.) while others do not. Any insight?
2007-02-22 12:37:59
14.   williamnyy23
11 I read the Stevie Hearsay piece and am not sure you are being fair to Torre. Specifically with regard to Karsay, he had averaged 81 innings over his previous three seasons before joining the Yankees. Do you really think Torre was abusive by extending him to 88?

I also don't follow your Bedrosian argument. In his three seasons under Torre, Bedrock was very successful while racking up lots of innings. His injury in 1984 was bicep tendonitis, which I don't believe is an injury commonly associated with being overworked. If you look at his career, I think it is much more fair to blame his 1985 stint as a starter for any long-term woes. The only problem with that, however, is Bedrosian went on to have a very fine 14-year career.

I also don't think you can blame Torre for Nelson's injury riddled 1998/99. If anything Nelson (and Stanton) used to always complain that they didn't pitch enough.

Personally, I am not a big fan of how Torre manages a bullpen, but when you are getting so few innings from the rotation, someone else has to pitch. I think Torre's biggest problem is that it takes a long time to both gain (i.e. Craig Wilson) and lose (i.e., Tanyan Sturtze) his trust. Of course, when you don't have enough talent in the pen, I am not sure what else can be done. After all, I'd have liked to see Proctor pitch less last season, but I can't for the life of me think of another reliable arm who could have picked up the slack.

2007-02-22 12:49:50
15.   williamnyy23
11 Also, I though the passage below was particularly unfair. After being traded to Montreal, Reardon racked up 109 innings in 1982 (and had one of his best seasons). He then followed with 92, 87, 87 and 89 inning workloads. Do you really mean to suggest that Reardon escaped a heavy workload by being traded away from Torre? Also, while 109 is less than 110 1/3, it is very misleading to suggest that Reardon's 1980 workload was out the norm for the early part of his career.

*
From Stevie Hearsay:
A free agent after the season, Perez fled to the Cubs where he had one last solid season before fading out of the league over the following two. The only reason Reardon didn't suffer a similar fate was that he was traded to Montreal in May 1981, giving Torre just one full season to inflict damage upon him. Indeed, Reardon never surpassed his 110 1/3 innings pitched under Torre in 1980

2007-02-22 13:37:18
16.   yankz
5 My thoughts exactly, except I was scared that I'd be called the heretic if I said Mo=God.
2007-02-22 13:56:18
17.   Shaun P
Crickets . . .

(Chyll Will, I think I owe you a buck for using that one.)

2007-02-22 14:36:38
18.   Chyll Will
17 "send a self-addressed stamped envelope along with a check addressed to CASH (my d.b.a.) to the address below."

Or you can send it to my niece, who originated it. Nice job, Nik Nak!

2007-02-22 14:38:09
19.   nemecizer
17 How about this?

Fuck Curt Schilling. Fuck him right in the ear.

He says he will test free agency, but wouldn't consider the Yankees. Arogant blimp, what makes him think we'd consider a 41 year old blow hard who is over the hill? I mean, we learned something from Randy Johnson, didn't we?

Didn't we?

2007-02-22 15:00:01
20.   tommyl
Hughes through live BP today. Giambi called him filthy and others compared him to a young Rocket. That just makes me giddy.

Also, A-Rod homered of Petitte, start up the meaningless homer jokes...

2007-02-22 15:03:45
21.   Chyll Will
19 Wowzers, don't get so worked up over Hurt Schilling; when his pitching has continued to go downhill and his popularity is waning in the process, along with his mouth expanding faster than his gut... I mean, c'mon, that's his version of fishwrap reporting. How about a list of the biggest media whores around the league? I tried to get a list of biggest BS purveyors going yesterday, so far we only have Gollum, Chassticle and John Harper, anyone else to add to that list? And it doesn't have to be local...
2007-02-22 15:21:00
22.   yankz
21 Well, he's probably a nice guy and doesn't really say anything mean, but Joe Morgan gets pretty annoying...
2007-02-22 15:52:31
23.   markp
It's pretty hard to add to a list with Gollum on it-he sets the bar pretty high. Kay's up there.
2007-02-22 16:44:33
24.   yankz
What's going on at MVN? It's like all their writers were FA's and signed with River Ave. Blues.
2007-02-22 16:47:14
25.   yankz
Not that I'm calling them sellouts or anything; the new site is great.
2007-02-22 17:25:30
26.   Chyll Will
23 I had mentioned Reissman right after Gollum. I guess there's not much to it since people are thankfully leaving the tabloid pages to the fishes. I suppose people will be complaining about E#$% when the season starts.

Oh well...

2007-02-22 17:27:06
27.   Yankee Fan in Chicago
[20} I read about it over at Peter Abraham's and at the new NYT baseball blog.

It just made me more convinced that it's a total waste to let St. Phil the Great waste some of his 180 innings alotted for this year in AAA.

He's too good to keep in the minors. He needs to be in the majors.

2007-02-22 17:42:45
28.   markp
I agree about wasting IP in AAA. I've heard some people say Joe will ruin him, but his problem has always been with RP and setup guys in particular. If anything, Hughes would have problems getting his 180 IP if how he handled Wright last year is an example of how he'd handle Hughes.
2007-02-22 17:47:47
29.   Chyll Will
27 I don't mind. Phil's the one in the chambah' the Yanks need to get through a season where they've overhauled their starting pitching. It's a win-win; if Pavano spits the bit, slide him in there and you'll at least get the production you would have gotten from a full season of Pavano in just half. If nothing else, keep him away from Torre's penchant for riding the hot hand into the ground. Now if he comes out of Spring looking like Rocket '86 then there's no argument. But for now, let them sell no wine before its time...
2007-02-22 20:04:56
30.   Chyll Will
Ella Fitzgerald on PBS 13 >;) Had to call my uncle and alert him. What's even better is watching and listening with someone who's never seen or heard her before. That wave of discovery is like going to the ballpark the very first time.
2007-02-22 20:18:11
31.   yankz
Giambi's a funny guy: http://tinyurl.com/ynp27e

(via Steve Lombardi)

I think we know who he had in mind when he said:

"What turns you off?

I hate people that babble on and have no respect for other people."

Seriously, do even Red Sox fans like Fat Schill?

2007-02-22 21:23:14
32.   Chyll Will
So which would be weirder to find out, Giambi kicking Mussina's butt in Trivial Pursuit or Mussina beating Giambi's butt to the strip joint?
2007-02-22 22:40:30
33.   yankz
Definitely the former, weren't there some pictures of Moose with some fine younger ladies a couple years back?
2007-02-22 22:43:06
34.   yankz
"I came out feeling good," Pavano said. "That's a positive, as far as I'm concerned."

I don't believe you, Glass Ass.

2007-02-23 05:15:17
35.   Jim Dean
Just found this great blog (HT waswatching:

http://thrnewmedia.com/spring_geffner/

Interview with Giambi yesterday:

Q: What's your favorite word?

A: All I can really say is, it starts with an F and ends with a K. It's a great adjective, noun, and it just comes out of me all the time.

Q: If you couldn't be a baseball player, what would you be?

A: A bouncer in a strip joint.

He also has this great quote from Cash regarding Bernie and loyalty:

"How do you define loyalty? I brought him back (for the 2006 season) after a really difficult year (for him in 2005)," Cashman told me exclusively in the Yankee clubhouse today. "Loyalty is a two-way street."

"It's all about '07 now," said Cashman, who's yet to hear from Williams personally. "Having Melky Cabrera changed the dynamics here, and this is what happens when you transition to a younger club. (Even if Bernie made the team), we're talking about a guy who at best would get very few at bats.

"Listen, I'm not the only one who feels this way (on how this needed to be handled). Everybody (in management) is on board."

2007-02-23 05:55:14
36.   Shaun P
36 There's also a Newsday article that expounds on Cashman and Bernie:

http://tinyurl.com/377sut

2007-02-23 05:55:41
37.   Shaun P
36 was supposed to reference 35 . . .

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