Mariano Rivera is a unique player: like Babe Ruth, Rickey Henderson, Nolan Ryan

19 09 2011

The major league players most like Mariano Rivera are Babe Ruth, Rickey Henderson and Nolan Ryan.

Some players stand so far above the field that no one is even close.

Rivera today passed Trevor Hoffman to become the all-time career saves leader with 602. But it’s not even close who’s the best relief pitcher ever. Just like it’s not even close who was the best base stealer ever or the best strikeout pitcher or most unhittable pitcher ever.

Look at how these players blew away the field:

Nolan Ryan. He struck out 5,714 batters, 839 strikeouts more than Randy Johnson, who’s second with 4,875. That’s 17 percent more than anyone ever. Give Johnson his best two seasons each one more time, and that’s not enough to catch Ryan. And it’s not just strikeouts. Ryan had seven career no-hitters, 75 percent more than Sandy Koufax, who is second with four. Ryan had as many no-hitters as Koufax and Bob Feller combined. For good measure, Ryan also holds the single season strikeout record, though that one is by a single K over Koufax.

Rickey Henderson was similarly dominant as a base-stealer, finishing with 1,406 for his career, half again (actually 49.89 percent more, if you want to be precise) as many as Lou Brock‘s 938. After breaking Brock’s record, Henderson stole as many bases as Willie Mays stole in his entire career. Then he stole another 130, as many as he stole in setting the single-season record. That record was 12 more (9 percent more) than Brock’s record of 118. Henderson also holds the all-time records for runs and homers leading off a game, and held the walks record until Barry Bonds blew past him.

Babe Ruth‘s all-time homer records have long since fallen: Roger Maris got his single-season record, Hank Aaron his career record, Mickey Mantle his World Series record. But when Ruth retired, he was hundreds of career homers ahead of the field. He still is way ahead of everyone in one category: 12 league homer titles, way ahead of Mike Schmidt, second with eight. And, oh, yeah, Ruth was a hell of a pitcher, too. Of the few major leaguers who pitched and played a position, no one was close to as good as Ruth as a pitcher, let alone as a hitter.

Rivera is similarly unique in baseball history. Don’t compare him to Hoffman, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Lee Smith or any other great reliever. It’s just not close. OK, it’s close in career saves with Hoffman, and Rivera doesn’t hold the single-season saves record (Francisco Rodriguez saved 62 in 2008).

Here’s where it’s not close: Hoffman had a 2.87 career ERA and only two seasons with an ERA under 2.00. Rivera has an ERA of 2.22, with 10 seasons under 2.00. (Smith had one season under 2.00, Gossage three, Eck three, Fingers three, Wilhelm six, Sutter two.) Rivera has more seasons under 2.00 than the last three relievers elected to the Hall of Fame combined. 

And we haven’t even gotten to post-season yet. But let’s do that: Rivera’s 42 saves in the post-season are more than double the next-closest pitcher, Brad Lidge at 18. OK, but he pitched his whole career in the era of three rounds of the post-season. So let’s just look at his World Series performance: 11 saves, nearly twice the six saves by Fingers, who’s second. With four pitchers tied at third with four saves, you can’t choose two relievers who can combine to match Rivera’s World Series save total. (Here’s a fun fact: One of those guys with four saves was John Wetteland. Rivera set up three of those saves.)

How about post-season ERA: Rivera is under 1.00 in career ERA for the World Series, League Championship Series, Division Series and, of course, total post-season. He’s had 21 post-season series (out of 31) when he didn’t give up an earned run and only two series with an ERA higher than 2. In 94 post-season games, he lost once (Game 7 in the 2001 World Series, on a bloop single).

Sabermetricians like to pretend they can prove that there’s no such thing as clutch performance (they can’t). Here’s the proof that Rivera has been the greatest clutch performer in baseball history: In 139 post-season innings (two seasons’ worth for Rivera, so that’s plenty of data), facing the best teams in his league or the very best team in the other league, Rivera has a lower ERA by more than a run and a half than his spectacular regular-season ERA.