Mariano Rivera — incomparable in all sports

4 07 2013

I’ve been pleased to see Mariano Rivera pitch twice (and nail down the save both times) in his farewell season.

He gave up one hit in the ninth to the Twins last night, putting the tying run on base in a 3-2 game. But that just set him up against the Twins’ best hitter, Joe Mauer, with two outs. Mo got him to pop up weakly for the final out.

When Rivera became the all-time career saves leader in 2011, I wrote about how unique he was in baseball history.

Even then he stood so far above every other reliever that I compared him to Babe Ruth, Rickey Henderson and Nolan Ryan as baseball players whose achievements were so far above everyone else that they stood alone.

With his amazing comeback this year from major surgery at age 43, Rivera is making himself unique in team sports history. As ESPN’s Jason Stark noted earlier this year, no one in team sports history has had as dominant a season like Rivera is having at this age.

Maybe Jerry Rice stood as far above others at his position as Rivera does. Like Rivera, he doesn’t hold the single-season receiving records (though he once held the records for yards and touchdowns in a season). Like Rivera, Rice’s career dominance season after season and his post-season dominance are the best measures of his greatness. Like Rivera, Rice came back from torn knee ligaments late in his career. But Rice was 35 when he injured his knee in 1997. Rivera was 42 when he was injured last year. Rice wrapped up his career with a lackluster 30 catches for two teams at age 42. Rivera is second in the league in saves at age 43.

Beyond the fact that he’s playing better than anyone ever at his age, Rivera stands apart from all relief pitchers — or among the best baseball players or professional athletes in all sports — on several levels:

  • He blows away the field among other relief pitchers. I’ll repeat at the end of this post (with minor updates) some of the numbers I compiled in 2011 to show how he compares with other great relievers. Here’s another comparison, though: John Smoltz, a contemporary who’s an almost-certain Hall of Famer after excelling as a starter and reliever, had perhaps his best relief season in 2002, leading the National League with 55 saves (more saves than Rivera ever had in a season). But Smoltz’s ERA that year was 3.25, higher than Rivera’s worst season as the closer, 3.15. That was Rivera’s only season with an ERA over 3 after taking over the closer’s role.
  • Rivera’s post-season performance is so far above any relief pitcher’s that you have to compare him with the best post-season performers ever at all positions in baseball or in other positions. Those comparisons are difficult to make: Baseball greats such as Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, Smoltz and Derek Jeter are hard to compare because none of them was as dominant as Rivera but relief pitchers play fewer innings than position players or starting pitchers. Those comparisons get even tougher when you compare post-season stars from other sports, such as Rice, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Wayne Gretzky. Count by championships or devise other ways to measure a player’s impact on his team’s performance and he’s one of the best post-season players ever in any sport, however you measure it.
  • If Rivera is not the best at elevating his performance in the post-season, I can’t think who would be. I won’t check out everyone you could think of, but Jordan averaged 30 points a game in the regular season, 33 in the post-season. Jackson — Mr. October — slugged .490 in the regular season, .527 in the post-season. Rivera’s regular-season career ERA is an amazing 2.20. But his post-season ERA is 0.70. And he actually pitches more in the post-sesason (1.47 innings per appearance, compared to 1.16 in the regular season). Not to mention that he’s pitching against the best teams in baseball in the post-season.
  • Other great players have returned to greatness after severe injuries: Smoltz moved to the bullpen after sitting out the 2000 season; Tommy John was even better after the surgery that bears his name; Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning both returned from severe injuries this year in the NFL. But who else suffered a severe injury at age 42 and returned to greatness?

Here are those comparisons I made in 2011, updated to reflect current numbers:

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 2.19, with eight seasons under 2.00 (this year’s likely to make it nine). Smith had one season under 2.00, Gossage three, Eck three, Fingers three, Wilhelm six, Sutter two.

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 22 post-season series (out of 32) when he didn’t give up an earned run and only two series with an ERA higher than 2. In 96 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 141 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 a run and a half than his spectacular regular-season ERA.



18 responses

4 07 2013

I don’t think sabermetricians pretend there is no such thing as clutch. They (we) believe that past success doesn’t always dictate future success in these situations. But sabermetricians have given us Win Probability Added, and Mariano is in a class all his own. He ranks 4th all time for pitcher WPA, with 1/4 of the IP of the three above him.


4 07 2013
Steve Buttry

Of course, sabermetricians don’t always agree, but I’ve read multiple pieces dismissing the very existence of clutch performance.


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