We don’t need numbers to know that Mariano Rivera is in a class by himself. We see it every season, every month, every game, every save. We see it as that cutter darts in and out to hitters, as another bat shatters, as another game ends at the hands of the Sandman. But, hey, the numbers look pretty amazing by themselves.
This morning on Twitter, a few baseball analysts found themselves tossing out some Mariano Rivera numbers, and since more people will read this article in the next hour than will see most of those Twitter posts, let’s delve in. Colin Wyers of The Hardball Times started things off with a note on relievers. Over the last 15 seasons, the average pitcher would, he said, “typically convert 70% of 1-run saves, 86% of 2-run saves and 94% of 3-run saves.” Overall, based on the frequency of each type of save, Wyers found that an average pitcher saves 82 percent of all games.
Cork Gains from Rays Index jumped into the fray as well. His number is simply awe-inspiring. Rivera has converted all nine of the save situations in which he enters the game with the tying run on base. The average closer converts in that situation 55 percent; the average reliever escapes with the lead just 22 percent of the time.
On the one hand, these numbers underscore how many overvalue relievers. If an average pitcher can save 94 percent of all three-run games, what is the incremental win value of adding a pitcher who can save 96 percent? 98 percent? Unless that pitcher is the best of the best when it comes to closing, a team will be paying far too much for far too little.
Sky Kalkman, an unabashed Mariano Rivera lover, picked on this thread. Since inheriting the closer role in 1997, Rivera has averaged 40 saves and 4.5 blown saves. The average reliever over that span would have 36.5 saves and eight blown saves. Over the last five seasons, Mo has been even better, averaging 38 saves and just 2.8 blown saves. The average reliever would have 33.5 saves and around seven or eight blown games.
In terms of wins, Kalkman estimates Mariano’s numbers at 3.25 wins above average and around 4.25 wins above replacement over the last half decade. He knocks that down a tad based on the belief that the Yanks would win some of those games blown by the average reliever. At Baseball Projection, Sean Smith offers up a similar take. Mariano Rivera’s career WAR is 49.9, and his average WAR over the last five years is 3.36.
So where does that leave Rivera? On Smith’s all-time pitcher WAR list, Mo is 76th overall with only a bunch of Hall of Fame starters in front of him. Other than Dennis Eckersley, a hybrid starter/reliever, Rivera is the highest ranked relief-only pitcher on the list. He truly is in a class by himself.
In a way, as I said before, we know all of this because we see it. But in another way, it helps underscore why Yankee fans are so obsessed with The Eighth Inning. At some point, Mariano Rivera will retire. He turned 40 a month ago and won’t be able to keep this up forever. Then, the Yankees will began the long process of replacing an all-time great. Maybe that responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes. Maybe it will fall on some other young stud pitcher asked to don the mantle of Mariano. It will not be easy, and we shouldn’t expect greatness from Rivera’s heir.
In the end, I’m going to do what I always do. I’m going to sit back, watch and love Mariano Rivera for what he brings to the table every day. His greatness as a one-pitch, three-out pitcher who just gets the job done may never be surpassed, and we shouldn’t expect it from the next Yankee closer whoever that might be and whenever he inherits the job.