2011 Season Preview: Mariano Rivera

Mitre scratched with left oblique soreness
Yankees get Kontos back from San Diego

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(Kathy Willens/AP)

One day Mariano will grow old. Years ago writers tried to predict his decline. A blip on the radar would inspire articles questioning whether he could continue dominating hitters. It still hasn’t happened. In fact, there have been fewer articles predicting his decline in recent years than there were wen he was in his mid-30s. He’s been that dominant in the past few years. 

In some ways, Mo’s 2010 was better than his 2009. His strikeout rate dipped, but so did his WHIP and home run rate. His numbers won’t stay this way forever, but he’s given no indication that he’s ready to slow down. 

Best Case

(Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Is there really a ceiling for Mo? Sure, he won’t pitch 80 innings and allow two earned runs, but his ceiling isn’t too far off from that. In an absolute best case, he’s probably good for 70 innings and a 1.50 ERA. That’s around his performance from 2008, when, at age 38, he produced the best ERA+ of his career. If anyone can repeat that task three years later, at age 41, it’s Mariano.

To hammer home the best case scenario, we can put Mariano’s performance at age 40 into context. Since 1980 there have been only 34 instances of a relief pitcher aged 40 or higher throwing 50 or more innings. Of those, only 19 have produced an ERA+ of 120 or higher. Mariano’s 238 ERA+ from last year ranks first on the list. That he could top that at age 41 boggles the mind.

Worst Case

Even the worst case scenario for Mariano this year isn’t devastating. Sure, there’s the minute possibility that he falls off a cliff, but that’s the case with every player. It’s the same thing with injuries. Any player at any time can suddenly decline in production or get hurt. But we’re looking for a more realistic worst case, rather than one that has Mo giving up homers and then getting hurt.

Mo’s worst case involves a few more blips than he’s had in the past few years. That is, maybe three weeks where his cutter isn’t cutting and he blows a few saves. Think 2007, but with a small blip mid-season and then another one later on, rather than him just starting slowly. The worst case also involves a few injuries. We know Mo is prone to soreness and spasms that keep him out for a few games. If things go wrong that could happen a few more times than it has in the recent past.

What’s Likely To Happen

The most likely scenario for Mo is far closer to his best case than his worst case. He’s been incredibly consistent in the past eight seasons, keeping his ERA under 2.00 in all of them except 2007. Even then he regained his dominant form after a rough April. Even at age 41, his most likely scenario has him pitching around 65 innings to a 2.00 ERA. Few closers will ever match that kind of production, never mind doing it year after year.

If this preview seems a bit lacking, it’s because there’s no need to dive into the case of Mariano Rivera. Since 1996 he has been the most beloved Yankee, and his folk hero status has only grown with time. What I find most striking is that while he is at an age where pitchers are watching games on TV, Mariano remains dominant. We’ve been lucky to watch him for the past 15 years, and I don’t think we can be reminded of that too frequently.

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Mitre scratched with left oblique soreness
Yankees get Kontos back from San Diego
  • CBean

    In Mo We Trust

  • http://youcantpredictbaseball.wordpress.com/ bexarama

    Good article.

    Yesterday, even while watching the Yankees get blown out, I was reminded of how Mo is just… the greatest. I mean, that last pitch he threw to Kubel wasn’t even close to fair in the middle of the season, nevertheless Spring Training. We are indeed very lucky to have seen him all these years.

    G.O.A.T.

    • Nigel Bangs

      mad g.o.a.t.

      • Jared

        G.O.A.T?

        • Anchen

          If you are asking what it stands for, G.O.A.T is Greatest of All Time. Too bad the actual acronym is related to choking… If/when Mariano finally can’t do it anymore and hangs it up, I’m going to be one very sad Yankee fan =[ Carried himself with great dignity and yankee pride and was just the greatest reliever ever. Sure fire hall of famer with WAR numbers that legitimately put him in the hall even among starters.

  • Tank the Frank

    Once Mariano is gone, we’re truly going to understand what it’s like to have a non deity closing out games. We’re going to see how every other team in baseball feels. Even if we have an above average closer, hell even a really good closer (Soriano), we’re going to marvel at the differences between their failures and Mariano’s failures. It defies explanation how he continues to get it done at an elite level year after year.

  • Rob

    While watching Mo yesterday, I actually started to laugh uncontrollably. I know it is just ST, but he is so awesome. He absolutely dominates and even when he does get beat, it is just luck. Literally a few times, in an entire year, does he actually get hit hard. I now cannot imagine Yankees baseball without him.

  • Ted Nelson

    Not trying to take away anything from how great Mo is and has been for a very long time, but with a 41 year old I don’t think you can just say: “Any player at any time can suddenly decline in production or get hurt.” Just a guess, but I guess 41 year olds have an elevated risk of falling off a cliff or getting hurt than younger players. Mo has obviously been an extreme outlier, but as much as Yankee fans don’t want to believe it he is immortal.

    I also think he’s in line for another fall to 55 IP. His IP have fallen two straight seasons (possibly artificially to preserve him, possibly not.. I’m not sure). With Soriano on board and Joba (hopefully) in-line for a bounce back season I don’t think the Yankees will need to push him in the regular season, so I see the trend continuing. Who knows, just saying that even in the best case he might not pitch that many regular season innings. Most likely case I’d say 55-60 innings.

    • Ted Nelson

      “but as much as Yankee fans don’t want to believe it he is immortal.”

      Haha… Freudian slip maybe… meant he is *not* immortal.

    • A.D.

      Just a guess, but I guess 41 year olds have an elevated risk of falling off a cliff or getting hurt than younger players.

      True, but sure-fire hall of famers are probably less likely to become awful overnight over the avg player, especially given they have a long fall, which could more than make up for the age factor

      • Ted Nelson

        Good point that Mo’s falling off a cliff might not mean him being all that bad really… He could fall off a cliff and still be a pretty good closer. This would be the 2007 type worst case Ben mentions.
        Besides him being amazingly good to start with, pitching one innings at a time can also mask some diminished effectiveness. Some other closers have had much worse peripherals as they age than in their primes but still managed strong save/blown save numbers.

        There’s never really been a Mo, so hard to say. Pitchers tend to hit a wall or fade out (maybe sometimes by choice) in their 40s, though.
        Not saying it’s that likely for Mo to fall off (I have no idea how likely it is), I just think that even with a great player the 40s are borrowed time. I just think he’s a lot more likely to fall of than he was when he was when he was, say, 31.

  • cano is the bro

    I love Mo

  • Rey22

    I am going to curl into the fetal position the day Mo retires.

    • S

      News report from the 2133 World Series….

      The Yankees recently won their 110th WS title thanks in no small part to the great closer Mariano Rivera…

      Rivera who will be celebrating his 163rd birthday next month, struck out the side to end the game 6 series….people around the world including Mo’s manager Derek Jeter IX (direct descendant of the great Yankee shortstop)have begun to think that the great closer might not be human. When asked, the gracious Mo, surrounded by his usual blindingly bright golden aura only smiles…

  • YanksFan in MA

    High socks huh? Looks so unusual from Mo.

    • 28 this year

      makes him look 20 again.

  • Nedro

    Thanks be to Mo. Here endeth the lesson.