1996 Mariano Rivera: From Career Crossroads to the Best Relief Season of the Last 30 Years

Fan Confidence Poll: February 1st, 2016
The Home Run That Started A Dynasty

Welcome to Retro Week. Baseball news is slow this time of the offseason, so we’re going to look back at the good ol’ days this week. Since this is the 20th anniversary of the 1996 Yankees, we’re going to focus on them. Hope you enjoy.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Heading into the 1996 season, the Yankees weren’t quite sure what they had in 26-year-old Mariano Rivera. He had a solid yet generally unspectacular minor league career after signing out of Panama in 1990, and he made his big league debut in 1995 with ten starts and nine relief appearances. Rivera had a 5.51 ERA (84 ERA+) in 67 innings that year.

There was an open spot in the rotation going into the 1996 season, but George Steinbrenner‘s affection for ex-stars and needling the Mets meant Doc Gooden got the job out of Spring Training, not Rivera. Gooden joined the returning David Cone and Jimmy Key, the up-and-coming Andy Pettitte, and the free agent signee Kenny Rogers in the starting staff.

Rivera was good enough for the big league team and, at age 26, another assignment to Triple-A didn’t make sense. Not after he finished the 1995 season with solid work in relief. Rivera was in the bullpen with an undefined role to start that 1996 season, which is often the case for players who are not yet established. John Wetteland was the closer and the setup crew included Jeff Nelson and Bob Wickman.

New manager Joe Torre eased Rivera into action — seven of his first nine appearances came with the Yankees trailing — and it wasn’t until Rivera threw a no-hitter that he began to earn more trust. A no-hitter spread across three appearances, that is. On April 22nd, Mariano entered the sixth inning of a game the Yankees were leading by three, and he threw three perfect innings against the Royals.

Four days later Torre brought Rivera into a game with the Yankees trailing the Twins by four. Three more hitless innings followed and the Yankees came back to win the game thanks to a Bernie Williams grand slam. Torre went to Rivera for three innings again just two days later. Mo again did not allow a hit, enabling the Yankees to come from behind for the 6-3 win.

“Only one day off with three innings the other day, it was big for us. We’re knowing him a little bit more. If we don’t have to use him as many innings, he may be able to work on a regular basis for us,” said Torre to Jack Curry following Rivera’s third straight appearance of three hitless innings. “From last year, I keep a lot of confidence in myself,” said Mo to Curry. “I can throw with no doubts. I just do my job.”

Rivera’s no-hit streak did not stop there. He threw two hitless innings two days later and another two hitless innings three days after that. All told, Rivera went 49 batters and 15 innings between hits early in that 1996 season. Only 13 of those 49 batters hit the ball out of the infield. Thirteen struck out. Just like that, Mariano had entered Torre’s Circle of Trust™.

Being trusted by Torre meant working a lot, and Rivera thrived under the big workload. Following the no-hit streak, Rivera threw multiple innings 31 times in 50 appearances the rest of the season, including at least two full innings 26 times. His June workload makes Dellin Betances look babied by comparison:

Date Tm Opp Rslt Inngs Dec IP H R ER BB SO ERA BF W.P.A.
Jun 2 NYY @ OAK W,11-4 7-8 H(7) 1.1 2 2 2 0 1 1.42 7 0.073
Jun 4 NYY TOR W,5-4 7-8 H(8) 2.0 2 0 0 1 2 1.35 9 0.343
Jun 7 NYY @ DET L,5-6 7-8 BS(1) 2.0 2 1 1 0 3 1.50 8 -0.064
Jun 10 NYY @ TOR W,5-3 7-8 H(9) 2.0 2 0 0 0 2 1.43 8 0.158
Jun 16 NYY CLE W,5-4 6-8 H(10) 2.2 3 1 1 1 5 1.54 12 0.104
Jun 21 (2) NYY @ CLE W,9-3 6-8 3.0 3 1 1 0 5 1.63 12 0.074
Jun 25 (2) NYY @ MIN W,6-2 6-8 H(11) 3.0 1 0 0 1 5 1.54 11 0.228
Jun 28 NYY BAL L,4-7 7-9 L(3-1) 2.1 4 3 3 2 2 1.96 12 -0.237

“He’s our most indispensable pitcher,” said Torre to Curry at midseason. “Especially with Cone and Key out and our bullpen the way it is. He gives me protection. I’m not moving him. I can use him three times in five days. I can’t do that if I start him.”

June was not Rivera’s best month so Torre did scale back on his workload a bit. Mo made only six appearances in the span of 18 days from June 28th to July 16th, thanks in part to the All-Star break. He was limited to one inning in four of those six appearances as well. As dominant as he was, Rivera needed a little breather at midseason, and Torre gave it to him.

The Yankees started the second half with a 52-33 record and a six-game lead in the AL East thanks in no small part to Rivera, who emerged as a dominant bullpen force that often single-handedly bridged the gap between the starter and Wetteland. Mariano was not an All-Star but he took a 1.80 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP into the break. He threw 60 innings in the fist half, which is a full season’s workload for relievers these days.

The AL East lead swelled to 12 games by the end of July, but that did not last. The lead dwindled to four games by the end of August and only 2.5 games by September 11th. Rivera was needed more than ever up to that point, and he gave the club 32.2 innings in 21 appearances in the final 52 games of the season. He allowed six runs (1.65 ERA) — four of which were in one game — while striking out 45 and holding opponents to a .179/.232/.214 batting line.

Thanks to a 19-2 rout of the Brewers, the Yankees clinched the AL East on September 25th, in Game 157. Rivera threw nine innings and appeared in seven of the previous 14 games as Torre pushed for the division title. Mariano finished the season with a 2.09 ERA (240 ERA+) in 107.2 innings. His 130 strikeouts were then a franchise record for a reliever. At 5.0 bWAR, it is the most valuable relief season of the last 30 years, since Mark Eichhorn racked up 7.4 WAR in 157 innings in 1986.

As expected, Torre leaned on Rivera heavily in the postseason. Mo threw four hitless innings against the Rangers in the ALDS, four scoreless innings against the Orioles in the ALCS, and he allowed one run in 5.2 innings against the Braves in the World Series. The end result: 14.1 innings, 15 base-runners, ten strikeouts, one run. Opponents hit .196/.268/.235 against him that October. Rivera threw two hitless and scoreless innings in the Game Six win over Atlanta to clinch the World Series title.

Following the season Rivera finished third in the Cy Young voting behind Pat Hentgen and Pettitte. He finished 12th in the MVP voting. The crazy thing? Mariano was not yet throwing his trademark cutter at that point. He was a fastball-slider pitcher in 1996. It wasn’t until the following season that he picked up the cutter. As the story goes, Rivera learned the pitch while playing catch with Ramiro Mendoza.

Rivera was a mystery heading into that 1996 season. He was at a career crossroads at age 26. That’s the age when a lot of guys become afterthoughts if they’re not yet established at the MLB level. The Yankees nearly traded Rivera in Spring Training and even though they held onto him, he did not have a defined role. It took a 15-inning no-hit streak to grab a late-inning role, and once Mo grabbed it, he held on for nearly two decades.

“He basically made my career in ’96 when we came up with the formula of pitching the seventh and eighth inning,” said Torre to David Lennon in 2013. “It was remarkable what we had with him.”

Fan Confidence Poll: February 1st, 2016
The Home Run That Started A Dynasty