It usually only happens once a year. At some point, usually early in the season, Mariano Rivera will struggle for about a week. A few years ago it led to column after column wondering if this was the end of his superhuman run. Baseball writers have since learned, though, and we no longer see anything like that. We just accept that Mo will have a bad week and move on.
This year we’ve seen something a bit different. Mo experienced his annual rough week in May when he walked in a run and then served up a grand slam against the Twins, allowed two runs against Boston, and then had a shaky time saving a close game against the Mets. Before those three appearances he hadn’t allowed a run all season. He didn’t allow another run in his next 16 appearances. In other words, it looked like any other year. But since September 11 we’ve seen something quite different.
On September 10 the Yankees and Rangers were deadlocked at five heading into extra innings. Wanting to take the first game of a three-game set in Arlington, Joe Girardi went to Mo for the 10th. Even after the Yankees failed to score in their half of the 11th, Girardi went back to Mo. The appearance didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. Mo allowed one hit and struck out two in those two frames. But he cannot go three innings and the Yankees lost when Nelson Cruz homered off Chad Gaudin.
The next day the Yankees found themselves in a position to take the second game of the series. Up 6-5 heading into the bottom of the ninth, Girardi again turned to Mo. A few years ago that wouldn’t have raised a single eyebrow. But this year Mo is 40 going on 41, and he had just thrown two innings the previous day. He had used only 23 pitches to retire those six Rangers, so perhaps he was good for a rebound. It was not to be. The Rangers rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth while Mo recorded only one out. It was the first time in 2010 that he’d come into the game with a lead and allowed the walk-off hit.
Since then Mo has not at all been Mo. In the 5.2 innings since his two-inning appearance he has allowed six runs on nine hits and two walks, though the two walks did come during that game in Texas. Most strikingly, though, he has struck out just one batter. While he has saved three games in that span, he hasn’t looked particularly dominant in any of them. This certainly raises questions about how effective he will be in the playoffs.
The problem stems from his command. For a decade and a half we’ve seen Mo throw pitches right to the catcher’s glove. It’s part of the reason why he’s able to survive with just the cutter and the occasional fastball. This year we’ve seen more of the same. While it’s not the best measure of command, per se, Mo had thrown 67 percent of his pitches for strikes through September 10, which is right around where he’s been for most of his career. I’m not sure we can precisely measure command, but if Mo’s balls in play tendencies are any indicator then he’s doing just fine. Opponents are hitting fewer line drives and more weak fly balls, as evidenced by his meager 3.6 percent HR/FB ratio. He has also induced a swinging strike with 8.3 percent of his pitches, which is actually an increase over last year.
In his last six appearances Mo has thrown just 61 percent of his pitches for strikes, though most of that is due to the blown save in Texas, when he threw just nine of 21 pithes for strikes. That leaves a 65 percent strike rate in the following five appearances, but they haven’t all been good strikes. The 23 batter he has faced have a .300 BABIP, while Mo’s season mark is .235 and his career mark is .274. Maybe some of that is luck evening out, but most likely it’s Mo not having perfect command and serving up hittable pitches.
Given the way Mo has pitched since the two-inning appearance in Texas, it’s easy to point to that as the cause of his struggles. I used to launch into the correlation ? causation line here, but that itself is oversimplified. Maybe the strain of pitching an inning, sitting down, and then pitching another inning has affected Mo. It’s certainly possible, though I do think there is a better explanation. As Ben said last night, it’s been a long season and Mo is 40 going on 41. But in that way, I guess, it can be both. Maybe Mo’s body is no longer up to the task of pitching, then sitting down, then going out to pitch again. He did, after all, look quite fine when he retired his one batter in the eighth last night.
The good news is that Mo can get a breather this week. The Yanks are all but assured a playoff spot, so Girardi can cycle through his other, less effective relievers while he waits for the starting pitching and offense to deliver a win, or the White Sox to play the part of eliminator. I’d bank on no more than one more appearance for Mo, and that will be a tune-up. That’s nothing but good news for the Yanks, who will need their closer to again be superhuman in the playoffs.
Quick note: If Phil Cuzzi had an accurate notion of the strike zone we might not even be having this conversation right now. I’m not exactly blaming the ump; Mo still has to make his pitches. But if Bill Hall strikes out we’re looking at a completely different game, one that the Yanks might have won 2-1. Jon Papelbon, too, criticized Cuzzi, but his point was ultimately moot. If Cuzzi had given Papelbon those calls, well, he still wouldn’t have given him those calls because Pap wouldn’t have pitched in the first place. But this is just an end note, not something I think we should spend any real time discussing. Umps suck. We know this.