Joe Posnanski has written a wonderful piece titled "The Meaning of 600 Saves", but it's really more about the meaning of saves, generally. And while I hate to do this because now you might not read the whole thing, here's Posnanski's big finish:
I really do think baseball has been dramatically altered by a statistic invented by a perturbed sportswriter. Let’s end this thing with one more thought about Rivera. He is the best relief pitcher who ever lived. But he’s also a failed starter. Baseball is such a fickle game. When I think of Rivera setting the save record, I think about how PERFECTLY he fits his era, his space, his team, his role. There are so few people who are ideal for their moment of time. John Wayne was, I think. Johnny Carson. Elvis. Lucille Ball. John Unitas. Michael Jackson. Senfield.. Oprah. Michael Jordan. If they had come around in another era, in different circumstances, there’s no telling how they might have expressed their talents, but it seems likely that they would not have inspired a generation.
If Rivera had come up in another time, he would have been great. But he might not have anything approaching 600 saves. If he had been with another team, he would have been great. But we might not have known just how good he was in the playoffs. And if he had been used 120 or 130 innings a year, he would have been great. But maybe he would not be as brilliant as ever at age 41. All of that is impossible to know, of course. What we do know is how good Mariano Rivera has been. When he breaks the record, raise a glass to him … and also to Jerome Holtzman who invented a flawed statistic that has changed the game and also made Mariano Rivera larger than life.
I've got two completely different minds about this.
First, we don't know that Rivera would have been great in another time. We don't know that Rivera would have been great if he'd been used for 120 or 130 innings per year; very few relief pitchers have been able to handle that sort of workload for long. The only thing we know is that Rivera has been perfectly suited to throwing 70-80 innings per season. Better suited than any other pitcher who's been asked to do it. The rest of it, we can barely guess.
I also have to say this, though ... Mariano Rivera is not "a failed starter".
Not in my book, anyway.
Do you know how many starts Rivera got in the majors?
Granted, that's more than Bruce Sutter or Dan Quisenberry (zero apiece) got.
But it's fewer than Rollie Fingers or Goose Gossage (37 apiece) got.
Rivera got 10 starts in the majors, and yes: he struggled as a starter.
In the minors, though?
In 13 triple-A starts, he posted a 3.98 ERA with 53 strikeouts and 13 walks in 61 innings.
In 9 double-A starts, he posted a 2.27 ERA with 39 strikeouts and 8 walks in 63 innings.
In 17 fast-A starts, he posted a 2.25 ERA with 69 strikeouts and 17 walks in 96 innings.
(I know that's a lot of numbers, but here are just two more: In Rivera's first professional season, he pitched 52 innings in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and gave up one earned run. Granted, he was pitching out of the bullpen. Maybe his ultimate role should have been obvious from the beginning.)
Obviously, Rivera didn't make a lot of starts in the high minors ... but that was largely because he was pitching so well as a starting pitcher that he kept getting promoted.
So yes, he failed as a starter in the majors ... but only in the sense that he performed poorly in the exceptionally limited opportunity that he was given to perform. My opinion is that if he'd been with almost any other organization, he would have been given a greater opportunity as a starter, and would have eventually have been successful.
Of course, the odds are hugely against him having becoming a Hall of Fame starter, or even winning 100 games. Rivera was not regarded as a truly premier prospect, perhaps because he didn't reach triple-A until he was 25. And the odds are stacked against even premier prospects.
But I just don't think he started enough games in the majors to have failed.