Mariano Rivera: The Most Ever For The Best Ever

NEW YORK, NY: Mariano Rivera #42 of the New York Yankees pitches a save against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. The Yankees defeated the Orioles 7-4. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Mariano Rivera has reached his third consecutive milestone, this time breaking Trevor Hoffman's all-time record for saves. This presents another opportunity to talk about how awesome Mariano Rivera has been.

Mariano Rivera has saved his 602nd regular-season baseball game. This makes him the all-time leader in the category, one ahead of Trevor Hoffman, and 124 ahead of Lee Smith. Obviously, this is an achievement worth writing about.

Yet, this presents a daunting challenge: How does one write about Mariano Rivera in a way that hasn't been done before? How does one introduce a new twist when discussing a New York Yankee, a five-time world champion, a twelve-time All-Star, and the greatest regular-season and postseason closer that ever there was? I'm not a believer in the theory that every story has already been told, but with Mariano Rivera, specifically, I could buy it. He's been a prominent player on the most prominent team every year since 1996.

I went back and forth with myself, and eventually I decided to stop looking for a new twist. Instead, I settled upon four old twists. I hope you're not too mad.

***

This post is being written because Rivera passed Hoffman and set a new record with 602 saves. Yet Grant just wrote a piece on Rivera reaching save number 600, and Rob just wrote a piece on Rivera reaching save number 601. What's one more save? What's changed?

What's changed is that Rivera is now alone at the top. Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer of all time, and now he has the most saves of all time, where saves are a popular method of evaluating the performance of closers. And that whole "most ever for the best ever" thing - across other records, we just don't see it.

In our heads, we treat records the way we treat championships: they're supposed to crown the best. But they often don't, in either case. Focusing on the former, look at some other current record-holders. Pete Rose owns the record for the most hits, but he isn't the best hitter. Rickey Henderson owns the record for the most runs, but he isn't the best hitter. Hank Aaron owns the record for the most RBI, but he isn't the best hitter. Barry Bonds owns the record for the most home runs, but he arguably isn't the best hitter.


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Then on the mound, Cy Young owns the record for the most wins, but he isn't the best starting pitcher. Nolan Ryan owns the record for the most strikeouts, but he isn't the best starting pitcher.

Mariano Rivera owns the record for the most saves, and he's the best closer. The best relief pitcher, really. There have been relief pitchers who have had better individual seasons, but no relief pitcher has ever had a better career. None have even come close.

That seems right. That seems like the way it ought to be. I'm not going to sit here and try to defend the save statistic, because the save statistic is pretty bad, but if we have to have this stat by which people measure closers, and if we have to have a guy with the highest total ever, well, as of today, the right guy has it.

***

One of the first lessons I learned when I was getting into the analytical side of baseball was that it was foolish to commit much money or many years to a reliever. This was back when Ed Wade was running the Phillies, and Baseball Prospectus had a lot of fun at his expense. Mike Jackson, Jeff Brantley, Rheal Cormier, Ricky Bottalico, Jose Mesa, Terry Adams ... I'm sure I remember things being worse than they actually were, but my recollection is that Wade just couldn't help himself.

And it was considered foolish because relievers are volatile. They're probably the most volatile players in the game. They're pitchers, which makes things dangerous enough, but then they're max-effort pitchers with small-sample statistics. As a unit, relievers are unpredictable.

Look at some of the best relief performances we've seen over the past decade or so. Eric Gagne was on another level between 2002-2004, and then he all but disappeared. Octavio Dotel was practically unhittable, then he lost nearly two years to surgery. B.J. Ryan: surgery. Joe Nathan: surgery. Brad Lidge: surgery. Robb Nen: surgery. Billy Wagner: surgery. Rafael Soriano: surgery. I could go on. Relievers get hurt, relievers underperform, or relievers do both.

Mariano Rivera is an exception. He's not the only exception, but getting to 602 saves is a testament to his outstanding durability and consistency. He hasn't been on the disabled list since April 2003. Since becoming a full-time reliever in 1996, his lowest games total is 45, and his next-lowest total is 54. Since becoming a full-time reliever, his worst ERA is 3.15. His next-worst is 2.85.

Every year since 1996, the Yankees have been able to count on Mariano Rivera. There are a number of aspects to Rivera's career that are almost impossibly impressive. This is another.

***

Stats guys have spent years upon years trying to convince people not to pay attention to batter-pitcher matchups. And for good reason: batter-pitcher matchups have shown absolutely nothing in the way of predictability. It doesn't matter if a guy has gone 0-for-8 against a pitcher, or 8-for-15, or 15-for-26 - history shows us that these numbers contain precious little meaningful information going forward.

But while batter-pitcher matchups mean nothing for the future, they're fun to look back on. Marquis Grissom hit .565 against Pedro Martinez. That's interesting. Barry Bonds hit .091 against Chuck McElroy. That's interesting.

Of all the batter-pitcher matchups in the history of the game, though, there's only one that I remember off the top of my head. One that I'll never forget. Edgar Martinez collected 19 at-bats against Mariano Rivera, and whacked 11 hits - five for extra bases. Against Rivera, Edgar posted the highest opposing batting average, the highest opposing on-base percentage, and the highest opposing slugging percentage.

I remember this because it's just about one of the most amazing things about Edgar's entire career.

***

It's interesting that Rivera has done what he's done without an otherworldly strikeout rate. Which isn't to say that his strikeout rate has been bad, but it isn't as extraordinary as you might assume. He's posted about the same strikeout rate as Dan Plesac, Mark Wohlers and Rudy Seanez, and while those were fine strikeout relievers, you wouldn't think the best reliever ever would have that kind of company.

But Rivera hasn't made his name with strikeouts. For one thing, he's been excellent at avoiding walks, such that his strikeout-to-walk ratio is among the best in history.

And for another, more important thing, he's been excellent at preventing hits. Rivera has a career 7.0 H/9, which ranks sixth all-time. It's a remarkable rate for a guy who didn't punch out a third of the batters he faced.

The key for Rivera? Limiting his batting average allowed on balls in play. The league BABiP has risen over time, but it's been .293 since 1990. The Yankees, as a team, have allowed a .293 BABIP since 1990. Rivera's career BABiP, meanwhile, is .262.

Since 1990, 230 different pitchers have thrown at least 1,000 innings. Rivera's .262 BABiP is the best of them all. He's done it by basically throwing one pitch, and throwing it wherever he wants to.

It's worth noting that Rivera's .262 BABiP hasn't completely blown everybody else out of the water. There, just behind him at .263, is Trevor Hoffman.

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