What would Mariano Rivera have done as a starting pitcher?

Jared Wickerham

Mariano Rivera was groomed as a starting pitcher before a crowded rotation and urgent need diverted him to the bullpen. We can never know what his career might have looked like had the Yankees continued to develop him as a starter, but it's possible to make an educated guess.

It all starts with the fingernails.

In the summer of 1995, Mariano Rivera was in the Yankees' rotation. After a rough beginning, he made three solid starts before the All-Star Break. He was pitching another solid game when his fingernails tore.

"It's happened to me before, but not like this," said Rivera, who admitted after the game that the fingers hurt a lot. Neither he nor Showalter seemed concerned that the digits would cost Rivera further chances at solidifying a hold on a starting job.

"I proved to myself I could pitch here," Rivera said. "I got to keep it going."

Rivera would come back 10 days later, allowing three runs in five innings. He'd make two more starts in his career, giving up five runs in both. That was the end of Mariano Rivera, starting pitcher.

We all know what happened:

I Split ERA G IP HR BB SO WHIP SO/9 SO/BB
as Starter 5.94 10 50.0 8 20 38 1.680 6.8 1.90
as Reliever 2.07 1101 1228.1 63 266 1132 0.974 8.3 4.26

The Yankees made a decision. It was a good decision. Maybe the best decision. Mariano Rivera was a bad starter, but he turned into the best reliever.

Except ...

Here's Mariano Rivera as a starter in the minors:

Year ERA G GS IP H HR BB SO BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
A (2 seasons) 2.57 39 25 154.0 134 2 51 155 3.0 9.1 3.04
A+ (2 seasons) 2.25 17 17 96.0 74 7 17 69 1.6 6.5 4.06
AA (1 season) 2.27 9 9 63.1 58 5 8 39 1.1 5.5 4.88
AAA (2 seasons) 3.98 13 13 61.0 59 7 13 53 1.9 7.8 4.08

The strikeout numbers aren't eye-popping, but Rivera was adept at preventing runs. And he wasn't just a one-pitch pitcher, either. He had a slider. From scout John Stokoe in 1995:

FB-88/91 -- + VELOCITY -- OVER POWERED OUR ROCHESTER HITTERS. SL-81/84 -- A HARD ONE; QUICK BRK.& HAS SINK ACTION TO IT. DID NOT SEE AN OFF-SPEED PITCH. HE NEEDS ONE FOR THE FUTURE

"He needs one for the future."

What this post presupposes is, maybe he didn't?

No, Rivera didn't need an off-speed pitch to become one of the most successful relievers in baseball history. We know that now. But let's step into a puddle of hypothetical. Pretend the Yankees were stubborn. Pretend there was someone in the organization who was enamored of Rivera as a minor-league starter, who always thought he got a raw deal. Pretend this person could make a persuasive argument.

Pretend that Mariano Rivera never went to the bullpen.

You get to make it all up, of course. There's no alternate-reality switch that lets us see exactly what would have happened. It's all guesswork.

There are three ways to go about this:

Assume that relievers are all awful compared to the average starter

This would be like the quote, "What is an editor but a failed writer?", which suggests that the world's greatest editor is worth less than a moderately successful writer. Because if the editor is so great, why wasn't he or she a moderately successful writer?

The better, more relevant quote comes from T.S. Eliot:

Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.

It's pretty cynical to believe that every garden-variety starting pitcher could become an ace reliever. For every Tommy Hunter or LaTroy Hawkins, there are 12 Brandon Duckworths.

But if you wanted to go down this path, you would think that an ace reliever isn't anything more than a good starter, at best, even if the ace reliever in question is Mariano Rivera. As such, the starting career of Rivera wouldn't have been very impressive.

I refuse to believe that. But you can knock yourself out.

Assume that Rivera was going to be special

Maybe not in the same way he was going to be the greatest reliever of the modern era. But a special pitcher, nonetheless. Here, see if you can follow this logic:

  1. Mariano Rivera throws a magic pitch that is not governed by the laws of physics
  2. This pitch is magic
  3. See points 1 and 2
  4. Please leave an offering or sacrifice for Rivera's cutter if you want your family to be spared
  5. Also, the pitch is magic

That's what Rivera had for a head start. He has a cutter that's more knuckleball than fastball -- a pitch with late, unpredictable movement that makes it hard to hit even when hitters knew it was coming. That's a hell of a head start.

Except, hold on, he didn't find that cutter until 1997. And even then, he found it by accident. Don't pay attention to that. He would have found it, regardless. It was destiny. That cutter had been on an interstellar path for centuries, and it wasn't going to get knocked off course because Rivera didn't move to the bullpen.

Add in the slider referenced by the scout up there, and you have two pitches. And it's not like Rivera would be completely unable to add another pitch. As if he'd be in the bullpen, futzing around with his magic pitch all afternoon, but the second he tried a changeup, he'd start sobbing and writhing on the ground.

Rivera is one of the most amazing pitchers in major-league history. It seems weird to suggest that he'd be anything but an exceptional starter. This doesn't apply to every -- or most -- relievers. Robb Nen, Joe Nathan, Aroldis Chapman ... I doubt they'd have been as successful if they'd never moved to the bullpen. But Rivera's combination of stuff and command makes those comparisons effectively worthless. He's in a category by himself, as usual.

A combination of the two

You boring centrist. But there's something to it. There's more of everything when you're a starting pitcher. More pitches to tire your arm. More comebackers up the middle that make you contort in unnatural ways. More chances for runners to step on your ankle. The odds of Rivera pitching until he was 43 as a starter are astronomically low.

Then you get into the reduced velocity, the lower strikeout rate. And is that magic pitch a magic pitch if it's thrown 80 times every fifth day? It might still be a special pitch, but maybe it isn't magic. Maybe it's more like a really good card trick. "How'd he do that? How'd he do that? That is the most interesting thing I'll never think about again. Please stop following me around the party. I regret asking how you did that."

I don't know. Rivera's thrown 19,285 pitches and counting in the majors, and I'd reckon at least 18,000 were the same pitch. No one figured it out. I'll buy the argument that he wouldn't have lasted as long, or that his cutter would lose effectiveness compared to what he featured as a closer. But it still would have been a top-tier pitch if Rivera were a starter. I will hear no evidence to the contrary.

With that in mind, I'm going to make up Rivera's alternate career as a starter. This is not empirically sound. This is not scientifically sound. This is a chain reaction of nether-region discoveries. But here goes.

And I'll notice that you don't even have one of these, which means I'm probably right.

Year Age Tm W L ERA G GS CG SHO IP HR BB SO
1995 25 NYY 5 3 5.51 19 10 0 0 67.0 11 30 51
1996 26 NYY 9 6 3.89 28 26 0 0 167.2 13 65 121
1997 27 CHC* 16 9 3.38 32 32 1 1 201.2 14 56 142
1998 28 CHC** 22 5 2.81 31 31 2 1 211.1 13 61 161
1999 29 CHC 14 13 3.83 29 29 1 0 199.0 16 44 152
2000 30 CHC 3 4 4.85 10 10 0 0 51.2 9 21 38
2001 31 CHC 4 1 3.84 7 7 1 0 60.1 5 18 55
2002 32 STL 18 9 2.94 32 32 2 2 216.0 15 31 181
2003 33 STL 15 12 3.26 32 32 2 1 210.2 13 42 163
2004 34 STL 14 6 2.74 31 31 0 0 208.2 14 40 166
2005 35 STL 7 12 4.38 28 27 0 0 178.1 12 68 133
2006 36 OAK 5 6 4.80 18 12 0 0 123.0 18 51 95
2007 37 NYY 13 7 3.45 28 28 0 0 171.1 14 32 128
Career
Four teams 145 93 3.57 325 307 9 5 2066.2 167 559 1586

* Traded for Kevin Orie
** Led Cubs to World Series title

That's an excellent career. Short of the Hall of Fame, but it's hard to get there if you don't have your first good season until you're 26 or 27.

If you think Rivera was going to be the best starter of all time because he has a case for the best-reliever crown, well, I'd like to read that argument. As is, we're just spitballing here. But Rivera was probably going to be great wherever he pitched, however he pitched.

And it all started with those fingernails. Imagine if he had trimmed them before they split. If he trimmed those fingernails using his nail ...

...

... cutters. Just imagine. It's worth peeking in that alternate universe for just a second.

For more on Mariano Rivera, please visit Pinstriped Bible

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