Mariano Rivera: The Yankees years

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Mariano Rivera was the best ever at what he did, but through no fault of his own the impact of his work in the regular season slowly ebbed as he aged and the Yankees attempted to protect him from injury. Ultimately, his value derived from extraordinary consistency rather than the breadth of his in-season work.

Mariano Rivera is not just a great pitcher, he's one of those six-degrees-of-everything guys like Benjamin Franklin or Winston Churchill who touched so many bits of history in so many fields that if you somehow erased them from existence, life as we know it would cease to be. Rivera doesn't quite have the reach of a great statesman, but his impact on the Yankees ripples outward beyond the number of games he saved to encompass making and breaking the careers of others, some of whom will end up in the Hall of Fame because of their association with him. Everything is contingent upon him ... And yet, there is both more and less than meets the eye when it comes to his career.

The discussion of Rivera's career and impact on the New York Yankees that follows takes no note of his personality, his spirituality or the respect that he commands as a person. Those qualities make the high standard he has achieved easier to admire, but they should not influence our evaluation of it. Babe Ruth played hung over, Joe DiMaggio was a self-centered loner and Lou Gehrig never picked up the check at dinner, but we still regard them as great baseball players. So it goes with Rivera. To paraphrase Casey Stengel, they say he's a nice guy and he throws strikes. But say you're a nice guy and you don't throw strikes. Then they don't leave you in too long.

The Accidental Discovery of Rivera

Rivera's status as a great reliever was arrived at by accident in a moment of desperation. He went through the minors primarily as a starting pitcher, and was largely a successful one, going 27-18 with a 2.35 ERA and excellent command. Though his first major-league audition in that role ended in him being sent back down after failing to notch a quality start in four tries (and putting up a 10.20 ERA in 15 innings along the way), it's easy to forget that by the time he returned he had made some adjustments. In his first game back, on July 4, 1995, he faced a quality White Sox lineup that included Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura and John Kruk batting 3-4-5. Rivera pitched eight shutout innings, striking out 11 and allowing just two hits.

In a stretch of four starts including that one, Rivera compiled a 2.52 ERA. At that point, the team acquired David Cone from the Toronto Blue Jays. Rivera was shunted off to the bullpen, making the occasional spot start. And that, given the Yankees' fetish for veterans before all others, might have been that had Buck Showalter and closer John Wetteland not engaged in a kind of mutually assured destruction in the postseason that year. Confronted with a 4-4 tie in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the AL Division Series, the manager had brought Wetteland into the game. Showalter had received three scoreless innings and was pushing for a fourth when Wetteland allowed a home run to Ken Griffey, Jr. and a single to Edgar Martinez. After 50 pitches, Showalter finally had to make a move. In his desperation, he turned to Rivera.

Rivera struck out Jay Buhner to end the inning. When the Yankees tied the game again in the bottom of the inning, he inherited Wetteland's place in Showalter's cosmology as the never-ending pitcher of record. He was a revelation, pitching 3.1 scoreless innings, striking out five. Showalter hadn't quite gotten the hint, however, because in Game 3 he turned to Rivera after other pitchers had already put the game out of reach. He got 1.1 scoreless innings, but it didn't matter.

Rivera got one more shot in that series. By Game 5, Showalter was living in fear of his bullpen. He pushed Cone to 147 pitches, keeping him in even after it was clear he was running on whatever comes after "fumes." With the Yankees leading, 4-2, in the bottom of the eighth, Cone allowed a home run to Griffey, loaded the bases on a single and two walks, then forced in the tying run on yet another walk. Showalter called for Rivera, who struck out Mike Blowers to end the frame. Yet, Showalter had not yet learned to have faith. After Vince Coleman opened the bottom of the ninth with a single and was bunted to second by Joey Cora, Showalter had Rivera intentionally walk Griffey, then pulled him in favor of Jack McDowell, who to that point had never thrown a pitch in relief in his entire major-league career and, more significantly, had thrown 85 pitches two days earlier. McDowell hung on until the 11th, then lost the game and the series.

George Steinbrenner chose not to bring Showalter back after that series, and correctly so. On the recommendation of new general manager Bob Watson, he engaged longtime National League skipper Joe Torre as Showalter's replacement. One of the New York tabloids famously derided Torre as "Clueless Joe," but inasmuch as Torre was a three-time loser, failing to accomplish much with the Mets, Braves and Cardinals (one division title with the Braves and a great many exculpatory circumstances with all three clubs), there was one thing he wasn't clueless about. He liked having strong set-up men in the bullpen and tended to turn to unheralded pitchers to do the job. He already had done it with Jeff Reardon and Steve Bedrosian, both of whom went on to be closers of note. Now, Rivera's 5.1 scoreless innings the previous fall served as a huge, flaming sign that Rivera should be next in line, but nevertheless, Torre deserves credit for setting Rivera on the path that made both of them Hall of Famers.

The Apotheosis of the Reliever-as-Pumpkin

Rivera was one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball that first season in the bullpen, throwing 107.2 innings and striking out 130 while holding leads for Wetteland. With the closer's contract up after the 1996 season, the Yankees let him move on and put Rivera in his place. As valuable as Rivera would be both in the regular and postseason, he would never be worth as much as he was that first year because of the change of roles. In part that was because the species he was part of, the 100-inning reliever, was about to become extinct -- only 14 relievers would reach three figures in subsequent years, none since 2006. That might or might not have been a sensible evolution for managers to follow, but in later seasons, as the old concept of the pitch-anytime fireman was conquered by the notion of the closer, the pitchers who were, at least nominally the best in their bullpens, were being used less often than pitchers who were in Rivera's old role. This was particularly true of the Yankees as Rivera aged and his presumed fragility made it dangerous to use him too often. The aging Rivera was often the pitcher of last resort, the Hall of Famer who was labeled "Break glass in case of never." The last time Rivera-as-closer led the Yankees in relief innings pitched was 2008. It was the second and last time he would do so.

Pitchers the Yankees felt -- in deed if not in spirit -- were more valuable than Rivera by giving them greater playing time have included David Robertson, Adam Warren, Luis Vizcaino, Joba Chamberlain, Scott Proctor, Ron Villone, Tom Gordon, Paul Quantrill, Ramiro Mendoza, Steve Karsay, Jason Grimsley, Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson. By the time Rivera reached the Faberge egg stage of his career, he was throwing a rigid 13 percent of Yankees available relief innings.

In short, Rivera was the most valuable example of an over-specialized species like the giant panda. Closers fill a niche so limited that they end up off-shifting valuable innings -- and they are all valuable -- onto other, less talented pitchers. With occasional exceptions, closers do not come close to sniffing the top of the leader list in relief innings thrown. This year, the top five pitchers on the list are Anthony Swarzak, Josh Collmenter, Tommy Hunter, Craig Stammen and Alfredo Simon. The highest-ranking closer to have spent the full season in the role is Addison Reed of the White Sox, whose 68 innings rank 25th in the majors. Rivera ranks 74th. He hasn't ranked higher than 30th since 2005.

In terms of career value, Rivera is the greatest reliever of all time, his 56.1 career WAR (Baseball-Reference version) surpassing that of Hoyt Wilhelm (50.0) and Goose Gossage (41.9). However, because of the limits placed on both the manner and duration of his usage, his best single season ranks only 26th. However, if we limit our discussion to the post-Eckersley years, or about where the fireman died an ignoble death and was replaced by his more limited descendant (1989-present), Rivera jumps not quite to the top, his 1996 campaign tying with Jonathan Papelbon in 2006 for the best season of the period. His second-best season ranks eighth, his third best 11th.

As his career ranking, and the absence of more than three pitchers with a career WAR over 40.0 suggests (the all-time top 50 for pitchers, starter or reliever, ends at 57.2, or just above Rivera; Fangraphs' WAR places Rivera at the bottom of the top 100 for overall pitching, but tops among relievers), what made Rivera great was his extraordinary consistency over a span of 18 seasons, a feat which he duplicated and exceeded in the postseason, where the expanded playoffs gave him many opportunities. On a per-season basis, he was simply very good for a long time, being too rigidly controlled by his managers to be extraordinary after 1996.

The Righetti Legacy

Rivera did all he could do given straitened circumstances, and perhaps that was all he could do. Indeed, the limitations on his usage may have been what made his extraordinary consistency possible. In a sense, Rivera's elevation to the closer's role was a more successful version of the decision the team undertook to replace Goose Gossage when he departed as a free agent after the 1983 season, moving young left-hander Dave Righetti from the starting rotation to the bullpen. Righetti was legitimately good for a stretch of three years, during which time he set a short-lived single-season record for saves. However, the move was ultimately self-defeating because "Rags" was the closest thing to a quality starting pitcher the team developed between Ron Guidry and Andy Pettitte (though with an asterisk; Righetti was drafted by the Rangers and came to the Yankees in an odd 10-player trade centered on fading fireman Sparky Lyle). The decision to cut Righetti's potential innings was more than the team could replace through its other starting options, most of whom were 45-year-old veterans like Phil Niekro and Tommy John.

Righetti's example would not stop countless teams from emulating that transaction, trading a 200-inning pitcher for a 100-inning one, or even fewer innings these days. In another sense, he was an early example of why the 100-inning reliever was doomed to extinction: Some pitchers just couldn't handle the workload. In his first five years as the Yankees' ace reliever, Righetti made 332 appearances totaling 492 innings, or over 40 percent of Rivera's post-1995 total. Of those, 54 percent were of greater than one inning. In comparison, Rivera has made 238 such appearances in his entire career (21 percent), only 22 of them since 2008. When asked to throw multiple innings, Righetti was actually quite good, going 26-16 with 89 saves and a 2.45 ERA in 371 innings from 1984 to 1988. Rivera, though, was extraordinary, going 39-8 with 118 saves and a 1.76 ERA in 414.1 innings over the course of his career.

Righetti threw fewer and fewer innings each season through the end of his stay with the Yankees, dropping off rapidly after his second 100-inning season in 1986. With a left-hander's typically wandering control, Righetti could never have been Rivera, but then Rivera could never have been Righetti. He stood up to his workload once, but it was perhaps a good thing that he was never asked to do so again.

For more on Rivera and the Yankees, read Pinstriped Bible

Having said that, there is a great distance between the 60-70 innings of Rivera's later years and the 100 innings of Righetti's. Somewhere between the two there is a spot at which a top reliever is maximally exploited while being put at minimal risk. Where that spot is remains unknown, and may be a matter of individual tolerance.

Mortal Closers Freely Available

Great all-around shortstops are hard to come by. With all due respect to Phil Rizzuto, the Yankees have only had one in the entire history: Derek Jeter. There have been select moments of greatness from a few others -- Rizzuto's MVP campaign in 1950; Gil McDougald for a couple of seasons; Tony Kubek at his best -- but there has also been Pee-Wee Wanninger, Bobby Meacham and Alvaro Espinoza. As Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix have demonstrated this season, the post-Jeter period could be a long walk through the desert. Solid closers are not nearly so rare. Rivera's regular-season 89-percent conversion rate is not dramatically different from that of the average closer. The saves rule allows for a good deal of mediocrity, because even the worst pitcher can usually get three outs before he gives up three runs.

In the years after Righetti, most of the Yankees' closing was done by Steve Farr, a good pitcher but far from a Hall of Famer, and he converted 82% of his opportunities. Wetteland, for all his struggles in October 1995, saved 88 percent of his regular-season opportunities with the Yankees and also closed out all four of the team's wins in the 1996 World Series. In the meantime, there have been 102 seasons of 40 or more saves by pitchers not named Mariano Rivera in the years since 1996. Not all of those seasons were created equal, but as Rafael Soriano demonstrated when Rivera was absent last year, there is life after Mariano.

After the Postseason, What?

Rivera's exemplary postseason work greatly contributed to the team's five World Series championships during his career. Facing the best lineups in baseball, he allowed only 86 hits in 141 innings and let just two balls leave the park. While the next Yankees closer should, if minimally qualified, be able to emulate his regular-season conversation rate, Rivera's postseason record is going to be beyond reach for some time, if not all time. That pitcher, whoever he turns out to be, not only won't be as good, but given the general drift of the Yankees franchise, it might be a couple of years before he gets to try.

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