Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 19, 2001
BASEBALL: GOTTA GET TO MO
Originally posted on Projo.com
Well, they’re doing it again. The Hated Yankees knocked off the A’s, stifling yet another threat to their title defense. Now, they’ve got the hammer ready to fall on the Mariners. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed this – it’s like having sand poured down your throat watching it – but one of the things I love about baseball is watching a story develop, watching history unfold, if you will, and seeing where it seems to be headed.
Maybe the mind plays tricks on us, and there are always twists you can’t anticipate, but the whole “team of destiny” thing doesn’t come from nowhere. Baseball is a game in which talent creates probabilities, and the team with the odds on its side usually wins out in the end. But sports is also an emotional business, a confidence game. Emotions are volatile, particularly when magnified by all the things sports does to magnify them – the roaring crowd, the lack of time to reflect or seek a moment’s peace, the fact that everything rides on just a few at bats, the inevitable stretch of days and years ahead rehashing split-second decisions. Sometimes, that confidence can be fragile as emotions run high.
All this is to say that part of the fun of tight September races and the postseason – and the maddening part, to analysts of the game – is putting aside the logic and the probabilities and getting on the emotional roller-coaster. And waiting for that storyline you see playing in your head to play out.
Here’s what I see: the single biggest advantage these Yankees have had over the past few years in the postseason is the bullpen: Rivera and Stanton, Nelson, Mendoza – but mostly Rivera.
I’m not terribly impressed with Rivera’s value in the regular season, not because he’s not great – in fact, he’s been as consistently dominant as any reliever except Eckersley and Sutter – but because there’s only so valuable a guy can be throwing 70-75 innings a year. He threw 80.2 innings this year, his highest total since 1996.
But the postseason is different, and Joe Torre deserves credit for using Rivera in a way that demonstrates an understanding that the rules of baseball have changed dramatically since 1994, and that the postseason is almost literally a different game. Put simply, using Rivera as a specialist, one-inning-save-opportunity-only closer has kept him fresh enough to become a different pitcher in the postseason. Only in the age of the wild card can a manager afford to ration one of his best pitchers this way, but the long postseason requires fresh arms. Let’s look at Rivera’s career postseason numbers through last night, projected to a 162-game schedule (the Yankees have played 73 postseason games in his career):
Wow. Eck’s effectiveness at Goose’s workload. Rivera in the postseason has been a different pitcher not so much because he’s been better (although he has) but because he’s pitched so much that he’s been a humongous factor. A guy who throws 155.2 innings in 100 appearances, all with the game on the line, and has an 0.77 ERA – that would be a reliever worthy of the MVP award in the regular season.
So, what’s my story? Here it goes. Maybe the Yanks get old, fall apart, and fail to make the postseason. But until they do . . . nobody beats them until they beat Rivera. FOX has been all over this, noting that the Yankees over their history are 153-1 when leading after 8 innings in the postseason, an improbable stat even when you consider how relatively few baseball games are decided in the last inning. Sometimes you have to beat the champ at his strength to knock him off. The Mets came tantalizingly close in Game 2 last year, and of course the difference in the Yanks’ lone postseason loss of the last 5 years was Rivera’s lone blown save, the homer by Sandy Alomar in Game 4 of the 1997 ALDS. Until somebody else does it, the Yankees keep rolling.
I couldn’t let pass without comment Rob Neyer’s column on October 16, claiming that the Maddux-Randy Johnson pitching matchup was the first time in more than 35 years – since the 1963 matchup of Koufax and Whitey Ford – since pitchers who “might be described as the best of their generation” hooked up in the postseason. Now, Neyer can draw his lines where he likes, I suppose. He can ignore Catfish pitching against Tom Seaver; I’d agree that Catfish isn’t in the best-pitchers-ever class he’s trying to look at. He can even throw out Dwight Gooden’s 1986 matchups against Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens, I suppose, although at the time nobody doubted that Gooden was the best pitcher in baseball. (Ryan wasn’t really in that class, but Game 5 of the 1986 NLCS was as good a pitcher’s duel as you will ever see, with Gooden allowing just 1 run in 10 IP and Ryan surviving a broken ankle in the second inning to strike out 12 and allowing just an uncharacteristically dinky home run to Darryl Strawberry). It’s fair enough to say that Gooden’s greatness didn’t last long enough, but those games sure looked like ones for the record books to the people watching them.
But was Neyer watching in 1999? Game 3, ALCS? Or a half-season of injury later, has he already forgotten Pedro Martinez? Sure, as with Gooden-Clemens, Martinez-Clemens was a bust as a pitchers’ duel, but what Pedro has done since 1997 is so unprecedented in the history of the game that, like Koufax, he would have earned himself a place among the true immortals even if he retired tomorrow.