Exit Sandman

The torn ACL suffered by Mariano Rivera shagging fly balls in the wet Kansas City outfield last night most likely ends his career at age 42. Even the most determined Yankee hater like myself – or the most determined skeptic of the modern closer role – had to appreciate and respect Rivera’s talent, his accomplishments, his cool under pressure, his Christian faith and quiet dignity. And he did it, basically, with one pitch.
A few numbers to give the scale of Rivera’s greatness, which will undoubtedly carry him swiftly to Cooperstown:
-Rivera exits still at the top of his game. His ERA and ERA+ thus far this season were both better than his career averages for the fifth consecutive season…from age 38-42. Counting the postseason, he was working on strings of 21 straight appearances without an unintentional walk and 28 straight appearances without allowing a home run. This season, he’d struck out 8 (above his career K/9 ratio) and allowed (excluding intentional walks) 6 baserunners out of the 32 batters he faced. Absent injury, who knows how long he could have kept that up? But after 1051 big league games without a significant injury, he can hardly complain.
Rivera appeared in 848 games in which he was not charged with a run, the third-highest total of all time, behind Jesse Orosco (951) and Mike Stanton (864). Rivera threw more innings in those appearances than either of them, although four pitchers since 1918 threw more innings in scoreless appearances (Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Rich Gossage and Kent Tekulve), plus presumably Walter Johnson (with 110 career shutouts) would top Rivera on that score. Rivera was unscored-upon in 560 of his career saves; only one other pitcher (Trevor Hoffman) even had a career total number of saves within 80 of that.
-Counting the postseason, Rivera’s career ERA as a reliever was 1.91. In 1310.2 innings over 1137 appearances. (That drops to 1.90 in 1318.2 innings over 1145 appearances if you throw in the All-Star Game, in which he pitched 8 times, 8 innings, allowing just 5 hits and a single unearned run).
-Rivera’s career ERA+ (park-adjusted ERA compared to the league average) of 206 dwarfs the #2 pitcher on the list with at least 1000 innings (Pedro Martinez at 154) – yes, Rivera’s career ERA, relative to the league, was 33% better than any other pitcher, ever, and twice as good as the league average. Only 4 other pitchers have career ERA+ above 200 in more than 40 career innings, and all four are young relievers still getting started (Craig Kimbrel, Johnny Venters, Andrew Bailey and Al Albuquerque). Rivera had 12 seasons of 60 or more innings with an ERA+ of 200 or better – second-most is a tie between Pedro and Joe Nathan with 5 apiece (Walter Johnson and Billy Wagner did it four times each). Rivera also ties Walter Johnson with the most seasons (11) of 60 or more innings with an ERA below 2.00, with three others (Hoyt Wilhelm, Cy Young and Grover Alexander) tied with 6 each.
-Rivera allowed 0.9 homers per 9 innings in 2009, the only time in 17 seasons after his rookie year he was above 0.6. He walked 3 men per 9 innings in 2000, the only time in those 17 seasons he was above 2.8 and only the second time he was above 2.5. He had a 3.15 ERA in 2007, the only time he was above 2.85 in those 17 seasons, and in 71.1 innings that year he allowed 4 home runs, struck out 74 batters and allowed 10 unintentional walks, so the ERA was mostly a fluke. That kind of consistency is just unreal.
Rivera’s average of 0.42 homers per 9 innings since 1996 is easily the lowest average in that period for pitchers with 1000 or more innings pitched in that stretch. Out of 167 pitchers, only 63 were below 1 homer per 9, 12 were below 0.75, and just 4 below 0.69: Rivera, Kevin Brown (0.56), Tim Lincecum (0.58) and Brandon Webb (0.63). Rivera did this while pitching in the American League straight through the heart of the power-mad steroid era. In the same time frame, he allowed the 11th fewest walks per 9, the 15th-most K/9, the 5th-best K/BB ratio, and – despite what was often a shaky Yankee middle infield defense – easily the lowest batting average on balls in play, .262 (only Matt Cain is below .270).
(If there was one area where Rivera’s regular season record was pedestrian, partly reflecting the way he was used, it was with inherited runners – he allowed in 28.98% of such runners, 79th best among the 296 pitchers to make 400 or more relief appearances; Ricardo Rincon is the best at 18.96%, followed by Trevor Hoffman at 20.23%).
-Yankee Stadium did Rivera no favors: his career ERA was 2.46 at home, 1.95 on the road. Oddly, the home ERA breaks down as 2.61 in Yankee Stadium and 1.73 in New Yankee Stadium. Rivera had a 1.99 career ERA with Jorge Posada catching him, 1.94 with Joe Girardi.
[UPDATED: I looked a little more at the home/road splits. A little is due to bad outings at home as a rookie. A big split is 1999-2002 (home ERA 3.08, road ERA 1.83), as compared to 2009-12 (home ERA 1.73, road ERA 1.96). In 2005, Rivera had a 2.28 ERA at home, but a preposterous 0.26 ERA – one run in 34 appearances – on the road. Although Rivera’s K/BB ratio at home has been an insane 94/10 in the new Stadium, the main distinction seems to be on balls in play: BABIP of .275 at old Yankee Stadium, .261 on road, .225 at the new Stadium. I wonder if the infield surfaces or grass have anything to do with that. I can’t get a good fix on grass/turf or indoor/outdoor, but Rivera was at his deadliest in domed stadiums, regardless of whether the roof was up: a 1.07 ERA and 1 HR in 50.1 IP at Tropicana Field, a 1.30 ERA and 1 HR in 27.2 IP at the Metrodome, a 1.85 ERA in 43.2 IP at Skydome, a 2.19 ERA in 12.1 IP at the Kingdome, and a scoreless inning at the Tokyo Dome, for a total of a 1.47 ERA in 135 innings]
Rivera allowed a home run to Reed Johnson last June in a game against the Cubs (he still got the save). That’s noteworthy because Rivera pitched 40.1 career regular season innings against the NL Central and NL West, and that’s the only earned run he allowed to either division.
-There was no good way to get Rivera. Opposing batters hit .201/.236/.281 against him when leading off an inning, .209/.270/.290 with men on base. Opposing hitters still hit .239 and slugged .346, both very weak figures (albeit with a .534 OBP) after getting three balls on Rivera. But he went to a 3-ball count only 698 times in 4752 batters faced for which baseball-reference.com has count breakdowns, less than 15% of the time, compared to 2591 times he got to two strikes on a batter. On a 3-2 count, opposing hitters hit .202/.403/.283.
-In 1990, his one season as a reliever in the minors before the Yankees tried to make him a starter, Rivera had a 0.17 ERA in rookie ball – in 52 innings he struck out 58, walked 7 and allowed 17 hits (2.9 hits per 9 innings). His career ERA in the minors was 2.35.
-As good as Rivera was in the regular season, he was rather literally twice as good in the postseason (twice the workload, half the ERA), and probably the most valuable postseason pitcher ever (maybe the most valuable postseason player ever). Anyone who says the Yankees can just slot in Rafael Soriano and David Robertson and not miss Rivera that much because closers are overrated is missing this crucial dimension.
The Yankees played 156 postseason games between 1995 and 2011, just about a full season’s schedule of games. The postseason can be brutally unforgiving, as I noted when reviewing Billy Wagner’s career, and normally it’s a victory to play the same in October as you did all year. Rivera’s now-apparently-final line in a season’s worth of postseason work: 96 games, 141 innings (nobody’s thrown 140 innings in relief in a regular season since Mark Eichhorn in 1986), 8-1 record (Game Seven of the 2001 World Series being his only loss), 42 saves, 78 games finished, 0.70 ERA (0.83 even if you include unearned runs), only two home runs allowed (the famous Sandy Alomar homer that decided the 1997 ALDS and Jay Payton’s home run in the Mets’ furious but futile comeback in Game Two of the 2000 World Series, the only time in 96 postseason appearances that Rivera allowed more than one earned run – he allowed 2), allowing just 86 hits, 21 walks (4 of those intentional; Rivera’s 2 walks in the ill-fated Game Four of the 2004 ALCS was the only postseason appearance where he walked more than one batter), and striking out 110. Counting 3 hit batsmen, that’s 111 baserunners in 141 innings, only one more than his strikeout total. Rivera pitched 2 or more innings in a postseason game 33 times, allowing a run in only 4 of them; he pitched more than 1 inning 58 times. In the postseason, his opposing BABIP dropped to .219, his inherited runners scored dropped to 19%. He’d actually gotten better; his postseason ERA since 2006 was 0.31 in 24 appearances. Rivera was ice in October. We will never see the like of that again. And he did it with a huge workload: you throw 141 high-leverage innings with a 0.70 ERA in the regular season, you should and will win the MVP award.
PS – Speaking of worthiness of respect, Stan Musial’s wife Lil died yesterday. Stan and Lil were married 73 years. Now that is a life.

8 thoughts on “Exit Sandman”

  1. As a huge Yankee and Rivera fan, your last statistic is the most amazing. Seventy three years. Musial would be the Ruth of a baseball marriage hall of fame.
    By the way, in retrospect, can you believe that the Yankees initially tried to eliminate the break on Rivera’s cut fastball? What a disaster that would have been.

  2. As another Yankee hater there are always exceptions and Mo is one of them. Whether it is the Yankees or Cowboys or even the Heat, there are always individuals that are worthy of admiration. Rivera and Jay Novacek are great examples.

  3. Munson – I remember hearing the news of the plane crash while playing Whiffle ball in the back yard.

  4. The most amazing number in his career is probably the number of pitches in his repertoire: 1.

  5. I was away for the week, and someone whom I met assumed I was happy (being a Met fan) that Mo got hurt. I very quickly corrected him.He was surprised when I told him that even Yankee haters have a hard time hating either Mo or Jeter.
    I had told my kids that I thought that either Griffey (who really wasn’t reporter friendly) or Mo would get to Cooperstown in a unanimous vote. Griffey as a screw you to Bonds (who was hated more than anybody to reporters, even Rose to some), but Mo was always sensational to everybody, and that is another screw you to Bonds.

  6. Rivera had such an aura that when he jogged in from the bullpen, your hopes of completing a comeback sank. He was not an imposing physical figure and his cutter did not seem — from the safety of the stands or the TV room at home — to be unhittable. Easily the greatest relief pitcher of all time, one of the greatest Yankees and seemingly a very good man.
    I will always believe that he was one of the, if not the, most important piece of the Yankee championship puzzle. More than Jeter, which is not meant to disparage Jeter, who shared Rivera’s attributes.
    But, . . . Thurman Munson? His death was a tragedy and he no doubt made major contributions to the Yankee clubhouse, but wildly over-rated by Yankee fans and the NY press.

Comments are closed.