Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rant #584: Mo, Mo, Mo

Mariano Rivera.

The name trickles off the tongue like a good pasta sauce.

Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer the game of baseball has ever seen. He solidified his place in sports history yesterday by recording his 602nd save as the Yankees downed the Twins, 6-4 in a makeup game played at Yankee Stadium.

Rivera has had a truly remarkable career. Coming up through the Yankees minor league system during the dark days of the franchise--the early 1990s were not kind to the team from the Bronx--this scrawny kid with a blazing fastball came up to the Yankees in 1994 as, believe it or not, a starting pitcher.

He was not tall and was lean, but had that mean fastball. Some likened him to Ron Guidry, the Yankees' great starting pitcher who had the same build and temperament.

Rivera was up and down as a starter, but then the Yankees braintrust had a great idea--why not make this kid into a relief pitcher, not for save opportunities, but to set up their closer?

This decision redefined baseball bullpens. Now the setup man was just as important as the guy who closed out the games, and it has been a model used by every major league franchise since then.

The plan worked. Rivera initially set up John Wetteland, and the Yankees went on to win the World Series in 1996. Beginning in 1997, Rivera became the closer, and he hasn't looked back since.

His 602 saves broke the record of another top-flight reliever, Trevor Hoffman, who played mainly for the Padres in the National League--so Hoffman continues to hold the National League record.

What differentiates Rivera and Hoffman are the number of big games that Rivera played in versus Hoffman. Hoffman's teams were only occasionally in big games, playoff games, and World Series. Rivera, playing for a team in New York, is always in the spotlight, anyway, but incredibly, the Yankees are in the postseason just about every year. His exploits on the national stage have made him one of the most dependable--and popular--baseball players ever.

He has more than 40 saves in the postseason, which includes the playoffs and World Series. No one is even close to him on this biggest of stages.

And his regular season percentage of saves made versus opportunities--really the most important statistic--is also No. 1. Anything over 85 percent is phenomenal, and for his career, Rivera--who has at least one save against every team in baseball--is over 89 percent.

That means that 11 times out of 100, he fails to do the job he is on the mound for. Heck, I guess you can say that he is really human.

And he is in incredible shape. He has had some minor arm woes throughout his career, but overall, Rivera has never had a major arm injury as a major leaguer. Having pitched so many years, it is incredible that he has has been so durable.

Rivera was often called the greatest relief pitcher of all time well before he reached save number 602. But now he has the statistics to prove it.

His save record will go down as one of the unreachable baseball records, right up there with Cy Young's 511 wins. In today's world of baseball, it is a record that might be approached, but not topped, at least not in my lifetime.

There are some great relievers out there, but to record 600 saves, you have to save at least 30 games a year for 20 years, or 40 games a year for 15 years. Relievers generally have a short shelf life, and really, anything over 300 saves for a career is incredible. To have more than twice that many, as Rivera and Hoffman have, is just simply unbelievable.

Saves have only been an official statistic since 1969, and some relievers have just now gotten their due as Hall of Famers. Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter were two of the dominant relievers of their time. In those days, relievers pitched two or three innings at a time, not the one that current closers pitch today.

And Gossage and Sutter are, deservedly, in the Hall of Fame for their accomplishments.

Sure, some old-timers still don't get what closers do and what saves really mean, just like the unofficial "hold" category that will probably one day become an official statistic.

But Rivera, and for that matter, Hoffman, have done something that is so unapproachable, so out of this world, that both should also find their way into Cooperstown down the road.

Hoffman is already retired, so his 601 saves are his career total.

Rivera is still pitching, although he is hinting that when his contract runs out next year, he might close it down.

So we just don't know how many saves this 41 year old will finish with.

And that's the fun part about it.

Many of us were not around to see Babe Ruth's exploits, nor Cy Young's. But at least for my generation, I can say that I saw the greatest relief pitcher, bar none, to ever play the game of baseball.

Congratulations to Mariano Rivera. He is the greatest at what he does.

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