This whole post may be the biggest waste of my life, because most of it should be incredibly obvious. Apparently, to some people, it is not. Last night, as I watched the Yankees struggle to find enough runs to put Mariano Rivera in position for his 601 save – which would tie him with Trevor Hoffman for most in Major League history – I came across an argument that a colleague of mine got into last night on Twitter. Someone tried to assert that Hoffman is the greatest closer, while Jon Alba, who does a great job in running and breaking news for his site http://sportsfullcircle.com/, defended Rivera. This article was supposed to be for when Mo recorded save #602, which would occur within the next week, but upon discovering this, I found out this needed to be written now. So be prepared… for the obvious.
There may be no bigger shock in baseball than when Mariano Rivera blows a save. Over the course of his career, he has converted roughly 9 out of every ten save opportunities. Nine times out of ten, the game is over when he enters. There is no higher honor that I can give a team than being able to survive a Rivera save opportunity; you just tip your hat to them for their defiance of greatness. Rivera’s weapon of choice is the cutter, a buzz-saw pitch that intimidates the games most feared left-handed hitters. It is arguably, with Hoffman’s change-up and Steve Carlton’s slider, one of the most deadly pitches in the history of baseball. The Yankees’ closer notched career save #600 in Seattle on Tuesday night and shows no sign of slowing down.
That’s bad news for a lot of teams, especially those looking to advance in the playoffs, where Rivera has been, if possible, even more deadly. He holds the record for post-season saves, World Series saves, and has a career playoff ERA of 0.71 is unheard of for someone who has pitched in 139.2 post season innings. An ERA of 1 is one run allowed per nine innings; if Rivera pitches nine post-season innings (three saves per round of playoffs), mathematically, he does not allow a run. That’s how dominant he is.
The other night, Ian O’Connor of ESPNNY tweeted that “it is a good thing that the Yankees did not trade Mariano Rivera for Felix Fermin in the spring of ’96”. If anyone can recite Felix Fermin’s (who was an infielder the Yankees would have used at shortstop until Derek Jeter matured) stat-line to me, then you have less of a life than I do. It’s safe to say that the Yankees had no idea that they had the greatest closer on their hands when they signed him as an amateur free agent in 1990. He was brought up as a starter, but his career hit a wall when he tried to pitch at the major league level. Then he found his cutter and a place in the bullpen. The Yankees had no idea that, as their bullpen floundered in the Kingdome in the 1995 ALDS, they were sitting on a pitcher that, win or lose, had the composure of an assassin. Rivera became the set-up man for John Wetteland in 1996, which was one of the best bullpens in recent baseball history. The game was often over after the 6th inning, and the Yankee bullpen was monumental in the team’s championship run.
In 1997, as Wetteland departed, Rivera took over full-time. While he had a brilliant season, it is one that is remembered for Sandy Alomar Jr.’s home run in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 4 of the ALDS. Rivera, with a one run lead with four outs away from advancing to the ALCS, gave up a game-tying, opposite field home run to the catcher, allowing the Indians to win it an inning later.
What could have been a Brad Lidge type spiral instead became a just one road bump on the history to one of the most dominant four year stretches that a reliever has ever seen. From the 1998 ALDS until the 2000 ALCS, he did not allow a postseason run to score, a streak of 31.3 innings. That is against the best teams in baseball, in the biggest games, in the innings when there is the most pressure. He did not blow a single save in the post-season of the Yankees three consecutive championships.
He was the MVP of the 1999 World Series against Atlanta, where he saved two games and allowed four baserunners in 4.2 innings of work. He was also the MVP of the 2003 ALCS against Boston, when he pitched three shutout innings in the 9th, 10th and 11th innings of game seven before famously celebrating by collapsing on the mound after Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run.
But Rivera is like all of us. He is human. That became clear when, with a one run lead in the bottom of ninth inning of game seven of the 2001 World Series, he allowed a lead off hit to Mark Grace and then threw a slippery, bunted ball past Derek Jeter and into centerfield to set up the Diamondback’s ninth inning comeback and walk-off championship. In 2004, he blew back-to-back postseason saves for the first time, if you can really say he blew the saves. Rivera walked Kevin Millar, who was then pinch-ran for by speedy Dave Roberts. A curious managerial decision not to pitch-out led to Roberts stealing second, before scoring on a base hit. The following night, he got credit for the blown save when he surrendered a flyout that brought in an inherited runner in from third. He didn’t get the job done on either night, but I would hardly call them trainwrecks, certainly not to the extent that Cleveland in ’97 was, or Arizona in 2001. If those are Mariano Rivera’s four most disappointing moments, I think any Yankee fan would sign up for the numerous more positive results that he’s brought.
He has been humble throughout. He is as emotionless after a win as his is after a loss. While some pitchers would have thrown a fit after costing their team a World Championship, Rivera answered every question that reporters had for him after he gave up the winning run on that night in Arizona. He said that when he retires, the sheer number of saves will be something to cherish, but right now he is only concerned with pitching another flawless October and help the Yankees earn their 28th championship, and his sixth.
So the argument still is Hoffman or Rivera. Which one is better? If I listed all the reasons why, we would be here forever. I’ll sum up the other reasons before I get to the main reason. Rivera has pitched in a league with a designated hitter, a tougher division, and more hitter-friendly ballparks (Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park) than Hoffman (Petco Park, San Francisco’s parks).
But the main reason is the playoffs. Now granted, Hoffman has not had anywhere near the amount of playoff games that Rivera has had. Perhaps the two implosions Hoffman has had would average out if he had played as many postseason games as Rivera. Perhaps. And I know that officially, his 2007 performance in the 163rd (play-in) game is a regular season game, but to anyone with a feel for the game of baseball, it was a playoff game.
So let’s look at Hoffman’s numbers. 13 innings pitched, a 3.48 ERA (high for a reliver) and four saves in six chances. And those don’t include the numbers from his putrid ’07 performance against Colorado in the 163rd play-in game, where he surrendered a two-run 13th inning lead, giving up three runs in a third of an inning and cost the Padres a postseason spot. His biggest moment in the postseason came in Game 3 of the 1998 World Series, ironically against Rivera’s Yankees. The Padres were down 2-0 in the series, but had three home games and hoped to take momentum back with a win in Game 3. They took a 3-0 lead into the seventh, but the Yankees got two runs back to make it 3-2 in the 8th. Hoffman came in with a runner on first and nobody out and got Bernie Williams to flyout before walking Tino Martinez. Scott Brosius, who homered to put the Yankees on the board in the 7th, hammered Hoffman’s 2-2 pitch over the centerfield wall to put the Yankees up 5-3, and effectively end the World Series.
That is Trevor Hoffman’s first, last, and only World Series appearance.
There was also the argument that Rivera only has so many saves because he has so many chances, as a result of being on a better team. But Hoffman has actually had more save opportunities per season than Rivera. From 1997 through 2009, Hoffman averaged 45.3 Save Opps per year*. Rivera averaged 44.5. In fact, the Yankees success could be the reason why Rivera didn’t eclipse his 600th save until this past week. In the Yankees 1273 wins from 1997-2009, Rivera had a save opportunity in 45.5 percent of them. The number for Hoffman: 57.08 percent of his team’s 953 wins. In the year that the Yankees set an American League record for wins with 114, Rivera had an opportunity to save only 41 games, his fifth lowest single-season total. So having a good team has no impact on having the amount of opportunities to save a game.
The question comes down to this: With your season on the line and a one run lead to protect, who do you want on the mound? As I told Jon Alba last night, the question isn’t whether Mariano is the greatest, the question is if Sports Illustrated will ever issue a full apology for their 2002 issue where they called Trevor Hoffman “The Greatest Closer (Ever).”
* Missed nearly all of 2003 season and had no save opps, so the statistic for Hoffman shows his 12 year average over that span rather than Mariano’s 13 year average.