Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Last Out

("Quietly, Rivera Nears an Underrated Record")

Let me start with my stated belief that Mariano Rivera is the best relief pitcher who has ever played the game. He has dominated for more than a decade and a half, has shown little signs of deterioration, and throws one pitch with more precision and accuracy than seems humanly possible.

He also exhibits an almost supernatural calm. In situations that demand a steadiness of mind as well as body, he is unflappable

All that being said, I well understand the public's lack of enthusiasm that he is about to become the standard bearer in his defined role. For as an over the top Yankee fan, and one who has witnessed almost all of the near 600 saves, the pending ascension by Mo brings not much more than a yawn.

The reasons are many. First, how great is the possibility that a reliever could spend his career with the Kansas City Royals and accumulate 600 saves? A reliever's superiority is defined both by his own abilities and by the team for which he toils. Mariano Rivera's teams have missed out on the playoffs one time in his entire career. He has been the beneficiary of a Yankee era in which the likes of Jeter, Williams, Posada, A-Rod, Cano, Teixiera and other every day players with Hall of Fame credentials, or nearly so, have put Rivera's teams in position, day and day, to make Mo relevant.

And pitchers from Clemens to Pettite to Mussina to Sabathia and countless others have produced "quality" starts so that the game was still in the balance in the late innings.

Unlike the home run or batting average, a save is thus a statistic that relates as much to the team as it does to the individual. You can be Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and accumulate home runs (tainted as they might have been) on squads with losing records. And as wonderful as Ichiro Suzuki may have been over the past decade, it didn't take a Seattle victory for him to accumulate his hits. We are drawn to individual accomplishment that occur in the vacuum of one's own universe, and don't rely on anything other than one's own skill (questionable as they became in certain instances) to attain.

Further, I dare anyone to recite for me the full and complete definition of a save. For those who can wander through the complications, read on below:

"In baseball statistics, the term save is used to indicate the successful maintenance of a lead by a relief pitcher, usually the closer, until the end of the game. A save is a statistic credited to a relief pitcher, as set forth in Rule 10.19 of the Official Rules of Major League Baseball. That rule states the official scorer shall credit a pitcher with a save when such pitcher meets all four of the following conditions:
He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team;
He is not the winning pitcher;
He is credited with at least ⅓ of an inning pitched; and
He satisfies one of the following conditions:
He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning
He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, at bat or on deck
He pitches for at least three innings
Save rules have changed over the years; the above rules are the current as defined in Section 10.19 of Major League Baseball's Official Rules. The statistic was formally introduced in 1969, although research has identified saves earned prior to that point." (Wikipedia)

Thus, there are a myriad of ways in which a relief pitcher can garner a save, including one in which he enters the game with a 3 run lead with 2 out in the ninth and a runner on base, throws one pitch, gets the last out and heads home ( number 4, subsection 2 above). Who among us, would consider that anything warranting official recognition?

I have seen 15 years of Yankee games in which the manager has been cognizant of the save rule before walking out to the mound, raising his right arm and calling upon the Great One. And so, for those like Rivera, one of the other essential components is being called upon at just the precise moment to fit within the definition established in 1969. Maybe other managers don't run their teams to fit within those guidelines. Joe Torre and Joe Girardi certainly have.

Further, the bullpen, until the last half century has been the province of the least, not the best, of the pitching staff. Before Luis Arroyo was called upon to "save" Whitey Ford and the Yankee wins of the early 1960's, there was not a long history of greatness finding its way to the bullpen. My early recollections were of a wild Ryne Duren, with a lively and very erratic arm, unsure if the pitch he was to throw would find its intended target or the backstop. The end of the game was much more the end of the line for a pitcher. It was not a reward but a recognition that something was wrong.

So too, in the era before pitch counts, before pitcher was deemed too fragile to throw more than a prescribed number of pitches, before there were 6th, 7th and 8th inning specialists as well as closers, there were the days from Cy Young to the early 1980's, where it was a badge of honor for a pitcher to finish what he started. According to Wikipedia, Young threw 749 complete games in his career. In 1952-53, Robin Roberts threw 28 consecutive complete games. Later, on an Oakland team that was to become the poster-child for pitch counts, a young Rick Langford threw 22 consecutive complete games in 1980. In contrast, by 2008, CC Sabathia became the first pitcher since Randy Johnson in 1999 to throw 10 complete games in an ENTIRE SEASON.

And thus, while do I come to praise Rivera, I know that it can sound like I have come to bury his accomplishments. It is true that we have not seen his likes before, and it may well be a generation or more until another one like him appears. In the annals of a game that spans over a century and a half, how many can say that they were the best there ever was at their assigned task? But the save, being part of something greater than one person, being subject to ludicrous and complex guidelines,and having different import in different generations of the sport, does not lend itself to the hysteria surrounding other records.

And so Mo will toil, as he has for his entire career, in relative anonymity. And the record will come and go with not a hint of the fanfare surrounding other achievements in baseball. For a man who has always spoken of team before individual and who does his job with a quiet, business-like demeanor, I believe that suits him fine.


Anonymous said...

Another gem!!!!

YOU DA MAN!!! Great piece!


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for writing this piece. Absolutely loved it. We will never see another closer like him.

Anonymous said...

Once again some very thought provoking points. I would not take issue with any of them except perhaps the "relative anonymity" statement.
What you don't mention, and what I believe is a huge part of Mo's greatness, is that he has appeared in over 1,000 games, pitched over 1,200 innings, and has compiled a lifetime ERA of 2.22 in regular season games. In the post season he's done much better with an ERA of 0.71. No pitcher in the history of major league baseball can match those numbers.
It can be argued, as you so eloquently do, that it takes great players to put Mo in the position to be relevant. Fine, that is correct, but once in that position he becomes that very lonely figure on the mound who has to produce game after game, against other great players (especially in the post season) while under the most stressful and pressure packed conditions imaginable. This is where he exhibits that unflappable supernatural calm that allows him to get the job done.
Like you, I believe he's the greatest relief pitcher ever, and as you well know, I'm a supercharged Yankee fan too, but I won't be yawning when he breaks the record. I intend to savor the achievement and cheer him on as usual.


Robert said...

I agree with Jack's assessment, but I was not analyzing his statistics but the circumstances. The barometer established by a pitcher's ERA, and how he has fared in post-season demonstrates both his ability in relation to his contemporaries and his capacity to perform well under the harshest of lights.

But Mo had the benefit of great teams and being elevated at the right time. Who is to say that David Robertson might not turn out to the be the next Mo? However, it may be that he toils as Mo's set up man for a time (maybe 2 years) where he would otherwise be accumulating saves on his own. Or Daniel Bard may not push Papelbon out of his role for the indefinite future, even as he may prove to be the better pitcher.

So, this is not to diminish Mo's accomplishments as he is indeed the unqualified number 1 at his station. But the number of saves does not necessarily define him. For those of us fortunate enough to watch that cutter hit the mitt, time after time, after time, year after year, after year, that is all the proof we need to know the level of his greatness.