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September 20, 2011

The BP Broadside

Oh, To Live on Closer Mountain

by Steven Goldman

As Mariano Rivera tied and then broke Trevor Hoffman’s record for career saves, the YES Network’s Michael Kay kept referring to Rivera being “alone atop the mountain of closers.” Sometimes he said “alone atop the mountain of closers with Trevor Hoffman,” which doesn’t make much sense, because how can you be alone with somebody except in literary depictions of alienated romance, presumably not what Kay was talking about? In any case, Closer Mountain is more aptly described as a pimple, because most closers last about as long as the typical skin blemish and are about as memorable no matter how many saves they have. Compared to Rivera (and Hoffman as well), they are no more than transients traveling between obscurity and obscurity.

Rivera has been the Yankees’ closer since 1997. In that time, he has had eight seasons of 40 or more saves. You well know that saves are a vastly overrated statistic due to the way they seem to indicate leverage but really don’t, so don’t take that as a measure of quality, but rather of the fact that someone felt he was worth running out there with a lead—with the exception of the occasional Joe Borowski ’07, you don’t get a chance to pile up that many saves while pitching poorly.

The saves are the secondary by-product of the two elements of Rivera’s game that make him so valuable: First, he’s simply an exceptionally good pitcher. His current 2.22 ERA ranks ninth all time, 1,200 innings and up division. Literally everyone above him pitched in the Deadball era. The closest pitcher who was primarily a reliever is the Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, who had a 2.52 ERA overall and 2.49 in 1872 1/3 innings as a reliever, just about all of which was compiled in a less challenging run environment than the steroidal 1990s and 2000s.

The second element that made all of those saves possible is Rivera’s extraordinary consistency and longevity. Because they make their living pitching in small samples, relievers are subject to extraordinarily distorted statistics and an outsized contribution from luck, good or bad. That has not been the case with Rivera, who pitches like a David Byrne lyric: Same as he ever was, same as he ever was. Because he has never faltered, he has never slipped into a setup or middle-relief role. Few other relievers, even the very best, can make this claim.

Those small samples cause teams, journalists, and fans alike to misread relievers every year. Throw in the possibility of stuff-altering injury to which all pitchers are subject, and each year hurlers who we thought were money in the bank are revealed to be barely worth a berth at the back of the bullpen. In our 2001 annual, we made a number of prescient points about relievers in our Rivera comment, among them that Rivera needed to avoid, “the kind of decline many top-tier closers have experienced. At this point, Mariano Rivera doesn't look so much different than Gregg Olson after 1993 or John Wetteland after 1998, and no one is offering those names up for immortality.”

It seems ludicrous to compare Rivera to Olson now,  but it’s easy to forget that the Auburn University product was not only one of the first “polished college pitchers” to be drafted and brought almost directly to the big leagues, but was highly sought after, selected with the fourth overall pick of the 1988 draft. He made it to the majors that September, after just 16 minor-league games, and had five largely successful seasons; by the time 1993 was over he had a 2.26 ERA and 160 saves. He was 26 years old. His arm more or less died at that point, and though he remained in the majors until 2001, he had just 57 saves remaining, 30 of them for the expansion Diamondbacks, who had little choice but to take a chance on him (it mostly paid off). Drifting through eight teams, Olson’s ERA was an unsightly 4.76 in the post-Orioles phase of his career.

Rivera, of course, didn’t even become a closer until he was 27—even prospects have to be veterans to pitch for the Yankees. Five years into his career as a closer he had 165 saves, just like Olson, but unlike his predecessor he was already 30 years old. As great as he had been both in the regular and the postseason (an aspect of his greatness I am not dwelling on in this piece because the focus is on the career regular-season saves record), projecting that he had a minimum of another 11 high-level seasons in him would have been an act of faith almost equal to Rivera’s own devout religiosity.

It’s not just Olson that stands as proof of how unlikely Rivera’s career has been. Let’s return to those 40-plus save seasons I mentioned at the outset. Not including Rivera, there have been 90 such seasons from 1997 to 2011, with a couple more likely coming in the National League this year. Eliminate Trevor Hoffman, another very special pitcher, and his eight seasons of 40-plus, and we’re down to 82, and the turnover on the list becomes evident. Before you peruse the roster, let me highlight a few names for you: Billy Koch, Bobby Jenks, Chad Cordero, Danys Baez, Jose Jimenez

Multiple Seasons

Pitcher

Years

#40-Plus Seasons

Francisco Rodriguez

2005-2008

4

Robb Nen

1998, 2000-2002

4

Armando Benitez

2000-2001, 2004

3

Eric Gagne

2002-2004

3

Francisco Cordero

2004, 2007, 2010

3

Jeff Shaw

1997-1998, 2001

3

Joe Nathan

2004-2005, 2009

3

John Smoltz

2002-2004

3

Jose Mesa

2001-2002, 2004

3

Billy Wagner

2003, 2006

2

Bobby Jenks

2006-2007

2

Brad Lidge

2005, 2008

2

Brian Wilson

2008, 2010

2

Eddie Guardado

2002-2003

2

Heath Bell

2009-2010

2

J.J. Putz

2007, 2011

2

Joakim Soria

2008, 2010

2

John Wetteland

1998-1999

2

Jose Valverde

2008, 2011

2

Keith Foulke

2001, 2003

2

Todd Jones

2000, 2005

2

Troy Percival

1998, 2002

2

Ugueth Urbina

1999, 2002

2

One-Offs

Pitcher

Years

#40-Plus Seasons

Randy Myers

1997

1

Mike Jackson

1998

1

Rod Beck

1998

1

Tom Gordon

1998

1

Roberto Hernandez

1999

1

Antonio Alfonseca

2000

1

Derek Lowe

2000

1

Kazuhiro Sasaski

2001

1

Billy Koch

2002

1

Jose Jimenez

2002

1

Mike Williams

2002

1

Danny Graves

2004

1

Bob Wickman

2005

1

Chad Cordero

2005

1

Danys Baez

2005

1

Jonathan Papelpon

2008

1

Brian Fuentes

2009

1

Matt Capps

2010

1

Neftali Feliz

2010

1

Rafael Soriano

2010

1

Craig Kimbrel

2011

1

John Axford

2011

Some of the pitchers on the one-off list were wrapping up in 1997, while others are just starting their careers (though as hard as Craig Kimbrel has been pushed, one wonders if he gets to make an encore). Some of these pitchers simply had the misfortune to pitch for teams that didn’t present them with many save opportunities, or missed just enough games each year that they didn’t get to close as many games as they otherwise might have—this seems to describe Billy Wagner, whose Hall of Fame bid will suffer in comparison to that of Hoffman and Rivera but was nonetheless a pitcher who was at times more dominant than they were. Similarly, Francisco Rodriguez made a terrible mistake in going from an Angels team that had a propensity for playing close games to a Mets team that had a propensity for Mike Pelfrey.

The accessibility of Closer Mountain to any number of pitchers, some very good for a period of time, others hardly good for even a moment, is another argument both for the Mountain’s non-existence and the general insignificance of saves. Over the last 10 years, pitchers presented with a three-run lead and a save opportunity converted 96 percent of the time. The buy-in price here is very, very low, and there is no talent requirement to ride the ride. Rivera’s saves totals are a tribute to a great pitcher, but in and of themselves they are only indirect evidence of his greatness.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  Trevor Hoffman,  The Who,  Billy Koch,  2002,  Accessibility

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