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January 14, 2014

Baseball's Seven Wonders

Mariano Rivera's Postseason Performance

by Sam Miller


First in a series.

It’s practically impossible for a pitcher to allow less than a run per nine innings. Since 1920, there have been about 20,000 pitcher seasons that have covered 50 innings or more. Of those 20,000, eight produced a sub-1.00 ERA. That’s ERA, of course; ERA record holder Fernando Rodney allowed four unearned runs, which pushes him over 1 run per nine. Unearned runs also disqualify Dennis Eckersley (1990), and Bill Henry (1964), and Dennys Reyes (2006), and Chris Hammond (2005), and Eric O’Flaherty (2011), and Jonathan Papelbon (2006). That leaves one pitcher, out of 20,000, who threw 50 innings in a season while allowing less than one run per nine innings. And that guy (Rob Murphy) threw 50 1/3.

It’s practically impossible. So now think of Mariano Rivera’s postseason career as two seasons. The first goes from Oct 4, 1995 to Oct 18, 2001, and spans 71 innings. Rivera allows seven runs, six of them earned; 0.89 runs per nine, 0.76 ERA. The second “season” goes from Oct 21, 2001 to Oct 6, 2011, spans 70 ⅓ innings. Rivera allows six runs, five of them earned; 0.77 runs per nine, 0.64 ERA.

Nope. This is impossible. Rivera essentially does something twice that only one pitcher in history managed once (and just barely). He does it in mostly in an era of unrestrained offense. He does it exclusively against the best teams in the game. He does it in an environment that requires him to throw more than one inning in more than half his appearances, and to throw at least two innings in more than a third of them. Mariano Rivera’s postseason dominance is one of the best-known phenomena in baseball. It’s also probably underappreciated.

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