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April 7, 2005

Prospectus Today

Melting Down over Mariano

by Joe Sheehan

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I wrote yesterday about the need to maintain perspective in the first week of the season, to not overreact as if MLB were the NFL, with a 16-game season and little time to recover from slumps. Anything can happen on a baseball field, and things have to happen a lot more than once to have meaning. Overreacting to the first couple of games is silly, akin to walking out of movie because the opening credits were done in WordPerfect.

Not long after yesterday's column was posted, Mariano Rivera had a bad inning, setting off another wave of inappropriate alarm bells. Rivera, who pitched sparingly in the spring due to bursitis in his pitching elbow, allowed three walks and three hits in 2/3 of an inning, being charged with all five runs the Red Sox scored in the ninth inning, runs that gave the Sox a 7-3 win. This was on the heels of Rivera giving up a game-tying solo home run to Jason Varitek on Tuesday.

Let's not kid ourselves. This is being blown out of proportion in part because Rivera was facing the Red Sox. Had he blown back-to-back saves against the Devil Rays in June--or to the A's and Rangers in August, as he did back in 2003--there wouldn't be headlines like "Time to panic in the Bronx?" or lines like "Has he lost it?" working their way into coverage. Because Rivera's failures this week came against the Red Sox, six months after he was credited with two blown saves against them in the ALCS, there's a rush to pass some kind of judgment based on a vanishingly small sample of events.

First of all, the "four straight blown saves" is overstating the case. It was two games last year and two games this year, and drawing a line connecting to the two is horribly misleading. Moreover, Rivera hadn't even pitched poorly until yesterday. Let's look at the:games:

  • 10/17/04: Rivera allows two singles and two walks in two innings of ALCS Game Four. The hit by Bill Mueller that tied the game was clean, but certainly not roped. Rivera also managed to pitch around an error in the ninth inning, retiring MVP candidate David Ortiz with the game on the line. Had the Yankees converted a leadoff baserunner into a run in any of the last three innings, the series would have ended here.

  • 10/18/04: I've written about this before, but dinging Rivera with a "blown save" in this situation doesn't remotely reflect his performance. He came in with the tying run on third, another guy on first, no one out. The Yankees were playing the infield back. Rivera faced seven batters and retired six, the other reaching on an infield hit. The "blown save" designation comes from the fact that the first out he got was on a fly ball that was deep enough to score the tying run. He pitched wonderfully, and lumping this in as a failure ignores the difficulty of the situation into which he entered.

  • 4/5/05: Rivera makes one bad pitch, leaving a 1-2 cutter to Varitek over the plate. The resulting home run ties the game, which would be untied in the bottom of the ninth by Derek Jeter.

  • 4/6/05: The only game of these four in which Rivera pitched poorly, he looked like he was having trouble with his command and his mechanics. He got just two swinging strikes in the inning. With all that, if Alex Rodriguez makes a play on a routine ground ball, the game might have ended with Rivera shaking hands on the mound. At worst, if Rodriguez gets one out on the Manny Ramirez ground ball, Rivera leaves with a tie.

    Neither of those things happened, and Rivera went on to allow four additional runs.

Look at those summaries. Save yesterday's outing, Rivera hadn't pitched poorly, and in fact, had pitched very well in at least one of the games, blown save or no. The common thread isn't failure by Rivera; it's that the Yankees asked him to protect four one-run leads. Certainly in the ALCS, the Yankees' failure to capitalize on late-game situations was as much a factor in their losses as anything Rivera did.

That's not to say Rivera is 100%. Whether his elbow is still bothering him, or just the lack of work he got in spring training because of the elbow, he clearly wasn't the same in the second of back-to-back games. He's not done so much as he's still in the third week of spring training, trying to get himself into game shape. That's a much more plausible explanation that inferring, from two outings, that the Cyborg Reliever has suddenly lost his power pack.

Rivera may need to be kept out of back-to-back games for a little while, or even be put on the DL for two weeks so he can work through a possible tired-arm phase, or let the bursitis heal completely. He hasn't lost his skills, and the Red Sox don't have any special ability to beat him that goes beyond their having a very good offense. The games last October don't have any relationship to the games this spring, either. Handled well, Rivera will be fine.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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