It's been a big week for Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. On Monday, Rivera pitched a three-out, three-batter ninth-inning at Yankee Stadium to earn his 602nd career save. It was a record-breaking save, putting Rivera and his cutter one notch above Trevor Hoffman and his change-up for the most saves all-time (Hoffman set the record last year with his 601st, and final, save). The Yankees celebrated the milestone on the field, with Rivera receiving congratulations from everyone at the ballpark that day, including his opponents the Minnesota Twins.
But Rivera wasn't always so highly considered. Let's take a look back at some contemporary accounts of the great closer as he began his career.
Rivera made his major league debut in 1995, when he became the "failed starter" that some detractors like to cite. After eight starts in the first half of the season, Rivera was moved to the bullpen where, by late-September, he was routinely pitching the eighth inning of games. In the American League Division Series against the Mariners that year, Rivera pitched very effectively, giving up no runs in his five innings of work across three appearances. The next year, in their annual preview guide, The Sporting News made this prescient comment:
And Rivera, a part-time starter, possesses a 95-mph fastball that made him the Yankees' best pitcher in the playoffs. Down the road, Rivera could become the club's closer.
Here at Baseball Prospectus, the 1996 annual (now available in the archives!), while not as prescient as TSN, had a good handle on Mo's talents:
Skinny swingman who has good control of the corners of the strike zone. His K rate seemed to jump up a little as of late, and if that's development rather than a fluke, this kid could really be something special. Looks way too skinny to be durable, but you never know.
Mariano Rivera has "good control of the corners"? There's no truer statement than that.
The 1996 season saw the Yankees win their first World Series in 18 years, led by rookie Derek Jeter and a slew of other names we now know so well (Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill, Wade Boggs, Andy Pettitte, Jimmy Key, David Cone). A big part of that team was New York's bullpen and, specifically, the tandem of setup-man Rivera and closer John Wetteland. Wetteland recorded 43 saves for the club, striking out 69 batters in his 63 innings. Rivera had an incredible year bridging the gap to Wetteland. In 61 appearances, Rivera pitched 107 innings, striking out 130 batters while allowing only 25 runs to score. The Yankees did not lose many games after the seventh inning. Wetteland ended up signing with the Rangers after the season was over, opening the door for Rivera to become the full-time closer.
The 1997 Sporting News preview guide laid out the concerns the Yankees had entering the season:
Rivera was brilliant as the setup man last year, but can he carry the brilliance into the closer's role? When the Yankees allowed Wetteland to ride off to Texas, they were entrusting his old job to Rivera, who actually pitched better than Wetteland last season.The Yankees think Rivera's 95-mph fastball makes him a natural for the job, but they wonder whether he will exhibit Wetteland's resilience and durability.
As we all know, Rivera acquitted himself well in his new role. His 1997 season wasn't as good as 1996, but that's hardly a complaint. Rivera managed to lower his ERA from 2.09 in '96 to 1.88 in '97 while saving 43 games. He did, however, blow nine saves that year (for an 83% save-percentage) and his strikeout rate fell from 10.9 K/9 to 8.5 (he struck out 68 in 71 innings).
Rivera had a similar year in 1998 for the record-breaking 114-win Yankees, though they had less reason to use him all year. Rivera pitched in only 61 innings in '98 amongst his 54 appearances, saving 36 of 41 opportunities. He kept his ERA at 1.91, a nearly identical level to his '97 campaign. The strikeout rate lowered even more this year, falling to only 5.3 K/9. There was some concern from The Sporting News in their 1999 annual about the lowered strikeout-rate, but, considering the 114-wins the team had just won, it wasn't taken too seriously:
Rivera, the star of these troops, remained as dependable as ever. He converted 36 of 41 save opportunities and kept his ERA below 2.00 (1.91). The only curious thing about Rivera's wonderful performance was a low strikeout total (36 in 61 innings), which led to questions about his fastball.
By the start of 2000 season, after four years as New York's full-time closer and three World Series rings – not to mention a total of only one run allowed in those three different World Series – the legend of Mo was set. The 2000 Sporting News annual led off their review of the Yankees bullpen with:
Mariano Rivera is the best closer in the American League. With his cutter, which breaks in on the hands of left-handed hitters, to complement his blazing four-seamer, Rivera actually performs better against lefties than righties.
The 2000 Athlon Sports annual was even more impressed with Rivera:
Mariano Rivera is the best closer in the game; consider that he went for more than an entire calendar year without walking the first batter he faced.
The two magazines were absolutely right.
Things haven't changed much with regards to Rivera in the last 11 years. Year-after-year, he has proven himself to be the greatest closer in baseball, in both the regular season and the playoffs. He's maintained his dominant control of the corners all this time and his cutter has only gotten better. It's no wonder, then, that Mariano Rivera is now the all-time record holder in career saves; it was only a matter of time and an honor long due.
And now, thank goodness, there is no reason for anyone to call any closer but Mariano Rivera the Greatest of All-Time.