Assuming he doesn’t pitch in Houston this weekend—and after the fanfare and misty-eyed moments of his Yankee Stadium send-off, an appearance against the Astros, unless it’s in center, would feel like a letdown—Mariano Rivera threw his final 13 pitches last night. Let’s watch and savor each one of them, because we’re not going to get any more.
Vs. Delmon Young
Rivera’s first offering wasn’t his signature cutter, but a sinker that ran toward the handle of Delmon Young’s bat instead of breaking away. The pitch was off the inside corner, so Young didn’t get the sweet spot on it, but he did get around quickly enough to hit a soft liner that hung up for Vernon Wells. One pitch, one out.
That’s it for the sinker. Rivera’s last 12 offerings were all cutters between 89 and 91 mph.
Vs. Sam Fuld
Rivera’s first cutter is right on the border between ball and strike. As I wrote last week, catcher JR Murphy* was among the best in the minors this season at stealing extra strikes, but he couldn’t get this call. Some studies performed a few years ago revealed that Rivera was among the best pitchers at getting extra strikes; some of that might’ve been Jose Molina, who caught him in 2008 and 2009, but Rivera also had to put up with plenty of Jorge Posada. It makes sense that Rivera would get extra strikes, since he lives on (and slightly) off the corners and hits the target more often than anyone.
A little lower than the first one to Fuld.
High and inside. It’s unusual for Rivera to throw three straight balls, but Fuld isn’t out of the woods.
In his career, Fuld has seen 40 3-0 counts, and he’s swung on two of them. Rivera puts a cutter in the strike zone—though not dead-center—and gets a gimme strike.
There are 253 pitchers who’ve thrown at least 1000 innings since 1990. Rivera’s BABIP over that span (.265) is the lowest of them all. He’s gotten such good results on balls in play not because he’s been lucky or because he’s had great defenders behind him, but because he elicits such weak contact. And he gets that weak contact because of pitches like this.
What is Fuld supposed to do there? This is a 91-mph cutter that bisects the border of the rulebook strike zone. Since the called strike zone is shifted outside to left-handed hitters, this very likely would have been a strike had Fuld let the ball go by. In retrospect, he should have, since it’s almost impossible to get a hit when you look like this on contact:
It doesn’t hurt that Rivera finishes in good position to field the ball, and that he’s still spry at age 43.
Vs. Jose Lobaton
“Everything started changing after the eighth inning,” Rivera said after the game. “I came in and it was different. Everything started hitting. Tonight was kind of a little hard. It was tough to get those two outs. I don’t know how I did it.”
So did Rivera do anything differently in the ninth, with his emotions in turmoil? Not really. He just threw the cutter, no harder or softer than he usually does. The first one was a bit wide.
The second one was a higher version of the 3-1 delivery to Fuld. Up 1-0, Lobaton wisely lets it go, taking a strike instead of an easy out on a ball in play.
After starting Lobaton off with two outside pitches, Rivera comes inside, but this cutter has the most horizontal movement of any he threw, carrying it out of the strike zone.
The most perfect pitch Rivera threw on the night, at the knees and on the corner. Often, when a pitcher throws a pitch in this area, the announcer says something like, “If he could put it there every time, he’d be the best pitcher in baseball.” No one really can put it there every time. But Rivera probably comes closest.
As I was saying. Rivera puts his next pitch in almost exactly the same spot, and this time, Lobaton has two strikes, so he has to protect the plate. Again, Rivera gets a weak comebacker, and again he makes a nimble grab.
Vs. Yunel Escobar
When a Rivera cutter starts out on the outside corner, it will end up outside. Of course, Rivera throws his sinker to right-handed hitters about 20 percent of the time, so they can never be sure the ball isn’t about to backdoor them. In this case, it’s a cutter, and Escobar takes it for a ball.
And now we come to what may have been the last of over 21,000 pitches thrown by Rivera since 1995, the one that made Matt Daley the answer to a good trivia question. ("Who finished the final game in which Mariano Rivera pitched?") To be honest, it wasn’t one of his better ones. The last Rivera cutter didn’t move that much, wasn’t thrown that hard (89 mph), and got too much of the plate, but while the process was subpar, the result was vintage Rivera. It would have been fitting, of course, if his last delivery had broken a bat or been a called strike three. But a pop-up was just as appropriate.
The weak contact Rivera induces doesn’t always take the form of a tapper back to the pitcher. Often, it takes the form of an infield fly ball, the closest a batted ball comes to an automatic out. According to Baseball Info Solutions’ classifications, 16.1 percent of balls put in play against Rivera have been infield flies, the highest rate among the 469 pitchers with at least 400 innings pitched since 2002. If you get a lot of popups, you won’t give up a lot of hits.
“The cutter” is the obvious explanation for Rivera’s success, but “the cutter command” might be a better answer. Of the average pitcher’s deliveries inside the strike zone, almost 40 percent are over the middle third. Only a quarter of Rivera’s are. Batters slug 50 points higher over the middle part of the plate than they do over the inner and outer thirds combined, so it’s easy to see why avoiding that area is an advantage. Almost every pitch Rivera throws—okay, threw; it’s probably time to get used to using past tense—is within a few inches of an edge; among pitchers with the lowest average distance in lateral location from a strike zone corner, only Tom Glavine can compare. Even the pitch plot from his final appearance reveals Rivera’s skill at steering clear of danger.
On Wednesday night, Coors Fields fans bid farewell to Todd Helton. According to every flavor of win-value stat—none of which, admittedly, includes postseason play—Helton’s career has been more valuable than Rivera’s. But Rivera is the first-ballot Hall of Famer, while Helton has a borderline case. Some of that probably has to do with Rivera’s bigger market, or his superior teams, or even his way with the media or tendency to spend his offseason building churches while Helton spends his hunting. But most of it can be tied to the fact that Rivera has been the best closer, and Helton has not been the best first baseman. Yes, ninth-inning reliever is a specialized role, and probably one whose worth is overstated. Great position player might be better than greatest reliever. But being the best ever at something is pretty persuasive.
There’s another difference between the two: Helton is going out having been below replacement level in three of the last four seasons. But the Rivera we saw on Thursday is, save for some velocity, the same Rivera we’ve seen since 1997, when he incorporated the cutter and began to be used like a conventional closer. The same pitch mix. The same excellence at avoiding the center of the strike zone. The same weak contact. The same efficiency. The same ability to come in in the eighth and get more than three outs, something he did less often than his predecessors but most often than his contemporaries. It was sad to see him go, but good to see him go out like that.
Baseball Prospectus 2012’s comment on Rivera—one of the few players to have an entry in every edition of the annual—reads,
He can’t go on forever, of course, and like Cary Grant retiring from the screen while he still had his looks, let’s hope Rivera quits before his famous cut fastball does. The only thing worse than not having him would be seeing him fail.
We shouldn’t have worried.
*Murphy is still standing on the mound in an empty stadium, waiting for his hug.