Mariano Rivera is 15th on the list of all-time ERA leaders, with a mark of 2.25. That stat alone is incredible, but the list needs to be examined to put Mo’s place into context. The guys ahead of him are a who’s-who of deadball era and 19th century pitchers no one’s ever heard of. Walter Johnson is the only other guy in the top 15 who’s career saw the live ball era.
Everyone at my college agrees that Professor Hazeltine remains the institution’s best professor. During his prime, Professor Hazeltine was so popular and good at his job that he won the teaching award every year. In response, the school named the teaching award after Professor Hazeltine. It gave him the highest honor it could, so that the institution could better honor the achievements of others. In so doing, the school stopped honoring Professor Hazeltine with any regularity. There was no need. He’d been honored already in perpetuity. As great a decision as that was, it meant that Professor Hazeltine would be somewhat taken for granted afterward.
The baseball media regards Mariano Rivera in a similar fashion. At a certain point in Mo’s prime, when he was routinely saving anywhere from 35-50 games a season with an ERA under 3, or under 2, and a WHIP at or below 1, the media almost universally decided he was the greatest closer ever. The decision to honor his career as it was unfolding is the highest honor Mo could receive. Unfortunately, it also makes analyses of the numbers he has put up in his career to date somewhat redundant. It happens from time to time, but unlike with Alex Rodriguez’s or Derek Jeter’s ongoing accomplishments, beyond the drumbeat toward Mo’s 500th save, fans seldom get a detailed breakdown of what he is doing that makes him so great. Instead, analysts are content to call him “the Great” Mariano Rivera, and leave it at that.
In 2008, there was so little fanfare as Rivera passed probably the single most important milestone of his career that I was unaware it had happened. That was the season in which he pitched his 1,000th inning, making him eligible to qualify among the all-time leaders in pitching statistics. He’s made quite the mark on the record books.
More incredible still, with a career mark of 202 (202!), Mariano Rivera is Baseball’s all-time leader in ERA+. He takes first place by a country mile. Pedro Martinez (you know, before he was a postseason Yankee punching bag, Pedro could throw the ball a little) comes in 2nd place. His ERA+? 154. Mo smokes Pedro to the tune of 48 points!
Rivera’s superhuman career ERA+ could be used to argue that he is the most dominant pitcher in baseball history. This post will stop short of that. Joba Hughes offer compelling evidence that it may be easier to relieve than to start. Mo’s statistical dominance, on the other hand, buttresses the argument that he is the greatest relief pitcher of all time — in fact, its not even close. Furthermore, no pitcher has been more dominant in his role on the baseball field that Mariano.
People also lose sight of how dominant Mo remains late into his career. Rivera has fascinated me since he first came onto the scene in 1995 and ’96. Back then he threw much harder than he does now. His famous cut fastball appeared to be rising when I watched it on television, and would top out at 93-96mph. Today, he’s lost much of that velocity, but his numbers may actually be getting better.
Since 2005, Rivera has had only one season with an ERA above 2 and a WHIP above 1. His last two seasons have been as dominant as any in his career and he continues to strike batters out at a high rate. In the past, Baseball Prospectus has used this data to argue that, despite seeing his average fastball dip down to about 89mph, Mo may not be even close to finished. Pitchers stop striking batters out when their careers are coming to an end, according to BP. Mo, on the other hand, struck out 74 in 2007, 77 in 2008 and 72 in 2009. All the while pitching 71.1, 70.2 and 66.1 innings, respectively.
The Yankees don’t really have a contingency plan for when Rivera retires. Fortunately for them and for us, the 2009 championship has breathed new life into their famous closer. Where previously he had said 2010 would be his last season, he now wants to pitch five more years, much to the delight of the entire fanbase.
Until the horrible day that Mo finally decides to hang it up arrives, we’ll continue to be treated to opportunities to admire not only the greatest relief pitcher and closer of all time, but a pitcher that has been more dominant in his responsibility than anyone else who has ever played the game.