Over three Sunday night games, I’ve had very little to complain about in regards to ESPN’s new Sunday Night Baseball announcing team of Dan Shulman, Orel Hersheiser, and Bobby Valentine. The last of the trio has been a bit of a weak link, but the other two have been more than passing. Shulman is a decent enough game caller with a nice voice and Orel offers a good deal of insight into pitching.
Last night, though, Valentine said something that got a bit under my skin. During Mariano Rivera‘s perfect ninth inning, Valentine alluded to the starter vs. closer argument and attributed the Yankees’ success over the last 15 years to Rivera and his ability to close. There is no doubt that Mariano Rivera has been the best closer in baseball since taking the job in 1997 and there’s no denying that he’s been an important part of the team’s success. However, to say he’s been the biggest reason for the team’s success is a bit dishonest.
The Yankees of the late 1990s were successful because the team was practically perfect. The starting rotations were top notch, the bullpens were lock down, and the lineups hit the snot out of the ball. Even in the early/mid 2000s when the team wasn’t advancing in the playoffs much (save for 2003), the team was able to slug its way to division titles and playoff appearances. But those teams never got as far as we wanted them to for one good reason: the starting pitching just wasn’t there. This circumstantial evidence really lends itself to arguing against Valentine’s overarching point that a starter may not be as valuable as a reliever. Hell, the very game he was calling was evidence as to how a reliever can be rendered useless if the starter doesn’t do his job properly.
Alexi Ogando didn’t pitch well (see what happens when you give up too many fly balls, Alexi?) and one of the game’s best closers, Neftali Feliz, sat unused in the bullpen, unable to do anything to help the team. Of course, that could have more to do with the current and inefficient pattern of bullpen usage in Major League Baseball, but you see the point I’m getting at. While I can’t sit here and say that relievers are useless, their importance is probably a bit relative. After all, if the guy going the first six to seven innings doesn’t do his job properly, the job the reliever does ends up not being much of a factor. There are obvious exceptions, including if a team comes back after a poor starting pitching performance, but the general idea stands: If the starting pitcher doesn’t do well, the closer doesn’t matter at all.
As for the point about the Yankees, well, saying Mariano Rivera is the biggest reason for the team’s success since 1995 is just overstating things. He is the greatest closer in the history of baseball, but without the good starting pitching the team had during its dynastic run, without the explosive offenses, Rivera’s importance would’ve been greatly diminished.
I don’t want to make this seem like I’m crapping on Mo or his relevance/importance, because I’m not trying to do that. I’ve loved watching everything he’s done and having him around is like having a nuke-proof security blanket. I just don’t want us to lose perspective on what’s important to not just the Yankees, but baseball as a whole.