The looming curse of Mo

But then, astute readers will immediately notice that one of these things is not like the others. Jones and Guerrero were highly rated outfield prospects who went on to have very productive, borderline Hall of Fame careers. That’s nothing to sneeze at, of course, and if you were fortunate enough to get the prime years of those careers you got an awful lot of production for it. But Mariano Rivera is pretty much unanimously regarded as the greatest relief pitcher of all time. If all else were equal, you’d expect the greatest player ever at one position to clearly be better than a borderline HOF case at another position.

And herein lies the rub: Mariano Rivera is, by definition, the exception to the rule. What Mo has done in his career and the value he’s provided to his team says absolutely nothing about the performance or value of any other relief pitcher because they’re not Mo. This is necessarily what we mean when we call Mariano the GOAT, though I don’t think many people really appreciate that reality. And this is why wondering about who is going to be the “heir to Mo” is a rather silly endeavor. If you’re asking who is going to be Mo when Mo isn’t there anymore, the answer is: no one. David Robertson probably isn’t going to be Mariano Rivera anymore than Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes or Rafael Soriano are. Right now, he’s just the latest reliever to have a really good season in pinstripes, thus requiring everyone to anoint him the indispensable future closer of the Yankees. But if Mo is as special as we say he is (and he’s probably even more so, really), then it’s just not as simple as all that.

The fact of the matter is that sayings that become cliche generally do so because there’s a large element of truth to them and, along those lines, relief pitchers really are volatile creatures. Sometimes they get hurt, sometimes the league figures them out, sometimes their numbers just regress to the mean as the sample size of their career gets larger. Rivera’s career did this to a much lesser degree than anyone else’s, but that fact is what makes him an especially unique historical figure, not something that proves whichever Reliever X has a great season with unbelievable peripherals can so sustain those numbers for 10-15 years more. If that were the case, there would be a lot more Mariano Riveras kicking around, and then there wouldn’t be much of a point to worrying about who was going to replace him some day either.

Of course, what fans and bloggers think is, at the end of the day, just idle chatter. But thing I do worry about is the possibility that the current Yankees’ brain trust has become so accustomed to having such an historically great player filling a specific, unique role for so long that if, Mo forbid, it ever comes to pass that he isn’t the Yankees’ closer anymore, the organization will join the fans in endlessly hunting the white whale that is The Heir to Mariano.

11 thoughts on “The looming curse of Mo

  1. williamjtasker

    You're right, of course. There is no heir to Rivera and that is a white whale as you so eloquently point out. All the Yankees can hope for in the future is that whoever their closer is will succeed far more often than he fails. Any higher expectation is like thinking Bobby Murcer was going to be the heir of Mickey Mantle.

  2. Hippeaux

    Nice post, Brien…and on that final note, let me be the first to suggest that we anoint Joba "the white whale".

  3. Frank S.

    Mo is another really good argument for why statistics of any kind, and especially WAR in any of its variations, can never tell the complete story and can never adequately substitute for what you see with your own eyes. I suspect that, in hindsight, the Braves would trade Jones for Mo in a heartbeat. With Mo, maybe the Braves win a couple of more World Series, including perhaps at least one at the Yankees' expense.

    • BrienJackson

      I'm skeptical, but in any case I'm not sure why that would somehow invalidate WAR given how close the two players are.

    • Double Up

      Agreed, advanced stats can sure muddy stuff. Like with Lee Smith, another great closer who isn’t getting his due, and people try to flip and mix stats to make him look bad.

    • danrizzle

      If the issue is "telling the whole story" then obviously statistics do not provide the narrative aspect or appeal of baseball. However, if the endeavor is an evaluation of player value (pardon the redundancy of terms), then I think statistics are adequate, if not completely adequate. There are instances in which value exists that is not reflected statistically, I guess, but generally a statistical view of things will give the best valuation where the sample allows. To use your words, I think statistics would do a far more adequate job of substituting what you see with your eyes than what you see with your eyes could do substituting statistics.

      If it's prior to the 1997 season and I'm the Braves GM, and if I knew what Jones and Rivera would each do until they hit free agency, and even if you assume they each had the same number of years until free agency, I would trade Jones for Rivera exactly 0 out of a million times. Without Jones, they might not have reached that 1999 WS.

    • Hippeaux

      I'm certainly in agreement that WAR, like any statistic, doesn't "tell the whole story," but even WAR's more fervent supporters would warn that its accuracy declines when you compare players at different positions, especially hitters and pitchers. I think the biggest thing Mo's WAR tells us is how much better he's been than every other reliever of his era (which speaks to Brien's point).

      '95-Present
      Rivera 56.3
      Billy Wagner 29.7
      Trevor Hoffman 27
      K-Rod 22.7
      Joe Nathan 22.1

  4. Double Up

    I wouldn't call Guerrero a 'borderline' HOF. Not only are his accomplishments great, but as one blogger pointed out, if you look at how many years he was over 25 HR, .300 BA, 100 RBI's. .400 OBP, and so on, all at the same time, he winds up betwen 4th and 7th All-Time in years accomplishing all those goals. Up with Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and the like. Not 'bordeerline at all.

    • Allen

      One of the truly great hitters of all time. Its a shame he aged so quickly.

  5. Hugh

    England calling:

    In the '80's English cricket had a great star called Ian Botham. He was what is known in cricket as an all-rounder – an accomplished batsman and bowler. Clemens and Cano in one, if you like. A more common gift in cricket than in baseball but, at the very top level, nonetheless a rare and celebrated thing. In addition, Botham had charisma in abundance, walking the length of the country to raise millions for leukaemia research, famously being quoted as saying Pakistan (a cricketing rival) was the sort of country to which one would wish to send one's mother-in-law and generally being a totemic figure in English sporting culture of the time.

    Not that close to Mo in terms of character type but, after he retired the England team, selectors and fans spent the next fifteen years or so looking out for the next Botham, to the enormous detriment of the team and, especially, the players who were selected in his stead.

    Celebrate the past. Embrace the future…

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