Mariano Rivera has been an ageless wonder throughout his illustrious career. He has continued to pitch at an extraordinarily high level well into his 40′s, outlasting pretty much every other great reliever from his era (and many who came after him). In 2011, at age 41, he posted an ERA below 2, struck out just under a batter per inning, and walked just over a batter every 9 innings, a performance well in line with his historic greatness.
Yet every spring, it seems that Mariano gives us, and his opponents, a brief reminder that he is human. We saw this on Opening Day against the Rays, when Rivera blew a save and took the loss against the Rays, giving up 2 walks and 3 hits while recording just one out. As this cheeky post on Deadspin demonstrates, journalists have been speculating about whether these early struggles are a sign that Mariano is washed up for nearly a decade without seeming to learn from their mistakes. A number of names on Deadspin’s list would not surprise anyone who is familiar with the style and MO of some of the New York media’s most notorious pot-stirrers.
Age is always an easy excuse for any early-season screw-ups, but there are always other legitimate explanations. Instead, the early-season “struggles” could simply be a sign that Rivera tends to take a little longer than most pitchers to round into form. This could make sense if Mariano does an abbreviated throwing program in the offseason, and gets less work in spring training. I have no idea if the former is true, but the latter seems to have been the case for a number of years. Likely, the purpose here is to help keep Mo healthy after long postseason runs, and save the theoretically limited number of bullets remaining in his arm for meaningful games.
While Mariano had a difficult time on Opening Day, he has already looked better, not only performance-wise, but stuff-wise. His cutter looked a little flat on Opening Day and his command was a little erratic (by Mo Rivera standards), but by last night’s game, we were more or less back to the Mariano Rivera we are used to seeing. I see no reason why he won’t continue to be the dominant presence in the back of the Yankee bullpen that he has been for the last 15+ years. And if this is the year that he decides to hang his spikes up (as he has insinuated), I don’t think a drop in performance will be the factor (mostly because such a decline is unlikely to happen). I know it is dangerous to have such confidence in a 40+ year-old pitcher to continue pitching at such a high level, but as we have seen throughout his career, Mariano is such an outlier that normal projections don’t really apply.