BY MATT DeFAVERI
Brace yourself: Mariano Rivera may not be the greatest closer in history.
In fact, the 42-year-old righty isn’t even the greatest closer on his own team.
The New York Daily News reported two days ago that there still wasn’t a timetable for Mariano Rivera’s return from a torn ACL and meniscus. The Yankee great was injured May 3 shagging fly balls during batting practice before a game against the Kansas City Royals.
It was a tough loss for the Yankees, who have since tagged Rafael Soriano as the closer.
Soriano’s having a very good season, converting all 7 of his save opportunities, posting a 1.89 ERA, and striking out 18 batters in 19 innings.
But if anyone told you five years ago that Rivera’s career would potentially end after a torn ACL and not a shoulder or elbow injury, you’d have looked at them the same way my friends looked at me when I drafted Ryan Howard in the 4th round of my fantasy draft this year.
Barring a return for the 2013 season, which Mo said was a “go,” his injury caps a brilliant career which includes 608 regular season saves (most all-time), 892 games finished (most all-time), 15 consecutive seasons with at least 25 saves and 14 seasons with at least 30 saves.
Rivera may be the best reliever of the modern era, but in a time when pitchers are pampered and throwing more than 75-80 innings of relief in a season is considered “tiring,” the G.O.A.T. title has to go to Rich “Goose” Gossage, who spent six seasons with the New York Yankees from 1978-1983.
892 games finished
1,219.2 innings pitched
Strong like bull, durable like Nalgene
For all of Rivera’s records, the 12-time All Star only pitched 100+ innings once in his career, logging 107.2 in 1996. The closest he ever came to that was in 2001, hurling 80.2 innings and striking out 83 and posting 50 saves, his second-highest single season total.
As a closer, Gossage pitched more than 133 innings in three different seasons, the last time coming with the 1978 New York Yankees – his first year in pinstripes.
Gossage earned a career-high 33 saves in 1980, compared to Rivera’s career-high 53 in 2004, and while Rivera unequivocally leads the sports in all-time saves, that statistic can be misleading when examining the offenses of the two eras.
The 2004 and the 1980 teams have some similarities, both ranking 3rd in slugging percentage in the majors, 3rd and 4th in OBP and 2nd and 3rd in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging), respectively.
But offenses in the 80s were more disparate compared to the steroid era of the late 90s and early 2000s.
In 2004, there was an average of 1.12 home runs hit or allowed per game league-wide. In 1980, there were 0.73 home runs hit or allowed per game.
The 2004 clubs averaged 14.74 total bases per game, while the 1980 teams averaged 13.28 bases per game.
The 2004 Yankees led the majors in home runs with 242, while the Arizona Diamondbacks came dead last with 135. But in 1980, the Milwaukee Brewers led the league with 203 dingers (the Yankees were 2nd with 189), while the abysmal New York Mets ranked last with 61. That’s a 136-home run difference between first and last place in 1980, compared to a 107-home run difference in Rivera’s time.
While Rivera is pitching against tougher competition, he’s also the beneficiary of opposing offenses that are more capable of closing the gap and creating that three-run-or-less save situation.
Here’s another telling stat: in 2004, the Boston Red Sox slugged .472 on the way to their first championship in 86 years, while the Brewers only slugged .387 as a team. In 1980, the Brewers led the league with a .448 slugging percentage, while the last-ranked San Diego Padres slugged .342.
That’s an .85 point difference in 2004 compared to a .106 point difference in 1980.
So with less overall offense in Gossage’s era, those offensive rankings become more exaggerated and Gossage found himself in fewer save situations than Rivera. Except for batting average, Gossage’s Yankees were near the top in most major offensive categories in a league that didn’t hit nearly as well as it did during Rivera’s time. Rivera’s going to convert more saves because games in 2004 are closer than they’d be in 1980 due to less disparate offenses.
There’s also a durability question when it comes to Mo and Gossage.
The 1980 Yankees went 103-59 and, backed, by Ron Davis and Gossage, won 77 of 79 games in which they led after 6 innings.
Gossage’s failed experiment (9-17 record, 3.94 ERA) as a starter for the 1976 Chicago White Sox only highlighted his durability. He started 29 times and pitched 15 complete games, collecting 135 K’s in 224 innings of work.
The term “workhorse” comes to mind.
Gossage also logged 53 saves of seven-plus outs in his career. Rivera has only logged one such save.
Gossage pitched an average of 82 innings per season over his 22-year career. Rivera averaged 67 innings per season in his 18-year career.
Rivera doesn’t begin to touch Gossage in terms of durability.
The best offense is a good defense
Except when you also have a good offense. Then just use both.
Rivera is not a strikeout pitcher. He never really has been, even when he broke the single season record for strikeout’s by a reliever in 1996 with 130 K’s in 107.2 innings.
Gossage recorded 130 strikeouts with the 1975 White Sox, but needed 141.2 innings to get it done.
Even if we give Rivera another four seasons to match Gossage’s tenure, assuming an average of 62 K’s a season as he has for his career, it would only bump his total up to 1,367. Rivera would need an additional two full seasons to log 1,491 K’s, 11 short of Gossage’s record.
So how can Rivera strike out so many less batters but notch almost twice as many career saves as Gossage?
Short answer: his defense.
Shorter answer: BABIP.
BABIP stands for “batting average on balls in play.” It’s a statistic that measures a defense’s performance converting batted balls into outs.
In other words, it calculates the frequency at which a batter reaches a base after putting the ball in play. For pitchers, it’s a measure of luck, as an extremely high or extremely low BABIP rating should balance out over a period of time.
A low BABIP translates into the defense doing their job and the pitcher getting lucky with where the ball is hit.
In three of Rivera’s more impressive seasons – 1999, 2001 and 2005 – he averaged a .239 BABIP. So when a ball was in play, batters only reached base .239 percent of the time. Those same three seasons, clubs hit at a .266 clip on average.
Gossage’s three best seasons with the Yankees were in 1978, 1980 and 1982, when he posted a .252 BABIP. That number is much closer to the .261 BA that clubs posted on average in those three years.
According to those numbers, Rivera was aided by his fielders more than Gossage. And since Gossage was a strikeout pitcher and Rivera relied more on groundouts from his devastating cutter, Rivera’s defense had to be truly excellent in order to help him record a save.
Gossage earned his saves largely through his own work, pitching more innings and notching more strikeouts than Mo could muster. Maybe Gossage worked harder instead of smarter, but the league in the 80s and the league at the turn of the century were very different from each other.
<insert farm animal joke here>
Author Fran Zimniuch published “Fireman: The Evolution of the Closer in Baseball” in 2010. In the book, Gossage said:
Rivera’s a good closer, but there’s no question he leaned on his team on a more frequent basis than Gossage ever did. Gossage stands as the best closer in the history of the sport.
Mo comes in at a close second.
Maybe they should rename the “G.O.A.T.” to the “G.O.O.S.E.”