At some point this year, in either September or October, the greatest pitcher we’ve ever seen will throw his final pitch. His fans, like me, hope it’s at Yankee Stadium while securing another World Series Championship for the New York Yankees. Although with the number of injuries the Yankees have had, it’s hard to envision him capturing a sixth championship ring this October. But while the timing and circumstances of Mariano Rivera’s last pitch remain unknown, the pitch selection isn’t. It’ll be a cutter.
Rivera is not only the best closer in the history of the game, but also the best pitcher in the last forty years. Yes, the best pitcher in the game since Sandy Koufax. I know there will be some people who say a closer can’t be considered the best pitcher because they only pitch one, maybe two innings at a time, but they’re wrong. They are the same people who say a pitcher shouldn’t be voted the Most Valuable Player because they only impact a fifth of all games for a team. However, as we saw in 2011 with Justin Verlander, some lines of thinking are just outdated.
Let me first speak to the tangible aspects of Rivera’s dominance…his stats. He’s the only pitcher in the live ball era to have a WHIP under 1.00. The only one. That means he averages less than one base runner per inning he pitches, and oh by the way, he pitches the most critical inning of the game. Other contenders who could be considered the best pitcher since Koufax like Nolan Ryan? He never had one season with a WHIP under 1.00, let alone a career. Roger Clemens? He had one season with such a stat, 1986, when he won the American League MVP.
Another mind-blowing Rivera stat is his ERA+. For those that don’t know (and I’m no expert on it), ERA+ is a pitching statistic that factors in additional information like the league the pitcher is in and his home ballpark. A rating over 100 is considered above average, while scores under that number are considered below average. Career numbers for other all-time greats: Sandy Koufax-131, Greg Maddux-132, Randy Johnson-135, Roger Clemens-143, and Walter Johnson-147. Rivera’s is 205. The next closest, in the history of the game, is Pedro Martinez’s 154. Rivera beat him by 51 points. Absurd.
While his overall dominance has been incredible, his performances in the postseason are mythical. He’s unquestionably the greatest postseason pitcher ever. In 141 innings he has 42 saves, an ERA of 0.70 and a WHIP of 0.75. As Joel Sherman of the New York Post said in March, Rivera could give up 21 consecutive earned runs without recording an out and see his ERA rise to a whopping 2.00.
In the postseason, Rivera was the ultimate weapon who shortened a game for his manager. Give him the ball with a lead, and it was almost a certainty he’d give you a win. Yes, there were a couple of memorable failures, but when you make 96 postseason appearances, you’re bound to blow a couple. Opposing managers had to manage the game differently because he turned them into high school games. Seven innings. In postseason games where Rivera had to pitch more than one inning his ERA was a staggering 0.53. That’s how you win five championships.
There are two more aspects of Rivera’s dominance that make him the greatest I’ve ever seen. One, he does it in the highest pressure situations, with virtually no room for error. Starting pitchers have the luxury of knowing that if they give up a run in the first inning, their offense has plenty of time to make that up. Closers do not. And finally, he has done it with one pitch. Think about that. Every batter he has faced since 1997 has known exactly what pitch is coming. There’s no guessing, there’s no pitch charts, there’s no tendencies to scout, other than this one: “I’m throwing the cutter.” Sure, he worked on a change-up at one point (failed) and tried to run the ball away from lefties at another point (failed), but it’s always been about the cutter.
So that’s my case for Mariano. I’m sure plenty of you disagree, but for me he’s the best I’ve seen. He comes in, does his job, and doesn’t celebrate with the over the top histrionics so many other closers display. He acts like he’s done it before….because he has…