Mariano Rivera: The Greatest of This Generation?


March 9, 2013; Tampa, FL, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera (42) throws a pitch in the fourth inning against the Atlanta Braves at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The great Mariano Rivera has nailed down 608 games for the New York Yankees over the past 18 years. No other closer in history comes close to his numbers or his aura. When “Enter Sandman” played in the Bronx in October, the game was considered in the books. No other closers, even Eckersley or Gossage, ever had the air of invincibility that Mariano Rivera possessed in the postseason.

However, the end of an era draws near, as Rivera announced that 2013 will be his final season. Never in baseball’s history has a player who appeared in so few innings had such an impact upon his team and the game. Since Mariano Rivera is without question the greatest relief pitcher of all-time, where does he fit in among the games all time great pitchers?

Rivera stands out even among the relief pitchers he will surely join in Cooperstown in six years. His regular season ratios are better than those of Rich Gossage and Dennis Eckersley. And when the games mattered most, in the postseason, Rivera was even more brilliant. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Rivera was the fact he accomplished everything after an initial failure. In his first postseason as closer, he allowed a series changing home run to Sandy Alomar Jr. in the 1997 ALDS.

Not surprisingly, Rivera’s ERA and WHIP are far better than the great starting pitchers of his era. The triumvirate of Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez all trail him by around a run per nine innings. But to proclaim a one inning pitcher the greatest of his time is to ignore a basic truth. Each time through a lineup, a pitchers stats deteriorates. In 2012, a pitchers WHIP went from 1.30 to 1.41 from first to third time through a lineup. This deterioration holds up historically. The great Rivera’s weakness is that he rarely faced a batter a second or third time. (In 1995 Rivera started 10 games with a 5.76 ERA).

Pitcher                            IP             Batters Faced            ERA            WHIP
Tom Seaver            4483.0        19369                       2.86              1.12
Roger Clemens        4916.2         20240                      3.12              1.17
Pedro Martinez         2827.1         11394                       2.93              1.05
Rich Gossage *        1448.1           5932                        2.63              1.18
Dennis Eckersley*    807.1            3204                        2.85             1.00
Mariano Rivera*       1169.2          4644                         2.05            0.97
* In relief only

The cult of Mariano’s cutter has been in session in all week. But unlike greats like Tom Seaver and Sandy Koufax, Rivera never had to develop a repertoire of pitches. His fastball and devastating cutter were flashed brilliantly an inning at a time. Rivera never needed to develop an off speed pitch like a changeup or curveball..

Qualifying Mariano Rivera among the all-time greats is a tricky proposition. How much of his success was based on the Yankee teams of the mid 1990’s through the 2000’s? Unlike Koufax and Steve Carlton, who carried teams to a World Series, Rivera’s greatness was based upon his ability to hold leads his team had provided. The fact that relief pitchers who are used for one inning began with Bruce Sutter in the early 1980’s makes it even harder to put Rivera’s greatness in perspective.

The following is clear, Mariano Rivera is the greatest reliever of all time. Up for debate is whether he is the greatest postseason pitcher of all time or the greatest pitcher of his generation. The fact that a one inning pitcher is even in the debate speaks volumes about the quality of his career.