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Color by Numbers: How Do You Spell Relief?

Milestones are usually defining moments in a player’s career. In many cases, the achievement and performer become synonymous. Pete Rose and hits, Barry Bonds and home runs, and Nolan Ryan and strikeouts are examples of players being permanently linked to the records they hold. However, when Mariano Rivera passes Trevor Hoffman on the all-time saves list, it will be nothing more than footnote because, in this instance, the man is so much bigger than the milestone.

Breakdown of Mariano Rivera’s 600 Saves

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Six hundred saves is not an insignificant accomplishment. The longevity and consistency required to reach the plateau are attributes that not many relievers possess, but in the case of Rivera, such traits are woefully inadequate when it comes to defining his greatness. After all, the Yankees’ closer has done more than just compile saves over a long career. He has dominated at every step along the way.

Pitchers Who Most Benefited from Rivera’s Save Total

Winning Pitcher #
Andy Pettitte 68
Mike Mussina 49
Roger Clemens 35
Orlando Hernandez 32
David Wells 25
Chien-Ming Wang 24
Ramiro Mendoza 23
David Cone 20
Mike Stanton 17
CC Sabathia 16

Source: Baseball-reference.com

So, if not saves, what is the best way to measure Mariano Rivera’s success as a reliever? If you are a pitcher like Andy Pettitte or Mike Mussina, a handful of extra wins would be a good place to start. Opponents could probably start with the sinking feeling that comes when Enter Sandman begins to play, but for those who prefer a more tangible metric, the forest full of broken bats created by Rivera’s cutter would suffice. For the Yankees’ organization, an extra championship or two seems like an appropriate yard stick, especially when you consider his 0.71 ERA in 140 post season innings. Finally, many Yankees’ fans can probably translate Rivera’s success into lower blood pressure readings and better overall mental health. Forget the sweaty palms, pounding hearts, and upset stomachs. In 552 of his 600 saves, Rivera pitched a scoreless frame, and in 341, he didn’t even surrender a single hit. Ball game over.

Rivera’s Overall Performance in Saves

600 636 2/3 358 47 0.66 95 578 14.2 69%

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Although some closers have approached Rivera’s level for a year or two, none have remained on that plateau for a prolonged period of time. Even Trevor Hoffman, whose record Rivera will soon break, shrinks under the scrutiny of a side-by-side analysis. In many ways, comparing Rivera to his peers only serves to illustrate the degree to which he stands alone. As Sparky Anderson might say, “you don’t ever compare anybody to Mariano Rivera. Don’t never embarrass nobody by comparing them to Mariano Rivera”.

Tale of the Tape: Hoffman vs. Rivera

Source: Baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com

There is no one way to measure Mariano Rivera’s greatness. Even his failures speak of success. So throw out the numbers and just sit back and enjoy. For over 1,000 games, the great Yankees’ closer has been second to none, and, for all we know, the best may still be yet to come.


1 Alex Belth   ~  Sep 15, 2011 9:22 am

Friend said the other day he's just the guy that we'll talk about when we're old, telling kids, "There was nobody like him." The numbers tell a story but they are not adequate. What has amazed me is the past decade. After losing game 7 of the '01 Series, okay, maybe he was done, but he's been better. He's lost big games but saved so many more big ones. He's not perfect. Greatness is not perfection, of course and failure makes the greatness even better.

2 Jon DeRosa   ~  Sep 15, 2011 9:48 am

[1] Ya know, Al, he has been awesome since 2001, and the ERA is lower, but I'm not so sure he was ever better than he was in 1996.

I've been looking at a lot of bullpens due to the Kmbrel/Venters/O'Flaherty thing going on in Atlanta, but the volume, quality and context of Rivera in 1996 was the best relieving I've come across.

It's amazing because it's two different pitchers. The closer wth the cutter and lighter load and the set-up guy with the rising fastball and all those innings and whiffs.

Cannot take a thing away from his latest decade, but back in the needle-in-every-clubhouse days of 1996, i think he was the best he's ever been.

3 Alex Belth   ~  Sep 15, 2011 9:53 am

Good point. Especially when you take into consideration how many innings he threw that year.

4 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Sep 15, 2011 9:58 am

To me, Mo belongs in the same category as Mattingly in terms of the sheer awe each has inspired in me. And when I say "awe," I mean "awe," as in, a profound, jaw-dropping, bodily response to greatness that is a cut above from the garden-variety greatness of other players. Both players, beyond inspiring the deep affection and loyalty that I have for someone like Andy, inspire serious religious feelings of the uncanny, of electricity, of reverence.

I don't know what else to say, really, other than perhaps that Cano is drawing awfully near to that status for me, due mostly to the daily marvels he performs with his glove, making plays no one else makes look ridiculously easy.

5 Jon DeRosa   ~  Sep 15, 2011 10:02 am

[4] Interseting collection, Rivera, Mattingly and Cano. What was it about Mattingly that stood out so much for you?

6 Jon DeRosa   ~  Sep 15, 2011 10:07 am

[4] As in, what did you see in Mattingly that was above other great players? Like say Boggs, or Puckett or even Winfield or Henderson on his own team? Mattingly was truly great, but Rickey was just as good if not better in their 4 full seasons together.

7 Will Weiss   ~  Sep 15, 2011 10:13 am

[0] William ... Brilliant piece here. Mo passes the numbers test, the eye test, and every other test imaginable. We're privileged to say that we got to see the greatest at his position, ever.

[1] And Alex, you're spot on. It was a pleasure covering him and getting a sense of his personality for five years. He's easily the classiest and most humble athlete I've ever encountered. If you took an informal poll of all the beat writers and columnists we know on that same topic, I'd bet Rivera would be a near unanimous choice for that honor.

The most indelible image, to me, is his reaction after the Aaron Boone home run in 2003. The sheer relief and exuberance, the three innings he pitched. It was as if he shared our emotions. ... [6] I can't speak for Weeping, but I had the same sense of awe with Mattingly. It was just a presence he had. The glovework, the leadership, there was something about him, that if you were a kid in the mid-80s and played baseball, you wanted to emulate the way he played the game. Even more so if you were a left-handed hitter and wanted to play first base.

8 Alex Belth   ~  Sep 15, 2011 10:15 am

I loved Mattingly but never felt he was greater than Ricky. But I've had that feeling about Roger Federer, Michael Jordan, Bonds, Woods, Lawrence Taylor.

9 Jon DeRosa   ~  Sep 15, 2011 10:18 am

[7] That's how it was for me w/ Reggie. He may not have been the best player in baseball when I became aware in the late 70s and early 80s, but he stood out from everyone else for me. Homers, style, swagger.

By the time Mattingly was the star in New York, I thought he was the shit, but I knew, say, Boggs was better. In 1980, I would have fought or cried if you said George Brett was way better than Reggie.

10 Alex Belth   ~  Sep 15, 2011 10:23 am

Will, I'm with you. Mo collapsing on the mound is one of my favorite images of him on the field. I only wish I had the pleasure of watching him shag fly balls, and snag a few homers away from Yankee hitters by climbing up on the outfield wall.

11 William J.   ~  Sep 15, 2011 10:42 am

[2] Because of the innings, 1996 is Rivera's best year quantitatively, but 2008 is probably his best qualitatively.

12 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Sep 15, 2011 10:52 am

[5] Excellent question, Jon, thanks for asking. I have to chew on this and get back to you...

13 Sliced Bread   ~  Sep 15, 2011 10:55 am

Great stuff, William. This piece is a keeper.

I don't see any point in dwelling upon, or even thinking about the Game 7 blown save in AZ. We knew he wasn't perfect long before then. Remember the Alomar was the headline.
But I'll indulge the memory with this:
2001 wasn't our year. Unit and Schilling tied our bats in knots. What did they hit, a buck-fifty in that Series? It was amazing how close we came to winning, but I don't pin the losing on Mo in any way. He had a bad inning. That's all there is to it. He's had a couple bad innings in 16 years. None of those matter. They don't add up to anything.

The only thing that adds up is the good feelings about the great Rivera. The great memories. And the hope that he'll be with us a few more years

Thanks for this great piece of work, William. The numbers certify the memories, and good feelings

14 Jon DeRosa   ~  Sep 15, 2011 10:59 am

[11] yeah, agree with that. but the AL of 1996 was such a ridiculous place. dinosaurs ruled the earth. and mo blitzed 'em. that's more impressive to me than the ultra-precise surgery of 2008.

15 William J.   ~  Sep 15, 2011 11:35 am

[14] Don't forget that Mo was 26 in 1996, but 38 in 2008. What's remarkable about Rivera that in the 10-years for which fangraphs has velocity data, Rivera's fastball has lost a little more than 1 mph. He truly has been a freak on nature. Like Ryan as a starter, Mo has not had to reinvent himself even into his 40s.

Regarding Mattingly, he was my favorite, but I never looked at him in awe. If anything, what made him so appealing was his every man persona. While hitters like Boggs and Gwynn seemed like machines, Mattingly had to work at it, constantly changing his stance and hitting for hours off the tee.

16 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Sep 15, 2011 12:51 pm

(And yes, thank you, William, excellent piece of work, indeed.)

17 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Sep 15, 2011 12:58 pm

Ok, so, why Mattingly...

Reggie was my first hero, even named my cat after him though denied it because even in fourth grade I knew how corny that was. I was too young to feel awe for him, though, or anything else. Adoration, yes, but not awe.

Mattingly's skills with the glove coupled with his skills with the bat. He just had no holes in his game (ok, ok, he wasn't very fast).

And he never struck out. In a sport where just making contact is difficult, his batsmanship was just amazing to me. Especially next to Dave Winfield and his javelin of a bat.

Maybe I was awed by him because I could see the fear he aroused in pitchers. And the lightning-fast way he could turn on an inside pitch and drive an outside one.

I can't really articulate why Mattingly and not, for instance, Rickey or Winfield, adore them both as I did.

Somehow he, more than anyone else, impressed himself upon my young mind as an unstoppable force. But again, that begs the question. I guess I don't really have a good answer.

18 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Sep 15, 2011 1:02 pm

Maybe the fact that he never struck out is as close as I can come to explaining it: the guy couldn't be pitched to. He could hit any pitch (so it seemed) with authority, much like Cano. Nothing sends a shiver up my spine like seeing that type of hitter take a good pitcher's pitch and turning it into a double in the gap. That's the skill, more than any other, that makes a hitter into a superhero for me.

19 Jon DeRosa   ~  Sep 15, 2011 1:13 pm

[18] great description. i loved the way mattingly hit to all fields and rarely struck out. power when it came, but not like it was his goal with every swing.

i loved reggie, but i ended playing a lot more like mattingly.

20 Ben   ~  Sep 15, 2011 1:31 pm


Funny. I liked those guys too, but I ended up playing more like Jason Tyner.

Who I loved by the way, don't front on JT.

21 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Sep 15, 2011 1:32 pm

[19] Thanks. I think, on a more fundamental level, what that speaks to is balance, which brings us back to Mo and his venerated "repeatable delivery." The sense of control over oneself that is conveyed by having such perfect balance at the plate or such perfect delivery from the mound. It means that when the failures inevitably come, one still has a sense of calm: "Well, he did everything he could, it's not like he embarrassed himself out there."

Such fundamental soundness makes for a certain grace even in defeat. If the cost of Reggie's prodigious homeruns is that sometimes he comes up with air and falls on his ass like a clown, I'm not sure it's a price worth paying. I much prefer the "stay within yourself" type whose embarrassments are rare to nonexistent.

22 Alex Belth   ~  Sep 15, 2011 2:07 pm

Whitey Herzog, I believe, once compared Mattingly to Stan Musial in that he was tough to pitch to because you could make a perfect pitch in on his hands and he'd fist it down the third base line for a double. He didn't walk--and that's the big difference between him and Boggs (though he had significantly more pop). He was exciting.

23 Jon DeRosa   ~  Sep 15, 2011 2:16 pm

[22] Bill James on Donnie: "100% Ballplayer, 0% Bullshit."

24 Jon DeRosa   ~  Sep 15, 2011 2:18 pm

[21] But then who hits three home runs in the world series after cramming a lifetime's worth of angst and scrutiny into the preceding 162 games? mattingly's and mariano's balance requires reggie's and valverde's flamboyance to stand out as much as it does.

25 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Sep 15, 2011 4:22 pm

[24] Of course. I'm grateful to have both the Reggies of the world and the Mos and Mattinglys.

In short, I fucking love cosa baseball nostra, this baseball ting-a-ours.

26 OldYanksFan   ~  Sep 15, 2011 11:59 pm

I remember when Matting came up. I was living in NH, but servicing accounts in NYC. I hoped he would be an above average player, and his next year he posted a 107 OPS+, with 4 HRs in 300+ ABs. And then just-like-that... BOOM! He turned into a great player. 4 years in a row with an average 154 OPS+. Won the MVP in '85 and was robbed in '86 (his best year) by Clemens.

It's more then a foornote to metion that Mo's 2001 'blown save' was really the result of Mo's throwing to 2nd base, not to home plate. If he turns that DP, we Win. If he just gets the runner at 2nd, we probably still win. Instead it's 1st and 3rd, with Armageddon on the horizon.

27 William J.   ~  Sep 16, 2011 8:47 am

[26] Also worth noting that the game winning hit was nothing more than a weak infield pop up. Also, the blown saves in the 2004 ALCS were either the result of inherited runners or small ball. The only real post season blown save (and by real, I mean Mo was beat by the hitter and it caused the Yankees to lose) was the Alomar HR in 1997. Talking about bouncing back from early failure.

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