This is what the great W.C. Heinz wrote once about Sugar Ray Robinson, the one the old-timers all say was the greatest fighter, pound for pound, who ever lived:
“When the young assault me with their atomic miracles and reject my Crosby records and find comical the movies that once moved me, I shall entice them into talking about fighters. (Sugar Ray Robinson) will be a form of social security for me because they will have seen nothing like him, and I am convinced they never will.”
Mo Rivera, who got to 600 saves Tuesday night, who got to his own magic number in the season of Derek Jeter getting to his own magic number on that 5-for-5 day against the Tampa Bay Rays, will be that kind of social security for us someday. Because after everything we have seen from the Yankees in this generation, all the winning they have done since the winning really started with Joe Torre’s Yankees in 1996, Rivera has been the greatest of all of them.
Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz were in their conference room, in Rockefeller Center, talking baseball, continuing a conversation that has gone on for about fifty years. The subject was Mariano Rivera, the Yankees’ great closer, who owes his success to a single pitch, the cut fastball.
“One pitch,” Wilpon said.
“I don’t get that,” Katz replied.
“What do you mean?” Wilpon answered. “You can’t hit that pitch.”
“But they know it’s coming.”
“Still can’t hit it.”
“I don’t get it.”
Wilpon took out a baseball—there is often one within reach—and demonstrated how Rivera grips the ball. (“I don’t claim to know everything about baseball,” Wilpon said to me at one point. “But I do know pitching.”) Wilpon demonstrated how the ball rolled off Rivera’s fingers. “It can break either way,” he said.
“Still don’t get it,” Katz replied.
The beauty part is that it doesn’t make any practical sense. It’s a beautiful mystery, another reminder that sports are closer to art than science.
Thanks to RI Yank, we were hipped to a piece of analysis by David Pinto the other day:
Mariano uses one pitch, a cut fastball thrown between 90 and 94 miles per hour. There’s nothing soft, no off speed pitch to fool the batters. The cutter does it well all by itself.
Rivera induces swings. Batters swung at 49.4 percent of his pitches, which puts him in the 94th percentile among all pitchers in the majors in that time. Look at what they are swinging at, however. Batters swing at 38% of the pitches that should be called balls. That is the 100th percentile, the best in the majors. Rivera gets batters to see balls as strikes, and swing at them. In general, batters tend to get worse results when they swing at balls.
That’s not the only effect of the cutter, however. Of the pitches batters take, 36.1% of them are strikes. That may not seem like much, but the major league average is 31.8%, and Rivera’s number ranks in the 95th percentile. Not only is Mariano great at getting batters to swing at balls, he’s almost as good at getting them to take strikes.
And he does it all with one pitch.
Rivera’s one pitch is a daydream fantasy about sustained pleasure. There will never be another one like him. Not only because of the results but because how he gets them.
The Yanks scored three runs against Justin Verlander in the first two innings tonight and made him work plenty. But they also ran into two outs on the bases and so although they made Verlander throw 50 pitches he regrouped and went six innings without allowing another run. Bartolo Colon was solid again but gave up two solo home runs to Alex Avila and the score was tied at three after 7 full.
Let’s cut to the chase. Curtis Granderson led off the ninth with a walk against Jose Valverde and then looked to have second base stolen. But he wiped out, over-slid the bag and was tagged out, a strange, ugly play that went against the Yanks. Valverde gestured wildly as is his wont and then walked Mark Teixeira. Alex Rodriguez, who is slumping, fouled off the first pitch he saw, a good pitch to hit and a good swing. Fouled off another pitch, took a ball and then topped a little grounder to third. Brandon Inge charged, the ball stayed down, and Rodriguez reached with an infield hit.
Nick Swisher worked the count even at 2-2 and then lined a single up the middle. Teixeira came home, narrowly beating the throw and the Yanks had the lead again. Jorge Posada, who singled home two runs in the first, whiffed on a full count fastball out of the zone. Russell Martin was next and got ahead 2-0 before Valverde air-mailed a ball that went off Avila’s glove. Rodriguez scored standing up, and although Martin popped out to center to end the frame, Valverde was dancing no more.
Enter Mo. Vintage like so: Broken bat ground out to second; ground ball to third, Rodriguez with a strong, true throw; strikeout. Nine pitches, eleventh save of the season.
Swisher slapping fives with vigor, seventh-straight loss for the Tigers.
Final Score: Yanks 5, Tigers 3.
Happiness in the Boogie Down.
Mariano Rivera, who turned 41 on Monday, has continued to defy age. Every year since turning 35, he has pitched fewer innings than he did the year before. Starting in 2004, Rivera’s innings have gone from 78 2/3 to 78 1/3 to 75 to 71 1/3 to 70 2/3 to 66 1/3 to 60.
Rivera pitches less often, but when he does pitch, he is basically as effective as always. He has stayed strong enough to dominate in the postseason, allowing just one run in 28 innings over the Yankees’ last four appearances.
…There are no comparable players to Rivera. The closest is Hoffman, the only pitcher with more career saves than Rivera’s 559. But Hoffman has had two seasons with an earned run average less than 2.00; Rivera has had 10. Rivera has logged more innings in fewer games, and the workload of roughly two extra seasons across all those Octobers.
Okay, we can now go back to fretting about Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Cliff Lee (for the record, I say the Yanks start the season with all three–four, including Rivera–on the roster).
There’s nothing left really to say about his greatness. We all know the story. He throws that cutter precisely where he wants, it turns left just as it gets to the plate, and there has never been anyone quite like him.
Still, watching him break four bats on Wednesday night — I’m pretty sure he broke Denard Span’s bat when getting the last out of the eighth, then broke Orlando Hudson’s bat, Joe Mauer’s bat and Jim Thome’s bat in the ninth — was another awe-inspiring reminder. He clearly does not throw as hard as he once did. Teams have broken him down on video for more than a decade. We all KNOW exactly what he’s going to do. And still, major league hitters come up, they swing at his cutter, the ball breaks in two inches more than they expected, they break their bat. In Las Vegas, I’ve seen David Copperfield make a car appear out of thin air, and I’ve seen Lance Burton duel someone in a costume who turns out to be Lance Burton. I’m sure I could watch those tricks 50 times and never figure out how they are done. I’m sure I could watch those tricks 100 times and never figure out how they’re done.
But Mariano Rivera has pitched 1,150 innings in the big leagues. He has pitched another 135 or so postseason innings. He has faced almost 900 different big league hitters. And this same trick, precisely this same trick, works almost every time. The Twins may or may not be good enough to come back in this series. They will obviously need to beat up on the Yankees’ second-string starting pitchers, and try to hold their own against this relentless Yankees offense. What they do know is this: They ain’t going to win it in the ninth inning. Mariano Rivera turns 41 next month. He is aging just like the rest of us. But for one more year, it sure looks like nobody is going to beat the Yankees in the ninth inning.