Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mariano Rivera: Better Than Necessary for Yankees

Today (March 9, 2013) the New York Yankees great Mariano Rivera officially announced that the upcoming 2013 season - his 18th - would be his last.  It's hard to imagine the Sandman will be gone after this year, but as he said in a press conference today, there's really nothing left for him to accomplish on a baseball field.  As his old battery-mate Jorge Posada said, there will never be another reliever like him - essentially, a one-pitch closer who was nearly impossible to hit, even though the hitters always knew what was coming; they just never knew where it was going to be located by the time it reached home plate.  He probably shattered more bats than any other reliever in MLB history, although there are no official records on that; at least to my knowledge. 

I thought this would be a good time to dig into the archives; the following was written about a year ago:

Mariano Rivera is not only the greatest reliever in MLB history, he's the greatest pitcher of any kind, in MLB history.  It's not even close.  Aside from his record-breaking career saves total of 603, Rivera's 2.06 career ERA has been compiled over a period of time that has been a hitter's era.  Perhaps the best measurement of his dominance is reflected in his ERA+ during his seventeen seasons:  206.  Nobody else is even in that neighborhood.  Pedro Martinez is a distant second with 154.  Some guy named Jim Devlin is in third place, with 151.  Then comes Lefty Grove's 148 and Walter Johnson's 147.

Cy Young?  138.  How about some more contemporary names, like Sandy Koufax?  131.  Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver and Curt Schilling?  All three tied at 128.

That's how good Mariano Rivera has been; far above any other pitcher in MLB history.  In fact, he has been so good, his skills have far exceeded what his team actually needed; at least for the most part.

Yogi Berra once addressed an audience that had assembled to pay tribute to the Yankee great, with these renowned words of wisdom:  "Thank you for making this day necessary."

Strangely enough, when the Yankees were going through that incredible World Championship run from 1996 to 2000, winning four out of five times, they really didn't even need a closer.  Of course, they happened to have the greatest one who ever lived coming out of their bullpen, so they went to him to close games out, more as a formality than anything else.

Essentially, Mariano Rivera was better than "necessary" since the Yankees were far superior to any other team in baseball, with or without him; especially when they were making mincemeat of their National League challengers in their most recent late-twentieth century World Championship heyday.

It all started when the Yankees rallied from a 2-0 deficit to the reigning World Champion Atlanta Braves in the '96 Fall Classic; winning four straight games to complete the remarkable comeback in relative ease; in  just six games.  Mariano hadn't taken over the closer's role for the Yankees yet, but they didn't need him anyway.

The '98 World Series was a joke.  The over-matched Padres had no chance, getting swept in four straight.  Of course, Rivera sealed the deal, but there wasn't a closer in baseball who couldn't have secured those easy wins.  Mitch Williams could have come out of retirement to do the job and the Yankees still would have prevailed; it may have taken a couple of extra games, but there was no way they could lose.

The '99 rematch against the Atlanta Braves was once again, no contest.

Nor was the 2000 all-New York Fall Classic - the Subway Series - even remotely challenging for the Bronx Bombers.

Of course, Rivera came in; got some easy saves, and was on the mound for each clinching Kodak moment. He had a few dicey moments from time to time, but even if he had failed in some of those instances, it wouldn't have mattered in the long run.  The Yankees were going to win, eventually.  It just didn't matter what Mariano did.

Using the great Mariano Rivera in those lopsided World Series victories is pretty much equivalent to using an atomic bomb to kill a mosquito.  Or like using the Pacific Ocean to douse a cigarette.  Like using the sun to light a candle.  Overkill, to the max.

Certainly, he's had many moments to shine in the postseason during his illustrious 17-year career; the Yankees have advanced to the ALDS sixteen times, winning nine times to advance to the ALCS; prevailing seven times to advance to the World Series; and coming out on top five different times; most recently, in 2009, when he wasn't really needed to dispose of the Philadelphia Phillies, either.

His career postseason record is almost unbelievable in its excellence:  8 wins - 1 loss, with 42 saves and an ERA of 0.70.  Gaudy numbers, indeed.

Ironically, his only postseason loss came in the crucial Game Seven of the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Entering the game in the bottom of the ninth-inning in Phoenix, trying to protect a 2-1 lead, Mariano gave up a couple of runs to give the D-Backs their first World Championship.  Unbelievably, the greatest pitcher in MLB history - the greatest pitcher in postseason history - failed to record yet another save in what has proved to be the most crucial blown save of his career.

This was the only time his team really needed him, in order to win a World Series.  The fact that he didn't get the job done on that one occasion is one of the most shocking things to ever occur in World Series history.  The mosquito somehow escaped that nuclear blast; the ocean couldn't douse that cigarette; the sun couldn't light that measly candle.

Mariano Rivera lost the game and the Series for New York; the only time they really needed him in order to win another World Championship.  The only time he was really necessary.

All those other times, the greatest pitcher in MLB history was far better than necessary; closing out games for a team that was so good, his services almost became a luxury.  Of course, the Yankees were very happy to have him for all those years; especially since Rivera probably would've made a difference for a few other teams that were close to winning a World Series, but came up just a bit short.  Maybe the Cleveland Indians ('97) might've been able to prevail over the Marlins with Mo closing out Game Seven.  Maybe the Atlanta Braves may have kept the Yankees from rallying in '96 with a young Mariano Rivera working the back-end of their bullpen. 

Who knows?  He may have been better than necessary for the Yankees, but no need to take any chances with the greatest closer in the history of the game.

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