With the announcement of Mariano Rivera‘s impending retirement after the 2013 season, debate has begun concerning where he ranks among all-time Yankees greats.
Certainly, Rivera is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer. He’s getting in on the first ballot, of that there is no doubt. And he is absolutely one of the greatest Yankees to ever wear pinstripes.
Five times the Yanks won world championships with Mariano Rivera on the roster, and four times, Rivera recorded the final out.
In 96 postseason games, his ERA was a sterling 0.70. Compare that to his ridiculously good 2.21 regular season ERA, and you can see why Rivera is unquestionably the greatest postseason closer in baseball history.
However, ESPN’s Buster Olney postulated an argument that, on the surface, seems like a reasonable one, but in reality, is not at all.
You could have a pretty healthy debate about whether Rivera or M.Jordan has been the best postseason performer in U.S. pro sports history.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) March 8, 2013
One can certainly make the argument that Michael Jordan is the greatest postseason performer in the history of American sports. Six NBA championships will do that for a person.
But does Rivera’s career postseason accomplishments really compare to Jordan’s? And just how valuable was Rivera to the Yankees’ postseason achievements?
First, it’s important to note the value of a closer in general. The closer is typically only brought into situations in which he has a lead entering the ninth inning, typically no greater than three runs. There are also occasions, obviously, where a pitcher would be brought into a tie game, usually at home, to get his team one final at-bat and a chance to win the game with a walk-off run.
Of course, most forward thinking baseball watchers believe it’s silly to let your best relief pitcher waste away in the bullpen in a tie game on the road, but that’s a different article entirely.
In those “save situations,” a closer is already put in a position where his chances for success is incredibly high. It is a high-leverage situation, one in which a good closer should emerge on the winning side of routinely.
According to The Hardball Times Win Probability Inquirer, if you assume the game is being played in a ballpark that is neither pitcher nor hitter-friendly (a run environment of 4.5 is being used in this example), then a closer that enters the top of the ninth inning of a home game with a one-run lead, no outs and the bases empty has an 83.7% chance of winning the game.
If the closer enters with a two-run lead, he has a 92.6% chance of winning.
And if the closer enters with a three-run lead, he has a 96.7% chance of winning.
In other words, most closers AT LEAST should be expected to win their games in more than 8 in 10 opportunities.
Of course, Rivera has been a pitcher whose true value is that he has routinely pitched more than one inning at a time in postseason play. Since he became the Yankees closer in 1997, Rivera has 42 appearances of more than one inning. In those 42 appearances, he has 31 saves and four wins.
Under our initial scenario, in games in which a closer enters the eighth inning of a tie game at home, his team has only a 50/50 shot at winning. If he enters the eighth inning (needing six outs) to protect a one-run lead, the odds increase to 78.1%. If it’s a two-run lead, it’s 86.6%, and if it’s a three-run lead, it’s 93%.
However, most multiple inning saves are close games, meaning most of them are either tie games or ones in which the margin is one or two runs.
The fact that 31 of Rivera’s 42 postseason saves were of multiple innings certainly puts him on another plane as far as closers are concerned.
Still, a large majority of the time, Rivera enters a game already in a position to succeed. In fact, the odds are drastically in his favor most of the time.
Not only that, closers are typically only involved in securing three of the necessary 27 outs a team needs to win. That’s just over 11%. In Rivera’s case, most of the time he was required to secure 4 to 6 of the 27 outs needed. That’s still a relatively low percentage of the total outs needed to win, but certainly, his degree of difficulty has historically been much higher than typical closers.
Plus, a team needs to score runs in order to win baseball games, and there is nothing Rivera can contribute to that cause, unlike Michael Jordan, who was able to contribute both offensively and defensively to his team’s victories.
And even though Rivera is undoubtedly the greatest closer who ever lived, even he was not immune to being responsible for one of the biggest blown saves in postseason history.
Despite that hiccup, there is no denying Rivera’s credentials. He deserves all the accolades thrown at him.
All except being called the greatest postseason performer in U.S. sports history.