Wednesday, July 1, 2009

No one close to Rivera

Mariano Rivera isn't getting out of the way of the stampede of pitchers heading for the 500-save mark. Photo from this site.

That Mariano Rivera recorded his 500th save Sunday night (and his 501st Tuesday…apologies for the couple days off, my wife and I went on a brief anniversary trip) to a minimal amount of fanfare is mostly understandable.

The save is the most overrated stat in baseball, if not sports. Plenty of evidence suggests the outs before the ninth inning are the toughest of the game, and the definition of the save situation as well as the increasing specialization of the role—it’s a big deal when a closer comes on before the ninth inning, as Red Sox fans learned again last night—mean that only a minimal amount of adequacy is required to record the final three outs of the game.

The Indians nearly won the pennant in 2007 with Joe Borowski leading the league with 45 saves despite a 5.07 ERA and 1.43 WHIP. He was out of baseball by the All-Star Break last summer. Francisco Rodriguez set the single-season save record last season, but he blew seven save chances—tied for most among the 15 closers with at least 30 saves—and ranked fifth among those hurlers in ERA (2.24), sixth in innings pitched (68 1/3), tied for sixth in opponents’ batting average (.216) and 12th in WHIP (1.29).

So it’s ironic, in the Alanis Morrissette way, that it’s quite difficult to build a lengthy career compiling the stat that is the easiest to compile. Rivera is just the second closer ever to reach 500 saves (he’s 71 behind Trevor Hoffman), and judging by the lack of candidates behind him, we might very well see the next 300-game winner—or Rivera collect his second career RBI—before the 500-save club swells to three.

At least Jamie Moyer (252 wins) is within shouting distance of 300 wins, even if he is 46 years old. But no active pitcher even has 400 saves. And of the 24 other players with at least 100 saves who are listed as active at, six are on the disabled list, three are pitching in independent ball, two are starting pitchers and one (Borowski) is retired.

Of the 12 remaining hurlers, Rodriguez, 27, would seem to have the best chance at reaching 500, but he’s not yet halfway there (228 saves) even after averaging 49 saves in his first four seasons as a closer. Beginning with this season, he’d need to average 35 saves per year for the next nine seasons to reach 500 during his age-35 season.

Huston Street (113 saves) is the youngest reliever on the list, but even at 25 he’s already lost his job at least twice and been traded once. Street has 19 saves so far this season, so if he were to finish with 40 saves, he’d still have to average 30 saves per season in order to record his 500th save—in 2022.

Jose Valverde (148 saves), Bobby Jenks (135 saves) and Jonathan Papelbon (132 saves) are the only other relievers under 30 with at least 100 saves. Counting this season, Valverde would have to average 30 saves a season for the next 12 seasons (taking him to his age 41 season in 2020) in order to reach 500. Papelbon makes no secret of his hopes to reach 500, but he and Jenks would each have to average 30 saves a season for the next 13 seasons to reach 500, which would take them through their age-40 seasons.

It’s not surprising that the shelf life is so short for a closer. In addition to the valid argument that any big league pitcher should be able to record three outs with a three-run lead, the human body isn’t built to throw a baseball, and it’s especially not built to do so at maximum effort thousands of times per season.

Most of the time, investing in a closer is a lot like investing in a demolition derby car. Teams get this, which is why the Diamondbacks traded Valverde after he led the NL in saves in 2006, why the Angels barely made an effort to re-sign Rodriguez and why the White Sox and Red Sox are going year-to-year with Jenks and Papelbon instead of signing them to long-term deals.

Still, the rapid turnover and attrition rate among closers as well as the watering down of the role and the save statistic should not minimize what Rivera has accomplished. He is the outlier among closers, someone who is not unfamiliar with the eighth inning—his 110 saves of more than three outs are exactly twice as many as Hoffman has recorded—and whose dominance extends well beyond the numbers beneath the “S” on the back of his baseball card.

Rivera’s regular season brilliance (he owns a 2.30 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in addition to the 501 saves) is even more impressive considering he has produced the equivalent of a full season of postseason excellence: He’s 8-1 with a 0.77 ERA, 34 saves and a 0.75 WHIP in 76 playoff games.

He’s blown just four save opportunities in the postseason, and while those four were doozies (1997 ALDS Game Four, 2001 World Series Game Seven, 2004 ALCS Game Three and 2004 ALCS Game Four), and it’s a measure of how good he has been that those four hiccups were very likely the difference between four titles from 1996 through 2001—or seven crowns from 1996 through 2004.

By any reasonable standard, he’s the best closer in history, so perhaps his legacy will be further defined by the many, many years it’ll take before anyone follows him into the 500-save club.

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