Mariano Rivera Sets the Saves Mark, But is He the Best Ever?
Yesterday, the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera retired three straight Minnesota Twins to notch his 602nd career save and, with that perfect inning, secured himself the top spot among major league baseball’s all-time saves leaders. He moved one ahead of Trevor Hoffman, who retired last year after compiling 601 career saves. And even in his 40's, Mariano shows little signs of slowing down. This save was his 43rd of the 2011 season, and there is no reason to believe that he will not reach 650, if not more, before he eventually retires.
Sportswriters and the Yankee faithful, not surprisingly, are hailing Mo as the greatest reliever ever to play the game. There is much statistical support for this proposition, of course: in addition to the 602 saves, which have been compiled over a 15-year span, Rivera also possesses the most post-season saves as well as a microscopic post-season ERA. So while he has had the most opportunities to pitch in the post-season by virtue of pitching for perennial playoff-bound New York, he has certainly made the most of these opportunities. He has never had less than 28 saves in a season since becoming the Yankees’ closer in the late 1990’s, and his durability has been nothing short of remarkable.
But is he the greatest reliever of all time? That is certainly open to debate. He is without question the greatest closer of all-time; that is, he is the best at pitching one inning or less and finishing off games, as the role has come to be defined over the past couple of decades. In an era spawned by Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley and others, an era dominated by seventh and eighth-inning specialists and lefty/righty specialists, Mariano stands atop the leader board. There can be no doubt. When one considers all relievers, and opens the discussion up to prior eras, then the issue becomes more clouded.
Sports are rife with debates about the best players, especially when one tries to compare one era to another. Deciding the best reliever of all time is no different. And to some, the debate will come down to two pitchers – each of whom pitched for the Yankees and struck fear in the hearts of opposing batters – Mariano Rivera and Rich Gossage. There are no easy answers to this question; it is much like Colts’ fans arguing over who was the better quarterback, Johnny Unitas or Peyton Manning. Or Lakers’ fans arguing over who was better, Magic Johnson or Kobe Bryant. Each side can make cogent arguments to support their position. The fact that the players were from different eras, with different styles of play and differing requirements in order to master their position, makes the debate all the more difficult.
The 1970’s-era relievers were a much different breed than today’s closers. Today, the “closer”, as the role has been defined, consists mainly of pitchers who never see the mound prior the ninth inning. Even if the game is on the line in the seventh or eighth inning, managers are loathe to bring in their closer for fear that he will then not be able to pitch the ninth inning and “close” the game. The 70’s were different. In that decade, and until Oakland’s Tony LaRussa began to use Eckersley and the rest of the A’s bullpen in more defined (by inning, that is) roles, the term “closer” was not used. Relievers were known as “firemen.” They were used to squelch potential rallies by the opposing team, whether those rallies were in the seventh, eighth, or ninth innings. As the afore-mentioned Rich Gossage, a member of the Hall of Fame, has always been quick to point out, he still holds the record for most saves consisting of two or more innings of work.
Those 70’s relievers were a scary, surly bunch. Much has been made of the Giants’ Brian Wilson and his “fear the beard” persona. Now, he seems like a unique individual. Back then, he would have simply fit in with the crowd. “Goose” Gossage had the giant fu Manchu and his hulking figure made him look like a giant on the mound. Bruce Sutter , one of the other greats from that era, sported a beard that rivaled Wilson’s while pitching for the Cubs, Cardinals, and Braves. The Yankees’ Sparky Lyle sported a fu Manchu, and Rollie Fingers brought the handlebar mustache back into style for Oakland and Milwaukee.
Rich Gossage (2)
And then there was Al Hrabosky, perhaps the wildest of them all. Nicknamed “The Mad Hungarian”, Hrabosky also sported a thick fu Manchu – and he would whip the Kansas City (and, later, Atlanta and St. Louis) crowd into a frenzy when he would step off behind the mound, rub the ball furiously, and then slam the ball into his glove while wheeling around and returning to the pitching rubber to face a batter. It was a theatrical show that would not be tolerated in today’s game. It was intimidating. He was, if nothing else, the precursor to Mr. Wilson and his beard.
Al Hrabosky (3)
Gossage, Sutter, Eckersley, and the great Lee Smith are all enshrined in the Hall of Fame. As such, the debate over who was the best, if not Mariano, must begin and end with them. A case could be made for Eck, who redefined the role of closer after a successful career as a starting pitcher – he retired with over 200 victories and 300 saves, remarkable numbers by any standard. Sutter was the dominant reliever in the National League, even when pitching for lousy teams in the 70’s. Lee Smith was the saves record holder prior to Hoffman, which seemed to me more a testament to his longevity.
Which leaves Gossage, who, as noted above, still holds the record for two-inning or more saves. At a time when pitchers would routinely go two innings or more in order to garner a save, the Goose was the most intimidating. Now, in an era where pitchers rarely see more than one inning of work in order to get a save, Rivera is, with his cut fastball, the most intimidating. So is either “better” than the other? Perhaps not. Each man dominated the position. Each set a standard by which others can be measured. One is in the Hall of Fame. The other is a lock to be enshrined in his first year of eligibility.
In the end, more people will consider Rivera the best ever due to his number of saves. Assuming he retires in the 650 range, a pitcher would have to average 40 or more saves over 16 years just to equal that mark. A glance at today’s rosters does not reveal any pitchers who will likely endure for that long, much less with that level of greatness. And I would tend to agree. Although we usually romanticize the past, which would enable me to remember days sitting on the couch and watching the fearsome Goose mow down batter after batter for the 1978 champions, I have been equally privileged to watch Mariano Rivera for the past 15 years, to listen to the strains of “Enter Sandman” as he jogged to the mound, and watch him raise his hand time and again after nailing down victory after victory, both in the regular season and playoffs/ World Series. This vote is for Rivera.