Sports

Flax ’17: Mariano Rivera: the greatest baseball player of all time

By
Sports Columnist
Friday, February 3, 2017

In all sports, debates about the greatest player of all time are common. In baseball, the most popular answer is New York Yankees legend Babe Ruth. But, in my mind, Ruth does not hold a candle to Mariano Rivera.

For those who are unfamiliar, Rivera was the Yankees closer for 19 years, retiring in 2013. He has 652 career saves, an all-time high, and a sterling 2.21 earned run average. He was a 13-time All-Star and received votes for Most Valuable Player nine times, an incredibly rare feat for a relief pitcher. He also received votes for the Cy Young award six times and finished in top three four times. Though he never won any of these awards, his credentials on the whole are more than enough to cement him as the greatest reliever of all time. Other closers like Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley may have won a Cy Young and even an MVP, but neither has the body of work to compare to Rivera’s, as illustrated by a stat called ERA+.

ERA+ is a player’s ERA, adjusted for the parks in which he pitches and the ERAs of the rest of the pitchers in the league. It is measured as a percentage of the league average, so an ERA+ of 90 is 10 percent worse than average and 110 is 10 percent better than average. Fingers and Eckersley have career ERA+ marks of 120 and 116, respectively. Rivera has a career ERA+ of 205, far and away the best of all time, with a minimum 1,000 career innings pitched.

The second-best ERA+ belongs to Pedro Martinez, at 154. Not only was Rivera 105 percent better than the average pitcher, he was 33 percent better than the next best. Ruth is comparable as a hitter, with an all-time best 206 career OPS+, which is on base percentage plus slugging and similarly adjusted. As a closer, Rivera falls short in measurements of cumulative value. His 56.6 career Wins Above Replacement, a stat designed to measure the number of wins a player contributes to his teams over a career, is dwarfed by Martinez’s 86.0 and Ruth’s staggering 163.1. But WAR discriminates against closers for one critical reason.

WAR treats all of a player’s appearances as contributing equally to winning, ignoring in-game circumstances. Obviously, not all situations are equal. This situational blindness works well for starting pitchers, whose value should not depend on how their offenses fare. But closers like Rivera are deployed almost exclusively in save situations, where their team leads by three runs or fewer in the ninth inning. As their success or failure essentially determines whether the team wins or loses, they contribute much more to the number of games a team wins than WAR would indicate. For a better measure of a closer’s value, we can look at Win Probability Added.

WPA is a simple cumulative stat: it measures the change in a team’s probability of winning based on what a given player does. If each team’s odds of winning are 50 percent and one team hits a walk-off home run, the hitter is credited with 0.5 WPA and the pitcher with -0.5 WPA.

Rivera’s career 56.65 WPA trails only that of Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux, two pitchers who threw 3633.0 and 3724.2 more career innings than Rivera did, respectively. For Rivera to finish third all-time in a cumulative stat when most of his competition has pitched roughly four times as many innings as he did is truly remarkable.

These stats, for the most part, compare Rivera to starting pitchers. It is generally considered harder to be a starter than a reliever, as failed starters like Rivera can turn into excellent relievers. But what makes Rivera the greatest of all time is the fact that he was a better closer than anyone else was anything. And while Rivera had difficulty starting, no starter could have been as great as a reliever as Rivera was.

Ordinarily, a discussion like this would be stuck as a hypothetical forever, but history lends us a telling case study. Debuting in 1988, Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz was an otherworldly starter at the outset of his career. He compiled a 121 ERA+ during the first 12 seasons of his career and won the 1996 NL Cy Young. But a serious elbow injury cost him his entire 2000 season, and he returned to baseball the following season as a closer. For the next four years, Smoltz pitched from the bullpen but could only compile a 162 ERA+, far short of Rivera’s career mark.

Of course, Smoltz was coming off of an injury, and he was 37 by the end of the 2004 season. Surely he was not at the height of his powers, right?

But Smoltz returned to the rotation better than ever in 2005, at the age of 38. He compiled a 134 ERA+ over the next three seasons, proving that he was still at his peak pitching ability. If a Hall of Fame starter in his prime could not perform nearly as well as Rivera in the closer’s role, few or perhaps no starters can.

Finally, for those who believe most in a player’s heart and his grace under pressure, I submit to you Rivera’s playoff statistics. He truly seemed to shine when the lights were on, registering a dumbfounding 0.70 ERA in 141.0 playoff innings, or about two seasons’ worth. League-adjusted stats do not exist for the playoffs, given their small samples, but a 0.70 ERA in Yankee Stadium in 2000 (roughly the middle of his playoff career) would have been an ERA+ of 687. Rivera was fortunate to be on a number of very talented Yankees teams and won five championships in his career. He was named MVP of the 1999 World Series.

Overall, whether you believe Rivera is the greatest baseball player ever depends on how you define “best.” If you think relievers are simply starters who could not hack it, so be it. If value is your end-all, be-all, then Ruth is an excellent choice for the best player ever. But I keep coming back to the simple fact that Rivera is, by a colossal margin, the best pitcher ever on an inning-by-inning basis. Ruth may have been as good a hitter as Rivera was a pitcher, but he was merely shades better than his peers, while Rivera was in a league of his own. In the history of baseball, no player has done his job better and for a longer time than Mariano Rivera. And that’s what makes him the greatest of all time.

Andrew Flax ’17 can be reached at andrew_flax@brown.edu