Wednesday, September 14, 2011

N.Y. Yankees ~ Mariano and #600

From the desk of:  BLAME CARLOS MAY

New York Yankees:   MARIANO RIVERA - #42


September 17, 2011  vs. Toronto

September 19, 2011  vs. Minnesota
Mariano Rivera
The All*Time Career Saves Leader

I was a single-digit kid in the 70's when a team's relief ace (the good ones) pitched one-hundred innings a season.  Over their careers, the great ones would surpass 1,000 innings pitched with strikeout totals to match.  Officially, saves were still a relatively young stat.  Back then, The Reliever threw multiple innings per appearance.  They blew a lot of save opportunities for sure.  That's why when you research the relievers of that era, they generally all have more win/loss totals than today's Closer does.

In my early days, I was entreated to relief specialists like Tug McGraw; Sparky Lyle; Rollie Fingers; Goose Gossage; and Mike Marshall.  Then, the late 70's and very early 80's ushered in the Age of the Fireman.  In both eras, these guys entered games many times in the seventh or eighth inning after the starting pitcher created a mess on the bases and needed bailing out of a sticky situation.  The team's lead was almost always in peril, or worse, the game was already tied.  Names like Dan Quisenberry; Kent Tekulve; and Bill Campbell entered the conversation by this time.

Some point at Sparky Anderson for beginning the excessive-pitching changes and max-usage of the bullpen.  The Big Red Machine had no closer so they squeezed every last pitch out of everyone in theirs.  But by the mid to late 80's, things were evolving for the reliever again.  Guys like Randy Meyers arrived and The Nasty Boys were coming together in Cincy.  And thanks to the maturation of LaRussa-ism and his Oakland A's, many lasting changes in Baseball were born from the time covering 1988 through 1991. There after, the term Closer became a more prominent part of the Baseball lexicon and Closers became much more specialized across Baseball once Dennis Eckersley mastered the one inning save.

So, as it goes, Mo pitched in a more specialized era, where the Closer is now relegated to one inning and is brought into primarily save situations only.  Then there's the fact that Mariano Rivera has averaged about 77 innings a season over his career.

However, I don't hold how Firemen of the past were credited with saves and how they went about their craft, ...against Mariano Rivera.  The Yankees were in the playoffs every season; minus one; over the length of his career.  In the modern three tiered playoff system, Mo's innings pitched approached the numbers posted by earlier eras anyway; and with less rest in the off-season as a result.  In that sense, it's a wash.  And in the process, he only became the greatest relief pitcher in playoff history.  So not only did he equal work loads of the past, he operated on the grandest of stages and was the most successful ever in that arena also.

The usual shelf life of relievers was/is generally accepted to be about eight or nine years before their effectiveness falls apart like a cheap sweater.  Mariano Rivera has been performing his craft for seventeen seasons now; well beyond the expiration date of relievers/Firemen/Closers; and is closing in on 1,300 innings pitched in his career.  And Mo does it with one pitch.   Everyone knows it.   Everyone knows it's coming.   And in the calendar year in which he will turn 42 years old, seventeen years after being a rookie, batters have still yet to solve their dilemma against it.

Yes; with one pitch. - And no one has ever used one pitch to his advantage better than Mariano Rivera.  Additionally, no pitcher has ever literally ridden one pitch all the way to the Hall of Fame.  If you're like me, I chose not to complicate that last statement with a guy like Phil Niekro; who rode a knuckle ball to the HOF.  No, lets not do that.  Just one reason is because Mo was a power pitcher.  Niekro was not.  And while Niekro was unique in how he entered the Hall, Mo's pitch is among the best power pitches ever thrown; and it is against the names of the power pitchers in the Hall his specialty will be compared to.  In stadiums across America, on many occasion slices of shattered bats splintered the infield grass as testament to how dominating a pitch his was.

Koufax used two pitches.  To listen to pitchers like Tom Seaver and Bob Feller; they speak as craftsmen using all their pitches wisely.  Steve Carlton used a masterful slider and a heater; but mostly relied on altered states and brain yoga (more commonly referred to as, The Force) to pitch himself to the victory he already envisioned himself winning.  But there's no one pitcher; starter or reliever; that has thrived and built a Hall of Fame career like Mariano Rivera has with his famous cutter.  What he does with that pitch is beyond craftsmanship; he creates art.

Bruce Sutter was considered to be that masterful one-pitch pitcher also.  His pitch was the splitter.  But the pitch killed his arm.  Arriving on the MLB scene with the Cubs, it was with the St. Louis Cardinals where he really gained his stardom and World Series credential.  He dominated his era.  That's why he's a HOF'er.  But his greatness lasted considerably far less time than Mo's run has lasted.  At the end of their careers, Sutter and Gossage were not good pitchers as they held on too long.  Almost forty-two years old and seventeen years later, Mariano is still arguably the greatest Closer in the game right now.

There are Closers on the All-Time list that I wouldn't necessarily call great either.  First and foremost, the current All-Time Saves record holder; Trevor Hoffman; is the biggest fraud at the top of the list; both literally and figuratively.  Lee Smith and John Franco were very good.  Of course Dennis Eckersley is a deserving HOF'er.  But Jeff Reardon wasn't someone I ever considered elite.  Percival; Wagner; Wetteland; and Randy Meyers were all good also.  But Roberto Hernandez; Todd Jones; Jose Mesa; and Frankie Cordero aren't exactly the stuff intense debate are spawned from.

That's why Baseball Writers still have no idea how to treat the Reliever/Fireman/Closer till this day.  They've taken steps in the proper direction to give credit where it was most certainly due with the elections of Rollie Fingers; Dennis Eckersley; Bruce Sutter; and Goose Gossage to the HOF.  And of course prior to them, Hoyt Wilhelm is a HOF'er primarily for his relief efforts.

Relief pitchers were once upon a time literally starters who couldn't crack the rotation.  And because the Save rule is only about 45 years old or so; and was never part of the more traditional measures of a pitcher, the relief pitcher is still evolving and as such, still lacks a proper prospective that only more time will give the hybrid position.

But let that be a testament to us all, that even with the bias that exists about another extraneous position; such as the DH, Mariano Rivera rises above and beyond all those stigmas associated with being a relief pitcher in an age where many believe the changes to the save rule have made it too easy for these pitchers to "appear" greater than they are.

No; Mariano is that great.  And I do not believe there is a soul alive willing to go public with a debate to the contrary.  Why expose yourself as a fool when you can keep that safely a secret?

Mariano Rivera is indeed one of the best pitchers ever (and let's keep that in context...OK?) because of his one pitch and how successful it was for him.  He threw it better and with more success than most but a few of the All-Time great pitchers in history threw theirs.  And he also did it in the most crucial moments in recent Yankees' World Series history; not to mention the most times in all of Baseball's playoff history.  And in the case of his fellow Closers; past or present; Mariano performed far longer than any Closer/Fireman/Reliever before him while remaining at a high level of effectiveness.

What does 600 Saves mean?  I don't think we know yet.  We once thought 300 was a benchmark.  Then we learned that was too low.  Four-hundred became the new Wow number.  I was present at Yankee Stadium for Mariano Rivera's 400th Save.  And that's what I was thinking then, "Wow."

But here we are at 600 and it sounds special; it sounds elite.  But I sense a little apathy also because of the way the save rule is set up.  And in a much broader sense, I think we've become a little more apathetic about Baseball records in general.  We all know why.

But I'll say it again; Mariano Rivera is the best relief pitcher I ever saw.  All you had to do all these years was watch.  He's made virtually every argument contrary to his greatness moot points; rendered them as foolishness; and made it folly to argue otherwise.  Even the most indifferent baseball writer with a HOF ballot must recognize that; or be lobotomized.

Not too shabby for a lanky kid who's fastball/change-up combo failed him as a young starting pitcher back in 1995.


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