The Greatest Relief Pitcher/Closer of All-Time
New York Yankees
Hall of Fame Class of 2019Mo-Body Does It Better; Made Life Sad For The Rest. Mo-Body Does It Half As Good As Him; Baby, Mo's The Best ...
I remember Rollie Fingers as a member of the Swingin' Oakland A's. He and the Mets Tug McGraw are the first great relief pitchers of my childhood recollection. I remember Mike Marshall capturing the 1974 National League Cy Young as a member of the Dodgers, after posting a 15-12 record with 21 saves, a 2.42 ERA, through 106 appearances and 208.1 innings pitched, all as a reliever. I also recall when Sparky Lyle captured the 1977 American Cy Young as a reliever for the Yankees. I'll never soon forget Goose Gossage's aura of intimidation; Bruce Sutter's famous splitter; or 1984 when Willie Hernandez won both the Cy Young Award and MVP with a 9-3 record, 21 saves, and a 1.92 ERA through 130.1 innings pitched for the World Champion Tigers.
Damn right Lee Smith deserves enshrinement into baseball's Hall of Fame. He put forth at least ten dominant seasons of thirty saves or more; three times exceeded 40 saves; and led the league in saves on four occasions, with a career high 47 saves in 1991 as a member of the Cardinals. Upon his retirement after the 1997 season, Lee Smith's 478 saves were the most all-time.
I remember when MLB amended the Save rule, spurring great debate and statistical controversy. I have also watched relievers evolve from the Fireman into the modern day Closer. And of course, I watched Tony LaRussa invent the one inning specialist. Few people mention that before Dennis Eckersley the A's closer came into existence, La Russa first invented Bobby Thigpen with the Chicago White Sox.
Since the early/mid 1970's and every era since, I've seen relievers come and go. In fact, I've seen them all. Some relievers/firemen/closers are incredibly over rated, while some are unquestionably great.
It is with great confidence I say there was/is none better than Mariano Rivera.
In 1997, he earned 43 saves during his first full season as Yankees closer. After missing nearly all of the 2012 season, Mariano returned at 43-years of age to record 44 saves in the final season of his illustrious 19-year career. That's consistency. He had 15 seasons of at least 30 saves; seven years of at least 40 saves; and two seasons of at least 50 saves. In 2005, he recorded a career high 54 saves. His 652 saves are most all-time. He boasts a career 2.21 ERA and 1.00 WHiP in 1,283.1 innings pitched.
He was no single-inning matador either. In order to be great, one needs great competition. For better or worse, his multi-inning efforts throughout his post-season career are the stuff of legend. But with regards to the overall nuanced art of closing out games, nothing in baseball history compares with Mo's exploits:
- 96 career playoff games; 24 appearances via seven trips to the Word Series.
- 141 innings pitched; 86 hits allowed (just two home runs); 21 walks; 110 strikeouts
- 8-1 record; 78 saves; 0.70 ERA; 0.750 WHiP.
- Just 86 hits allowed (only two home runs) through 141 innings pitched; 21 walks; 110 strikeouts
The irony is never before had the BBWAA enshrined a player into the Hall by a unanimous vote. Some have come close. Alas none had ever achieved the distinction of garnering 100% approval - not Babe Ruth; Ty Cobb; Cy Young; Ted Williams; Willie Mays; Hank Aaron; Greg Maddux, Ken Griffey, Jr., et al - until Mariano Rivera. He will go down in history as the first player to ever be voted into baseball's Hall of Fame unanimously.
Dare I say he is truly one of baseball's few all-time transcendent players.
Cooperstown Sounds Moose Call, But Is Mike Mussina a True Hall of Famer?
Sometimes milestones such as 300 wins or 3,000 strikeouts need not apply. Those are not prerequisites for election into Cooperstown. Every player has their own story. Each differs from player to player, but none follow the same script. There are wunderkind members, as well as workingman members; conquerors and compilers; both majestic and modest. They all perform in their own unique ways.
Mike Mussina was never considered one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. There aren't many italicized statistics on the back of his baseball card. He never led the league in ERA; achieved 20-wins in a season only once; and recorded 200 strikeouts in a season but four times. He never won a Cy Young Award, and his teams never won the World Series. You might say Moose was somewhat unfortunate insofar that he pitched for the Yankees from 2001 through 2008 - the eight seasons nestled between New York's 2000 and 2009 titles.
But what he did was pitch his entire career in the highly competitive American League East and still manage a 3.68 ERA. Very simply, Moose is one of the great craftsmen the American League has ever known. He led the league in wins and shutouts in 1994 as an Oriole, and posted the league's best FIP during his first season with the Yankees. But his true worth came in posting double-digit victories for 17 consecutive seasons; winning 20-games once; 19-games twice; and at least 18-victories on three other occasions. All the while limiting himself to single-digit losses in 12 of his 18 seasons. Mussina made 536 career starts and won 64% of them, retiring with a stellar 270-153 career record. His control was impeccable, finishing with 2,813 strikeouts in 3,562.2 innings pitched, with a career 2.0 W/9 average.
Is he a borderline Hall of Fame pitcher? Although I was initially conflicted, the answer is yes. Capturing just 76.7% of the vote bears that out. But he is Hall of Fame pitcher nonetheless. Mike Mussina wasn't just good enough to get in, he was great enough to be voted in his first year on the ballot.