I hate the save statistic. It sucks. Plain and simple. Here is a good piece by Jayson Stark from 2007 on the save stat and some suggestions to make it more relevant.
The fact that Mariano Rivera now has 602 saves tells me that he entered 602 games in which the Yankees had the lead, by some margin, at some point towards the end of the game. I am sure in some of those contests he entered a game with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a one-run game and got four outs to get the Yankees a win. But I bet more frequently he entered the game in the ninth inning with the bases empty and no outs with the Yankees up by three against the pitiful Baltimore Orioles or Tampa Bay Devil Rays (ya, before they dropped the “Devil”).
How can we determine where Mo ranks all-time among relief pitchers?
I used BR.com and its brilliant play index to find all relief pitchers since 1960 (when the save stat was first used) that pitched more than 50 innings and had at least 80% of their appearances come in a relief role and sorted them by single season WAR totals. Mo Rivera has two appearances in the top 20 of this list (1996 and 2004) but Goose Gossage two seasons better than Mo’s finest, according to WAR. If we use WAR to judge a relief pitcher than Rivera has four seasons among the top 50 for a reliever since 1960. But Gossage has three and his three are higher than Rivera’s third highest. Bruce Sutter also has three of his seasons in the top 25 all-time.
I jumped over to Fangraphs.com to check WAR totals for relief pitchers and when sorting relief pitchers since 1960 by career WAR totals Rivera holds the top spot with a career WAR of 38.4. Gossage comes in second with 29.7 wins above replacement and then we have one of the biggest Hall of Fame snubs in third; Lee Smith. Bruce Sutter comes in seventh and previous career saves leader Trevor Hoffman in sixth place all-time based on WAR.
Back to BR.com and I searched all pitchers whose career appearances were 95% or more out of the ‘pen and had a minimum of 1,000 innings pitched and Rivera tops this list, too, with a career WAR of 56.1. His lead of 16.1 wins above replace over second place Gossage is by far the biggest jump down the WAR ladder in baseball history since 1960. Gossage only holds a gap of less than two wins over third place Hoffman and Hoffman only had a WAR of 0.5 greater than fourth place Smith. According to BR.com not only is Rivera the best relief pitcher in baseball history since the save stat took hold but he is leaps and bounds above the rest of the field.
We can check ERA+ which takes a player’s ERA and equalizes it against park factors, league factors and other factors to help adjust for the players competition, era, etc. Rivera’s career ERA+ of 206 is over 50 points better than second place (this time Hoyt Wilhelm). After Mo the difference between each successive place in the ERA+ ladder is just a few points. Once again Rivera distinguishes himself as not only the best but by far the best reliever since 1960.
Using the same criteria above (1000 IP minimum and 95% of games as a reliever since 1960) and…
Batting average against? Rivera is #2 to Wilhelm.
On-base average against? Rivera is #1. (Wilhelm is third with Hoffman second)
Slugging percentage against? Rivera is tied for #1 with Wilhelm.
ERA? Rivera is #1 with a 2.22 career ERA.
Saves? Now #1 in passing Hoffman.
Home runs per nine innings? 7th.
Hits per nine innings? 2nd.
Walker per nine innings? 3rd.
Strikeouts per nine innings? 4th.
Lastly we have his postseason prowess; in 139 2/3 innings in the MLB playoffs Mo has an ERA of 0.71. In just under 140 innings he has 109 strikeouts versus only 21 walks against the best hitters in baseball for that given year. He has only allowed 86 hits which gives him a career WHIP of 0.766 in the postseason. He is the very definition of a closer.
And he isn’t even slowing down at the age of 41!! Rivera hasn’t tossed more than 67 innings since 2008 but his WHIP is still less than one base runner per inning and his ERA is under 2.00 for the fourth consecutive year and eight of the past nine seasons he has had an ERA under 2.00. His hits and HR’s per nine innings went up slightly in 2011 vs 2010 but his strikeout to walk ratio is the best it’s been since 2008 (almost double what it was last year – a good thing).
When it is all said and done Mo might end up with a crazy ridiculous, and meaningless, 700 saves. His WAR total is simply going to redefine what it means to be a great closer and he will be the equivalent of the Michael Jordan or Willie Mays of the closer position. I am usually hesitant to give my unofficial vote for the HOF to a relief pitcher but if I had a vote, wishful thinking and while I am at it I am dreaming of six-pack abs, I would vote Rivera for the HOF on the first ballot, no question.
When you read the stories about Rivera setting new records in the saves category and how he passed Trevor Hoffman to become #1 don’t let it fool you that Rivera and Hoffman were identical because no two saves are alike. (Mo has 600 saves in the AL East where as Hoffman recorded most of his in the NL West…which is more difficult?)