Rivera's status as game's greatest closer unlikely to be challenged

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This column originally ran in September 2011 as Mariano Rivera closed in on the career saves record.

Mariano Rivera doesn't need to break Trevor Hoffman's career saves record to prove that he's the greatest closer in major league history, but he's going to do it anyway. Rivera enters Tuesday's action with 599 saves, two shy of Hoffman's record, which was set at 601 in Hoffman's final appearance, on September 29 of last year. Rivera's greatness lies in more than just the rote accumulation of saves. Yes, his job since 1997 has been to save ballgames for the Yankees, but what has made Rivera great has not been his ability to get three outs before giving up three runs, but his ability to utterly dominate opposing hitters with a consistency and longevity unmatched in the game's history.

When Hoffman retired in January, I attempted to determine where he ranked among the game's greatest relief pitchers, but what was most striking about what I found was just how completely Rivera dominated the field. So much so that I wrote a companion piece for the YES Network's Pinstriped Bible expounding upon Rivera's dominance.

In order to understand how far ahead of his competition Rivera is, let's first establish who that competition is. The conclusion I reached in the Hoffman piece was that the six best relievers of all time, in order are:

1. Rivera2. Goose Gossage3. Hoyt Wilhelm4. Hoffman5. Billy Wagner6. Lee Smith

Hall of Famers Bruce Sutter and Dennis Eckersley weren't elite closers for enough seasons to crack that list, while fellow inductee Rollie Fingers wasn't as consistently dominant as the six men above.

My analysis largely lumped Gossage, Wilhelm, and Hoffman together in something close to a three-way tie for second. Conveniently, each had a nine-year peak, which allowed me to compare them directly without worrying about Wilhelm's diversion into starting or the long tail on Gossage's career. Here's how those three nine-year peaks staked up, using ERA+ (ERA adjusted for ballpark and league with 100 being average), bWAR (Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement), WARP (Baseball Prospectus's Wins Above Replacement Player), and WXRL (another Baseball Prospectus stats, roughly "Wins eXpected above Replacement, adjusted for Leverage," a cumulative win-expectancy-based statistic for relief pitchers):

That kind of dominance over nine seasons is remarkable, but it pales next to what Rivera has done in his career, which is to pitch at a higher level than any of those three consistently for 16 seasons. Take any nine-year period in Rivera's career and he trumps those three going away:

In other words, Rivera has been playing at a peak level for almost his entire career, leaving out only his 19 appearances as a rookie starter/reliever in 1995, though even then he had one outstanding start against the White Sox (8 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 11 Ks) and emerged as a dominant reliever in that year's Division Series against the Mariners (3 G, 5 1/3 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 IBB, 8 Ks).

You'll note that I don't include 2003-2011 in the above chart. That's because, sadly, Baseball Prospectus has stopped publishing WXRL and has reformulated WARP in a way that masks Rivera's greatness, in part by failing to factor in leverage for relief pitchers. Fortunately, one doesn't need those alphabet soup stats to see just how dominant Rivera has been.

Here are Rivera's rate stats for the last 16 years combined:

2.03 ERA (224 ERA+), 0.97 WHIP, 0.4 HR/9, 8.3 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 4.32 K/BB

Rivera has averaged 71 innings pitched per season over those 16 years (including the current, incomplete campaign). Over that span, only three pitchers have equaled or bettered each of those rates in a single season of 50 or more innings pitched: Pedro Martinez in 1999, John Smoltz as a closer in 2003, and Jonathan Papelbon in 2006. Rivera has put those rates up over 16 seasons.

To be fair, he hasn't had a single season in which he has matched or beaten each of those marks, but he hasn't strayed far from them either, and he has only become more consistent over time. Since 2003, Rivera has had an ERA+ below 200 in just one season and has put up these rates over the last nine years combined:

1.88 ERA (237 ERA+), 0.93 WHIP, 0.4 HR/9, 8.4 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 5.47 K/BB

Yes, that's a 1.88 ERA over 588 games by a pitcher in his age 33 to 41 seasons.

Need more? Well, Rivera's career ERA+ of 205 is the all-time record among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched. Pedro Martinez is second at the list at 154, not even close, and the next relievers on the list are Wilhelm and Dan Quisenberry at 147. One could counter that by pointing out that Rivera hasn't had his decline phase yet, but he's 41 years old. At this point, he'll either retire without declining (a possibility seeing as he's only signed through 2012), or retire at the first sign of decline. Meanwhile, he is on his way to his 12th season with an ERA+ of 200 or better. Using a minimum of 50 innings pitched, the next two men on that particular list are Martinez and Joe Nathan, both of whom did it five times, or less than half as many times are Rivera. He is also the only man ever to have two seasons with an ERA+ above 300 in 50 or more innings, doing so at ages 35 and 38.

How about this: according to bWAR, a cumulative stat, Rivera has been almost as valuable in 1,206 career innings as Dennis Eckersley was in 3,285 2/3 career frames (55.8 wins above replacement to 58.7), and exactly as valuable as Sutter (25.0) and Hoffman (30.8), two other Hall of Fame closers (one already in, one a shoo-in), combined.

Now, look at that top-six list above again. Hoffman, in my estimation, was the fourth-best closer all-time and very close to the second-best man, Gossage, and you have to add Sutter's entire career value to Hoffman to get a closer as valuable as Rivera.

Then there's the postseason. That's right, Rivera dominates his field that completely without even factoring in the 139 2/3 innings of a 0.71 ERA that he has contributed in the most important games of his career. That's the equivalent of two more seasons of some of the best pitching of his career against some of the stiffest competition. In 94 postseason appearances, 58 of which have lasted more than one inning, Rivera has posted a 0.77 WHIP, a 5.19 K/BB, and allowed just two home runs (and, considering the milestone that prompted this piece, saved 42 additional games). Included in those 139 2/3 frames are a postseason record 34 1/3 consecutive innings compiled from 1998 to 2000, three seasons which ended with Rivera recording the final out of a Yankee championship.

Speaking of multi-inning saves, since 1996, Rivera has led the majors with 116 multi-inning saves. Keith Foulke is second with 55, less than half as many. Hoffman is fourth with 46. Expanding the criteria, Rivera also leads with 152 multi-inning stints to finish games. Former Reds closer Danny Graves is second with 112. Hoffman is sixth with 68.

Given all of that, it's almost ironic that we're celebrating Rivera inching past Hoffman's career saves record, as that's one of the very few measures of his talents as a reliever in which he doesn't lap the field. By most other standards, he's been roughly 1.5 times as valuable as his closest competitors. For example, toss out the 1976 season that Gossage spent as a starter for the White Sox and his career bWAR total comes to 36.8 wins above replacement. Rivera's, minus his 1995 season, is 55.7, 51 percent higher than Gossage's. Then again, the fourth-highest career saves total is John Franco's 424. One and a half times 424 is 636, a total well within Rivera's reach by the end of next season.

The saves record will likely be the statistic most closely associated with Rivera's name after this season, in part because it's the easiest to grasp, but also because it should remain his for the foreseeable future. The active pitcher with the next-highest total is the Reds' Francisco Cordero, who is 36 and trails Rivera by 277 saves. Among active pitchers with three-digit saves totals, only Francisco Rodriguez appears to have even the faintest hope of catching Rivera, and K-Rod will be 30 in January and is less than half-way to Rivera's total with just 291.

Yet saves are more the byproduct of Rivera's greatness than the primary evidence of it. Indeed, some, myself included, still consider his 1996 season as John Wetteland's set-up man his best. But then, determining which season was Rivera's best isn't nearly as simple as determining the identity of the greatest relief pitcher of all time.