Let me begin by congratulating Mariano Rivera for earning his 602nd career save this afternoon. The longtime New York Yankees closer passed Trevor Hoffman for MLB’s all-time lead in saves when he got the final three outs against the Minnesota Twins at Yankee Stadium to preserve a 6-4 victory.
Michael Kay, the longtime voice of the Yankees, proclaimed “the greatest closer in history has the most saves in history.”
While Rivera’s accomplishment is magnificent, I beg to differ. I submit that Mariano Rivera is not the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball. Now before I go any further let me state a couple of things. First, Rivera is a first ballot Hall of Famer. He’s been on top of his game for 15 years with no signs of stopping despite nearing his 42nd birthday. Second, I even penned an article in 2009 arguing that Rivera should win the AL Cy Young Award (it went to then Kansas City Royals starter Zack Greinke.) So believe me I greatly respect what Mariano Rivera has done on the mound.
But take note of something else Kay said. Kay told his broacast colleague John Flaherty, “That ninth inning played out the way most of those play out for him – clean, efficient and he got it done.”
And therein lies the problem. The vast majority of Rivera’s saves were one inning. Indeed, in his last ten appearances going back to August 29th, Rivera pitched one inning and earned a save. This means he came into the game in the ninth inning with no runners on base having to get the last three outs. Of course, I realize this is easier said than done. Yet a save is far more meaningful if a pitcher has to come in the middle of an inning with runners on base.
As Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated noted, Rivera has exactly 11 career saves of at least two innings. Contrast that with 135 for Rollie Fingers, 130 for Bruce Sutter and 125 for “Goose” Gossage, a Yankee legend in his own right. This doesn’t include saves more than two innings. On that score, Fingers has 201 two inning plus saves while Sutter and Gossage are at 188 and 193, respectively.
To look at Rivera’s 11 two inning saves another way, Gossage had 16 two inning plus saves in 1977 while he was with the Pittsburgh Pirates. So Gossage posted more two inning plus saves in one season than Rivera has in his entire career.
Needless to say, the game is different now than it was a generation ago. Fine. But all the more reason not to declare Mariano Rivera the greatest relief pitcher of all-time. The greatest one inning closer of all time? Absolutely yes. But can we really say that Rivera is better than Rollie Fingers. After all, Fingers pitched 100 or more innings in eleven out of twelve seasons while Rivera has only thrown more than 100 innings once and that was in 1996 when he was the set up man for John Wetteland. For Posnaski’s part, he makes the case that “Rivera would have been the best even if he had a different role, even if he was a pitcher who got 30 saves a year and pitched 120 innings.” Yet I could just as easily argue that if Fingers was a one inning closer he would have saved 700 games. But of course I can’t make that claim that Fingers would have been the greatest one inning closer of all time any more than Posnaski can make the case that Rivera would have been the best reliever of all time if he had Fingers’ workload.
Now it’s true that Fingers never saved 40 games in a season and had 340 for his career. Indeed, one could make the case that at this time two years from now, Rivera could have twice as many saves as Fingers. But quite frankly, Rivera could save 1,000 games and never do what Fingers did. While it could be said that Rivera evolutionized the role of the closer, Fingers revolutionized relief pitching itself.
Case in point. On September 19, 1972 (thirty-nine years ago today), Fingers pitched two innings against the Chicago White Sox giving up one run on two hits. The Oakland A’s would lose that game 8-7 in 15 innings. The winning pitcher? Goose Gossage who pitched two and one third scoreless innings. If Rivera pitched two and a third innings, he would be unavailable the following day. Not only was Fingers available the following day but he pitched three and two thirds scoreless innings to earn his 19th save of the season in a 6-3 victory for the soon to be World Series champion A’s.
Once again, Mariano Rivera’s 602nd save (and counting) is a magnificent accomplishment which should be celebrated. He is an ornament to baseball. But from where I sit, Rollie Fingers is the greatest relief pitcher to wear a big league uniform.