Re-Post: The Wide Gap Between Mariano Rivera and Everyone Else

In response to Mariano Rivera's tragic knee injury, I wanted to re-post a piece that we wrote September 2011 after he earned his 600th save.

As you probably already know, Mariano Rivera earned his 600th save earlier this week and stands just two saves shy of surpassing Trevor Hoffman as the all-time saves leader. In my opinion, there is no debating the fact that Mo' is the greatest closer of all-time. His regular season numbers are staggering - the all-time leader in ERA+ (ballpark adjusted ERA), 12x all-star, 5x reliever of the year, 3rd all-time in WHIP. But as good as his regular season numbers have been over the course of his illustrious career, it is his postseason dominance that sets him apart, in my mind. A closer is defined by his ability to pitch in a pressure situation - the great ones make their name when the stage is brightest and the pressure is greatest. Mo' has always been at his best in the postseason. He has 94 postseason appearances, more than any other pitcher in baseball history. His postseason ERA - a remarkable 0.71 (best in history). His postseason record is 8-1 with 42 saves in 47 save opportunities and 4 holds. His 42 postseason saves are more than double the amount of the next man on that list (Brad Lidge with 18) and it's safe to say that he has broken more bats than any other pitcher in postseason history. It is also reasonable to assume that his 42 postseason saves could be one of those unbreakable records. Now that we've laid out why Rivera's place in history as the greatest closer of all-time is not really debatable, we have to address a Buster Olney tweet regarding Mo's greatness among the other all-time greats, by position.

In case you missed it, Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) tweeted something earlier this week which has created a nice little FBJ debate. He said, "The difference between Rivera and any other player at his position in history is the greatest of any position."

That's a pretty bold statement to make and impossible to defend with the 140 allowable Twitter characters so we decided to take it upon ourselves to debate this statement. We'll present you with the evidence and the arguments from all three FBJ analysts and hopefully we can come to a conclusion on the validity of Olney's tweet.

Who's the next best closer?

Trevor Hoffman is still the all-time saves leader, with 601. Hoffman's 162 game averages are actually comparable to Mo's (both have sub 3.00 ERA's, both average 39 saves per 162 and both average between 70 and 75 strikeouts) but Mo's ERA is 65 points lower and given the fact that Hoffman pitched in a pitcher friendly park for most of his career (Qualcomm and Petco were both pitcher friendly) we don't feel as though Hoffman is the next best closer.  Although Hoffman was really consistent, he was only truly dominant in short stretches (two-time reliever of the year compared to Mo's five and and only seven all-star appearances compared to Rivera's twelve) and he was sort of inconsistent in his limited postseason opportunities.

Our general consensus is that Rollie Fingers is the next best closer. The thing to remember about Rollie is that he pitched at a time when "holds" didn't exist. The closer came in when his team needed him - whether that was the 7th, 8th or 9th inning. To illustrate my point, Mo has logged 46 7th inning appearances and 212 8th inning appearances over the course of his career. Rollie, by contrast, logged 267 7th inning appearances and 535 8th inning appearances. The simple assertion that six and nine out saves are more difficult than three out saves is very important when comparing Rollie to the rest of the pack. Rollie was a seven time all-star, five shy of Rivera's 12, and won the reliever of the year award four times (to Mo's five) but he also has a Cy Young, an MVP and a World Series MVP (Mo only has a WS MVP). Like Rivera, Rollie was also pretty good in the postseason, although not quite as untouchable. In 30 postseason appearances, he compiled a 2.35 ERA. He was especially good in his 3 World Series, boasting a 1.35 WS ERA over the course of 16 games. Interestingly, his postseason record was 4-4 with 9 saves, neither of which screams dominance but he only had 1 blown save, and he pitched in a lot of non-save situations. To further reflect my point about the differences in how Mo and Rollie were used, Rollie pitched 33 innings in 16 World Series compared to Mariano's 36 innings in 24 World Series appearances. Rollie pitched almost the same amount of innings in 8 fewer games.

How wide is the gap between Rivera and the pack?

I'd say that it is pretty large. In fact, according to the Baseball Reference Elo Rater (a fan-based project which was started to rate all of the players in baseball history), the gap between Mariano Rivera and the next reliever (whom they list as Dennis Eckersley) is 16, among pitchers, which is a very wide gap, indeed. I asked Hersh a series of questions to determine if he would take Rollie in any situation over Mariano (he had the privilege to watch both of them pitch)- who was the better pitcher? Who was more dominant? Who was more consistent? Who was more durable? Who was more intimidating? Who had the better stuff? Who would you take in a big spot? The only thing that he credited Rollie with over Mo' was his durability (not surprisingly, since Rollie was a 6-9 out reliever) but Rollie was very good and highly underrated.

What other positions have wide gaps?

First base, second base, outfield and starting pitcher are four positions that have had many greats. One could probably argue a couple people from each of these positions deserve to be labeled as the greatest, therefore the gap is small.  Shortstop, third base and catcher have distinct names and wide gaps. With that in mind, I took this question to Mc and Hersh.

Which position would you say has the widest gap?

OCP - I think that there's a pretty wide gap between Honus Wagner and the next best shortstop without an asterisk. The next best shortstop is probably Cal Ripken Jr. The Dutchman was a tremendous player - he won nine batting titles and led the league in OPS ten times. He was also consistently among the league leaders in range factor and fielding percentage. In short, offensively he was a beast at any position but he was no slouch defensively. Wagner's black ink score, which measures the number of times that a player shows up at the top of the leaderboards in any number of categories, is 109 compared to Ripken's 19. Relative to competition, there really is no comparison. Obviously, Ripken might have made a few more leaderboards if he wasn't competing against Bonds/Sosa/McGwire but Wagner played during the deadball era so I think that you have to look at relative scoring and fill in the pieces of the puzzle yourself. Although the competition might not have been as stiff as it is today, nobody argues where Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson rank among the best and I think Wagner deserves to be right there with them, among the greats and I think that the gap between an all-time great and Cal Ripken is fairly wide.

According to the BBRef Elo Rater, there is a 13 player gap between Wagner and Ripken. 

Mc - I'd probably say that the gap between Mike Schmidt and the rest of the field is pretty great. You won't find much argument from people when you say that Schmidt was the greatest third baseman of all-time and the next best third baseman you'll list is going to be flawed one way or the other (either offensively or defensively). Take George Brett - not a great defender but a tremendous offensive third baseman. Brooks Robinson was known for his defense but besides average, was limited offensively. Chipper Jones is a great offensive player but is very limited defensively. Schmidt has 500 HR and ten gold gloves; he's the most complete third baseman of all-time and the gap is pretty wide.

The Elo Rater difference between Schmidt and Brett is 7

Hersh - I'd take Bench. Without seeing Bench play, you wouldn't know how good he was.  His stats clearly don't tell you how good he really was.  For instance, he didn't have a lot of assists because nobody ran on him.  Sparky Anderson called him the smartest player he had ever met and Ted Williams called him a Hall of Famer in his rookie year.  Yogi might have been a slightly better hitter and both were very clutch but they aren't even in the same class when it comes to fielding and handling pitchers.  Bench never had an ace pitcher until Seaver came around 1977.  Up until that time, he took mediocre pitching to four World Series.  That being said, I'm not sure if the gap is quite as wide as it is between Mariano and Rollie.

The Elo Rater difference between Bench and Yogi is 24

Our conclusion

Buster might not have had much time to conduct in depth research before making that Tweet but we did. Although we were unsure at first, we feel like Buster was probably right in his snap-assessment.  It is very close and I think that an argument could be made for any three of the guys that we mentioned but at the end of the day, Mo is in a league of his own and when he retires, he will have set records that will likely never be broken.


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