One of the first baseball stories I ever had professionally published was on the very slight differences among closers of different abilities. This was 1997 or 1998, before anyone knew that Mariano Rivera was going to be a Hall of Famer—although looking back on it, the possibility was raised very early; in the 2001 Baseball Prospectus annual, reflecting on the 2000 season, we said, "The words "Mariano Rivera" and "Hall of Fame" have been mentioned together a few times this winter, which is patently absurd. Not because Rivera's performance to date hasn't been worthy, but because he still has to play four more seasons just to reach eligibility." (I say "we" although I wasn’t there at the time—I assume the thought originated with my old pal Joe Sheehan.)
Think about that: Rivera had just four seasons in as closer, but they had been so good that when you threw in his exemplary postseason work, he had already been anointed. Thing was, there was still a lot more work to do. The rest of that comment, written somewhere in December of 2000, identified exactly what Rivera would need to do—what he ultimately did do—to take his place among the all-time greats:
The career paths of many top closers have included a high, relatively brief peak not unlike Rivera's last five seasons. He has benefited from the constant postseason exposure, but even with points for his October success, he needs at least one or two more seasons of quality work just to get his raw numbers into the gray area for Hall of Fame consideration, and then he needs to spend some years adding to those numbers while avoiding the kind of decline many top-tier closers have experienced.
At this point, Mariano Rivera doesn't look so much different than Gregg Olson after 1993 or John Wetteland after 1998, and no one is offering those names up for immortality. Anyway, you'd first want to compare Rivera and Trevor Hoffman to see if Rivera is even the best closer in today's game. Rivera is a great pitcher who has played on great teams, but talking about Cooperstown is wildly optimistic.
The special thing about Rivera is not the soon-to-be record saves total. Saves are a flawed statistic, and there is less to them than meets the eye. In every closer’s career there are a great number of "soft" saves that almost any pitcher would have gotten. If that sounds overly dismissive of the "closer’s mentality" and all that, consider that there is a great deal of evidence that the difference between the best closers and the worst closers is a couple of blown saves a year. There have been about 20 seasons in which closers had ERAs above the league average and yet still managed to convert 30 and 40-plus saves.
Given a three-run lead and three outs to get, most pitchers will get the job done. Yes, every year we have some pitcher who spectacularly flames out as a closer, but there are a great many more that don’t—and then the weird things that can happen when pitchers throw only 75 innings a year step in and knock them off of their perches after a season or three. In some cases it might be the pressure of closing getting to them, but more often, it’s physical fatigue that pitching induces in everyone, closers or not, and the fact that luck plays a disproportionate part in the attenuated seasons that closers play.
Rivera has been so good that he has defied all of that. I don’t know if it’s luck or biology that has allowed him to avoid the breakdowns that have derailed other pitching greats just as they were making their cases for immortality. Perhaps it is the simplicity of his approach, fastball, fastball, fastball, that has preserved him.
Then there is the mental aspect of Rivera’s game. I always hesitate to psychoanalyze, but it seems clear that he doesn’t have a closer’s mentality so much as he has an inner peace that perhaps derives from his spirituality or is just reflective of a personality-based calm (I’ve known plenty of devout people who were emotionally turbulent), and that has allowed him to deal with the mental fatigue of his position.
Whatever the combination of factors that has created him, Rivera has performed at a very high level for a very long time, something few other pitchers in his position have done. There are few real points of comparison now—perhaps Hoyt Wilhelm is the most appropriate, another reliever who relied on a special pitch (the knuckleball) to pitch at a high level until he was in his late 40s. The sidearmer Kent Tekulve also comes to mind. Rivera has more saves than both of them put together, but as I said, that’s not the point. The point is how long he’s been standing on the tip of a needle, balanced on one leg. His role could have been different, he could have had half as many saves, or a quarter as many, but the accomplishment would still be unique.