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Mariano Rivera and the impossible expectations of future closers

Mo's terrific years were unbelievable for Yankees fans, but they should not consider this the norm for closers.

Jim McIsaac

Mariano Rivera is some kind of superman, and I don't think that's a stunning revelation to any baseball fan. His longtime success defies the normal shelf life of dominant closers, even on the best teams. Think of all the different closers the great Braves teams of the 1990s and 2000s used, all while Rivera was in pinstripes: Mark Wohlers, Kerry Ligtenberg, John Rocker, John Smoltz, Kyle Farnsworth, Bob Wickman, Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, Billy Wagner, and now Craig Kimbrel (along with a few others in partial seasons). It's taken them Rivera's entire career to come up with a young reliever who looks like he can stick at it in Kimbrel. All of those closers had flaws, yet still managed to make the playoffs every year from 1991-2005 and twice in the past three seasons. The closer rarely defines the team.

Mo was the exception to this rule for so many years. He rarely blew saves or any game he entered, and even when he did, it was uncommon for him to the game get out of hand. He didn't waste time with baserunners as many closers often do--his minuscule 2.0 BB/9 can attest to that. Rivera has stunningly continued his success into his late thirties and early forties as most closers struggle to do. He's only 19 game into his 2013 season, but 17 saves, a 1.0 BB/9, and 1.47 ERA are nothing short of baffling for a 43-year-old who missed almost all of 2012. He is simply money in the bank, the most consistent reliever of all time even without factoring in the playoff numbers.

Rivera has announced that 2013 will be his farewell tour, so beginning next year Yankee fans will have to enter a season without Mo for the first time since 1994. Baseball fans seem to generally have high expectations for closers, but whoever succeeds Mo as Yankee closer is bound to have some unreasonable expectations and unfavorable comparisons. "He's fine, but he's no Mo" will be a constant refrain, and that is fine. Overreacting to a closer not playing at the same level as Mo will not be fine. We got a taste of that last year in the rare instances when Soriano blew saves--the Yankee Stadium crowd was not shy about booing a man who was fantastic all season long.

A reminder: non-Mo closer seasons can still be terrific seasons. In Rivera's breakout year, he was the setup man for John Wetteland, one of the top three closers of the '90s. Wetteland's season was widely acclaimed as one of the primary reasons for the Yankees' success, as he led the league with 43 saves, made the All-Star team, pitched to a 2.83 ERA, and allowed just three runs all October as the Yankees broke their 18-year World Series drought.

For as effective as Wetteland was in '96 though, there were parts of Wetteland's game that would pale in comparison to Rivera's annual numbers. Although he was typically more of a strikeout artist than Mo (other than in '96), Wetteland was notorious for putting baserunners on and making saves more difficult than they needed to be. His 7.6 H/9 and 3.0 BB/9 were higher than Mo's career numbers, and he only had three 1-2-3 innings in the playoffs, whereas Rivera typically went three-up/three-down in his career. Wetteland's ERA- was 58, higher than all but three full seasons of Rivera's career, and his FIP- was 80, a mark higher than any of Rivera's full seasons (as was his 1.3 HR/9 rate). Similarly, Wetteland's WAR that year was 2.4, a mark lower than all but three full seasons of Rivera's career; his fWAR was 1.2, lower than all but one full season of Rivera's career. Wetteland wasn't as perfect as Rivera, but he got the job done. There is value in that.

Stepping back a generation or so to not quite the Goose Gossage/Sparky Lyle "fireman" days, Dave Righetti was a highly regarded closer for the Yankees in the '80s. His most acclaimed season was '86, when he set a then-MLB record with 46 saves. It's a little more difficult to compare Rivera's seasons to Righetti's '86 since closers still often pitched over 100 innings, but even so, the numbers posted by "Rags" are not Rivera-esque. His 7.0 K/9 was far lower than Rivera's career rate of 8.2, his 7.4 H/9 was higher than Rivera's 6.9, and he also walked about three men per nine innings as Wetteland did in '96. Rags was as stingy with homers as Rivera, but his ERA-/FIP- combo of 60/68 was also higher than Rivera's career combo of 49/62. Again, it was a tremendous year for a reliever, but how would Yankees fans today have tolerated all those baserunners and uneasy saves?

We've been so spoiled by getting to watch Mo do his thing for almost 20 years. It is an unenviable task to replace him, but next year, there will be a new face closing down Yankee games, be it David Robertson, Mark Montgomery, or anyone else. This wish is a little early, but I am making it regardless: please be reasonable with your expectations, Yankee fans. A handful of blown saves here and there won't be the end of the world--remember that even Mo went through them at times (this season, we fortunately have yet to experience the annual "What's Wrong with Mo?" week). Fans and media were even frustrated by Rivera when he struggled a little bit in his first month replacing Wetteland as closer in '97. Whoever becomes the next Yankees closer will likely do a fine job if he's simply granted some patience and a chance to succeed.

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