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Putting Mariano Rivera’s greatness into context

Mariano Rivera was without peer.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Mariano Rivera has been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Rivera is the first member of the Yankee dynasty to receive induction, and he does so as perhaps the most beloved and revered figure from that period of Yankees baseball during the late 1990’s and the 2000’s. His first-ballot induction is no surprise, but it comes at a perfect time to reflect on his greatness, and how thoroughly he dominated his peers.

Putting a reliever in the Hall can be a fraught business, given their status as less valuable than their starting-pitcher counterparts. It’s difficult to put together a Cooperstown-worthy résumé pitching an inning at a time, and analysts often dock relievers for mostly being failed starters. Indeed, even Rivera himself flamed out as a starter before converting to relief.

Rivera transcends those concerns. He so definitively surpassed every standard set by every other reliever in history so as to leave no doubt regarding the title of Greatest of All Time. Rivera stands above the rest of his position in a way no other player has, and perhaps in a way that no player ever will.

You know all the hits. The career record for saves, the breadth of his postseason performance, the graveyard full of the remains of shredded bats, unceremoniously discarded by that inevitable and indomitable cutter.

Stacked up against his contemporaries, Rivera’s greatness becomes even clearer. There’s really no one way to juxtapose Rivera’s dominance when compared to the field, so let’s just go through all the different means we have at our disposal to put Rivera’s mastery into context.

Most would start with the saves. The save is, for the most part, a silly statistic, one that wasn’t recorded officially until 1969. Even so, it’s a useful place to begin. Rivera’s record stands at 652, 51 more than Trevor Hoffman. The closest active player, and possibly the only player with much of a prayer of breaking the record, is Craig Kimbrel with 333.

Kimbrel has the best shot of any of approaching Rivera, and he would need to average 40 saves for the next eight years to do so. Kimbrel has played nine years in the majors and has been phenomenal, the best reliever of his generation, and yet, to touch Rivera’s saves record, he would still have to continue at this pace until he was 39 years old.

Saves are pretty rudimentary, though, and we can do better in terms of contextualizing Rivera. One of the first things I always come back to when appreciating Rivera’s career is his consistency. He played the most volatile position in baseball, one where new stars can emerge and flame out in the blink of an eye, with nary a hiccup during a 19-year career.

Once Rivera converted to relief full-time, he never posted an adjusted ERA+ below 140 for a season, which means he never ran an ERA which wasn’t at least 40 percent better than league average. The highest FIP he posted was 3.28 in 2000, the only year he ever walked as many as three batters per nine innings. He never gave up more than seven home runs in a season. Rivera was metronomic, never yielding walks, homers, or, really, runs.

No other reliever can claim such consistency. Every other long-term great suffered at least one down year. Goose Gossage posted four seasons out of the bullpen with below average ERA’s. Billy Wagner posted a 6.18 ERA in 2000, a year after running a 1.57 ERA. Francisco Rodriguez, who holds the single-season record for saves, was famously erratic and put forth multiple replacement-level seasons. Even Trevor Hoffman had a few years in which his ERA was just about average.

Tied in with his consistency was Rivera’s agelessness. He truly aged like a fine wine, somehow seemingly improving with time. Per FanGraphs, Rivera’s 2011 stands as the finest exclusively-relief season by a pitcher older than 40 in the history of the game. From age-41 to age-43, Rivera posted a 207 ERA+, even better than his career average.

That reliability and efficiency, sustained over decades, combines for a track record that is unparalleled. His career ERA+ of 205 puts the field to shame. His WAR total dwarfs that of any player who pitched the majority of his innings as a reliever. Again, the only player that can come close at this point is Kimbrel, whose career ERA+ stands at 211. Thus far, Kimbrel has been Rivera’s equal in terms of run prevention, but Kimbrel has faced just 2087 batters in his career, compared to 5103 for Rivera. Kimbrel would have to be just as stellar as he has been for another 3000 batters just to match Rivera.

Of course, Rivera’s performance in the playoffs ties it all together. Rivera was historically excellent for a remarkably-long period of time, and the fact that his contributions led to an unrivaled amount of postseason success pushes his career completely over the top.

Rivera pitched 141 playoff innings and allowed 11 earned runs. 11! His 0.70 career postseason ERA obviously laps the field, as do his 42 saves. To put his playoff performance in full perspective, we can use a more analytical tool, win probability added, or WPA. This measurement uses win expectancy to determine how much a player’s contributions in a particular game affected his team’s chances of winning.

It may seem a bit of a cold way to analyze Rivera’s career, but it really does the trick in terms of demonstrating the extent to which he distanced himself from his peers. Per Baseball Reference's WPA data, here’s the career leaderboard for postseason WPA:

Career Postseason WPA

Player WPA
Player WPA
Mariano Rivera 11.7
Curt Schilling 4.1
John Smoltz 3.6
Andy Pettitte 3.5
Jon Lester 3.4
Wade Davis 2.9
Orel Hershiser 2.8
Madison Bumgarner 2.7
Art Nehf 2.7
Orlando Hernandez 2.6

No one is even close to Rivera, as he nearly triples up on the second-place Curt Schilling. Thanks to the fact that Rivera was always pitching (and dominating) during the highest-leverage moments in every playoff game, he was able to simply gap the baseball world in playoff value. A similar story can be told with regular season WPA, as Rivera’s career WPA leaves the league in the dust for the regular season as well.

To me, that gap in postseason play says it all about Rivera. It wasn’t just that he was a stellar pitcher, or that his career spanned eras. It’s that he did it all in the biggest moments year after year, without wavering. Rivera had one of the highest-stress jobs in the game, the closer for the perennially-contending New York Yankees, and did it with the utmost skill and grace.

Rivera blew away the competition on the field, and it shows on the statsheet. His election this week was as much a formality as any of the one-two-three ninth innings he spun in his career. That it was the first unanimous election we’ve ever seen is fitting, as Rivera stands as one of the most universally respected legends ever. He truly was without peer, and now he will be enshrined in Cooperstown.