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How Mariano Rivera rode one pitch all the way to the Hall of Fame

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Rivera took his “gift from God” and changed the course of baseball history, becoming the first candidate unanimously elected by the writers.

Mariano Rivera blew the heater by Javy Lopez, and the swing-and-miss strike put the Yankees just three outs away from winning their first World Series championship in 18 years.

This may come as a surprise to some, but none of Mo’s pitches during the 1996 Fall Classic were his now-famous cutter. He didn’t develop the pitch — or rather receive the divine gift — until the following season. Rivera had produced one of the greatest seasons ever by a relief pitcher, yet he was still a work in progress.

The Yankees handed the closer job to Rivera in the 1997 season. Mo proceeded to blow three of his first six save opportunities, and he was frustrated. As the often-told story goes, Rivera was playing catch with teammate Ramiro Mendoza one day before a game, when his signature pitch suddenly appeared.

”All of a sudden the ball just started cutting,” Rivera recalled. “It was natural. I was gripping the ball all kinds of ways. Different ways and the ball was doing the same thing, cutting.”

At first, he was worried about his inability to control the ball’s movement. He even worked with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, trying to “straighten it out,” as Rivera put it. Finally, Stottlemyre advised Rivera to leave it alone. Mo took the advice.

”I’m telling you, it’s a gift from God,” Rivera said. “That’s the only way I can explain it. It was given to me.”

Thus, the inexorable march to Cooperstown began. Although he ultimately became famous for his cut fastball, Rivera didn’t throw it exclusively.

According to a report put together by Marc Carig in 2011, 85.6% of Rivera’s pitches were cutters. The pitch was so deadly, in part, because Rivera used the same grip and arm action as he did with his four-seam fastball.

Although Rivera has repeatedly credited his cut-fastball to divine intervention, he also worked hard to control it. His four-seamer and two-seamer also move, and therein lies the deception.

His four-seam fastball cuts only slightly, while the cutter has a sharper horizontal movement — about five inches more. They look the same coming of his hand, but since hitters only have a fraction of a second to decide whether or not to swing (and where and when), those inches make a big difference. It’s the reason that Rivera broke so many bats throughout his career, and induced so many weak groundballs — in addition to all the strikeouts.

Drew Sheppard/FanGraphs

Rivera’s accomplishments on the field are unrivaled. He stands as the career leader in saves (652), games finished (952), and ERA+ (205). Among hurlers logging as many innings as his 1,283.2 during the Live Ball Era (since 1920), Rivera is first in WHIP (1.00), ERA (2.21), and OPS against (.555).

Mo’s postseason prowess was even more impressive. He logged 141 innings over 96 appearances, notching a microscopic 0.70 ERA and 0.76 WHIP. Absolutely amazing considering he produced those results pitching against the best teams in baseball at the highest-leverage moments of the biggest games of the season — and he did it year after year for nearly two decades.

I’m sure you’ve heard or read this stat: More men have walked on the moon (12) than have scored against Rivera in the postseason (11). How about the number 527? Have you heard that one? That’s the number of batters Mo faced in the playoffs, yet only 11 of them scored an earned run against him.

Now five years into his retirement, Rivera adds one more amazing stat to his collection: 100%. Rivera just became the first Hall of Fame candidate in baseball history to be named on 100% of ballots submitted by voters. We always knew that Rivera was special, and that he would gain induction on the first ballot. But his unanimous election pushes him to the very center of that inner circle in Cooperstown. Way to go, Mo.