Mariano Rivera needs no introduction. We can summarize his contributions to baseball by saying he was the best closer ever to play the game. However, he had a past as a starting pitcher, both in the minor leagues and in 1995, his first season with the Yankees. Would his legacy be the same if he had pitched in that role for his whole career?
We tend to assume that Mariano Rivera was a bad starter, but that isn’t necessarily true. We judge him by his 10-start cameo in 1995, in which he had a 5.94 ERA and a poor 1.90 K/BB. However, it should be noted that he had to battle a fingernail issue at one point and it was his rookie season. Lots of pitchers struggle in their debut year, you know?
Leading to the 1996 season, the Yankees had a crowded rotation and a need in the bullpen. That’s why he made the team as a relief pitcher and boy, what a success he was. That year, he was the setup man before closer John Wetteland, and he had a 2.09 ERA (1.88 FIP) in 107.2 innings, with 10.87 K/9 and 2.84 BB/9. He had a 4.3 WAR season as a non-closer!
Rivera, who came up as a starting pitcher through the minors, was happy to be a member of the bullpen, as long as he was in the bigs. “I didn’t care what I was doing; I was just happy to be in the big leagues,” Rivera said to USA Today in a 2006 article.
Rivera made such an impression that the Yankees let Wetteland go to the Texas Rangers in free agency after winning the World Series in the 1996 season. The closer gig was his.
The start of his closer tenure was somewhat rocky. He blew four of his first six chances, which prompted a meeting with manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.
“I told them I felt horrible because I wasn’t doing my job,” Rivera said back then. “The harder I tried, the tougher it got. It was like moving in quicksand. I kept sinking. Joe told me that, ‘As long as you are here, you’ll be the closer.’ That’s exactly what I needed to hear.”
From that point on, Rivera, the reliever, was nearly unhittable. He went on to win five World Series rings, including that one from 1996. He nailed an MLB-record 652 saves, was a 13-time All-Star (1997, 1999–2002, 2004–2006, 2008–2011, 2013) and the 1999 World Series MVP.
Could Mariano have made it as a starter?
Mariano Rivera was, without a doubt, the best reliever to ever step on an MLB mound. It is not by chance that he is the only person ever to be elected to the Hall of Fame unanimously. However, have you ever stopped to wonder what if the Yankees have kept him as a starter?
You have seen his numbers as a starter in the 1995 season. However, consider his minor league career: from 1990 to 1995, the highest ERA he had was 3.09, and it was across three different levels — Class A-Advanced, Double-A and Triple-A. That year, 1994, he had a 10-2 record and a 1.191 WHIP in 22 starts.
Long before he discovered his cutter, minor league Mariano had the goods to start. Maybe he wouldn’t have made the Hall of Fame (after all, he sat in the 88-91 range and had a good slider, but lacked a third pitch) but his command and poise would likely have provided the foundation for a successful starter.
However, and this is a personal take, thank God the Yankees tried him in the bullpen. He was a staple of the Yankees’ dynasty and the most feared reliever in postseason history. He broke records and saved games like no other relief pitcher, and he did it with just one pitch for the most part.
Of course, like all true legends, he was also met with career-lows. He gave up Luis Gonzalez’s single that drove in the series-winning run in the 2001 World Series, and he also served up the game-tying home run to Cleveland’s Sandy Alomar Jr. in Game 4 of the ‘97 Division Series, one that the Yankees lost in five games.
“The single didn’t even leave the infield dirt,” Rivera says. “It was tough to get over. It took me a few days. But I did what I wanted to do ... what I was supposed to do, and it didn’t work out.”
What made Rivera great was the ability to overcome those blips. The “short memory” that closers often speak about.
Mariano Rivera was the best at what he did. If he had kept starting games, maybe he would have had a similar success, but that seems highly unlikely. Let’s just be thankful for destiny and its unexpected turns.