A Yankees win felt inevitable every time Mariano Rivera took the mound for almost two decades. In retrospect, we were spoiled. Few teams had a reliable closer, let alone the greatest modern day closer of all-time. Since his retirement, we’ve seen just how rare he was in terms of consistent dominance, watching even highly paid closers eventually completely lose the ability to finish games. Rivera was dominant to his very last pitch.
It certainly didn’t start that way. Rivera made his major league debut on May 23, 1995 as a starting pitcher against the (then) California Angels. Success was not instant, as Rivera gave up five runs and eight hits in 3.1 innings. There were some positive moments, but Mariano Rivera, rookie starting pitcher/long reliever, started 10 games, relieved three times to the tune of a 5.61 ERA (5.01 FIP), before being permanently moved to the bullpen.
He didn’t fare much better in his final six regular appearances (4.50 ERA/6.44 FIP in six innings), but he showed enough to make manager Buck Showalter’s roster for the American League Division Series against the Seattle Mariners. It was that series that gave just a short glimpse of what was soon to come, as Rivera was the winning pitcher in Game 2, tossing the final 3.1 innings, giving up no runs, and striking out five to earn the win. He appeared in game 3 as well, throwing 1.1 shutout innings of relief in a Yankee loss and another 0.2 innings of scoreless ball in Game 5.
Those 5.1 scoreless innings didn’t guarantee a spot on the 1996 club, but his postseason performance hinted at was what to come during one of the most domindynasties in Yankees history.
1996 was the first year we learned that inevitable and Mariano Rivera are synonymous.
1996 Statistics: 61 games (14 games finished), 107.2 innings, 5-3, 5 saves, 2.09 ERA, 240 ERA+, 1.88 FIP, 0.994 WHIP, 4.3 fWAR, 5.0 bWAR
It’s easy to look back at the 1996 season and romanticize that they were frontrunners from day one, but the Yankees weren’t a World Series favorite. Buck was gone before he got to finish the rebuild. Joe Torre was welcomed with headlines of “Clueless Joe”. Derek Jeter was a 22-year-old rookie who got the starting nod because Tony Fernandez got hurt. Tino Martinez was brought in to replace Don Mattingly. Kenny Rogers was the big free agent signing. In all, the Yankees entered 1996 hopeful, but far from being the favorite.
Joining that uncertainty was Mariano Rivera. He earned a role in the bullpen coming out of spring training with Torre praising Rivera as “special”. Torre’s assessment proved to be true very early on. He appeared in five of the team’s first 12 games, pitching 7.2 innings, allowing three runs with 9 strikeouts. His control was a bit of an issue early on as he did walk seven. Remember, this was the fastball/slider Mariano Rivera, not the guy who could place the cutter wherever he wanted just a year or so later. He wouldn’t debut the cut-fastball until the 1997 season.
Rivera looked promising. There was even talk about perhaps moving him back into the rotation. By the end of April, that talk was pretty much done. We saw signs of good things, but then, it happened.
Rivera broke out. On April 19th, Rivera pitched three shutout innings. Three days later, he did it again. Four days later…again. Not only were they nine shutout innings, they were nine hitless innings. To say that it was a dominant stretch would be an understatement. Rivera became a weapon, and Torre realized it quickly. He continued to use Rivera more and more often.
Two days after that? Yup, another three shutout innings. In the period of nine days, he spun 12 scoreless innings while allowing just three hits, three walks, and striking out 14.
Welcome to inevitability.
It wouldn’t be until May 25th that Mariano Rivera gave up a run. During that span, Rivera recorded his first career save on May 17th. We’d certainly see whole lot more of those over the next 19 years, 651 more of them in fact. In total, it was 25 innings in 12 appearances, with just seven hits and four walks allowed with 24 strikeouts. Torre had his ace in the hole and he knew it, calling Rivera his most indispensable pitcher.
Suddenly, the Yankees’ blueprint was written: a starter for six innings, Mo for the seventh and eighth, and closer John Wetteland for the ninth. As Rivera felt, “It seemed like teams were pressing as the seventh inning approached because they wanted to take the lead before John and I came into the game.”
It worked, as the Yankees finished 1996 with an 88-1 record when having the lead after the eight inning. In games when both Rivera and Wetteland appeared, the Yankees were 32-2.
Halfway through the season, Rivera had already appeared in 29 games and pitched 57 innings. By today’s standards, that’s a season’s worth of innings for a setup man. Rivera was more than that. He was Torre’s not-so-secret weapon. He shortened games and when he appeared, the game was generally over. He was skipped over for an All-Star selection despite being one of the most dominant relievers. At the time, middle relievers weren’t given as much consideration. To a degree that is still true today, but Rivera’s dominance and Torre’s 6-2-1 approach to games helped change not only how we view bullpen construction, but how we view the importance of a reliever getting those crucial outs late in games, not just the final three.
He was even better in the second half. He appeared in 32 more games, spanning 50.2 innings. His 2.31 ERA was excellent, but the 1.67 FIP showed just how overwhelming he was. Those early season control problems? They were gone, as he walked just 15 while striking out 62. Incredibly, 41 of his 62 regular season appearances were for more than one inning. He finished third in Cy Young voting and 12th in MVP voting.
We then got a glimpse into the future of Mariano Rivera and the postseason. He’d make two appearances in the ALDS against Texas and throw 4.2 hitless, shutout innings. In the ALCS, he did give up six hits in four innings, but he didn’t give up a run, and secured the Game 1 win (the Jeffrey Maier game) by pitching the final two innings. He’d go on to make four appearances in the World Series, making a key contribution in the Game 4 comeback win (1.1 scoreless) and in the clinching Game 6 win by pitching two scoreless, hitless innings to get the ball to Wetteland.
At the time, we knew we were watching a special season from a special player. In the span of one year, we saw Mariano Rivera go from failed starter, to intriguing bullpen arm, to a multi-inning destroyer. Without Mariano Rivera’s surprise, breakout season, there is no Yankees’ championship that season. Yes, baseball is bigger than one singular player, but Mariano Rivera was the biggest reason why it all worked in 1996. His 107.2 innings were fifth highest on the pitching staff. No starter outside of David Cone (who was limited to 72 innings) had a FIP under 4.08. The starters didn’t need to pitch deep into the games because Rivera was always ready and able to pitch multiple innings. Torre hid the 1996 team’s weakness by deploying Rivera often.
We were there for the start of it all, before the cutter, before the “Enter Sandman” entrance. We knew Mariano Rivera was a special pitcher in 1996. We just had no idea that this was about to launch a career of someone who was as good at his job as some of the all-time greats in sports. We were spoiled. With Rivera, a Yankees’ win seemed inevitable.