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Mariano Rivera's Injury Is Not as Big of a Deal as You Think

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Mariano Rivera's Injury Is Not as Big of a Deal as You Think
Al Bello/Getty Images

Mariano Rivera tore his ACL shagging fly balls during batting practice on Thursday night in Kansas City, and while the loss of the Yankees' top relief pitcher will certainly be felt over the remainder of this season, it will not be as catastrophic as many think.

This is primarily because all closers, even Mariano Rivera, are overrated.

I realize this is not a very popular stance, especially among Yankees fans - a group of which I am a member - but that doesn't change the fact that it's true.

ESPN.com's Jim Caple crafted the best column ever written on this subject in 2008, so I will attempt not to repeat too much of it. Instead, I will link to it for your reading pleasure, and highlight some of its most important parts.

As Caple points out, Dave Smith of Retrosheet conducted a study of late-inning leads from 1944 to 2003, and 14 other years before that, concluding that teams with a ninth-inning lead won just as often in 1901 as they do today and every other season in between.

"Regardless of the pitching strategy, teams entering the ninth inning with a lead win roughly 95 percent of the time. That was the exact rate in 1901 and that was the rate 100 seasons later. In fact, the rate has varied merely from a high of 96.7 percent in 1909 to a low of 92.5 percent in 1941."

The same is true for so-called "save situations." Entering the ninth with a one-run advantage leads to a victory 85 percent of the time, two-run leads result in wins 94 percent of the time and three-run advantages mean you triumph around 96 percent of the time.

This is true if your team includes Cy Young tossing 41 complete games in 1902 or Eric Gagne recording 55 saves in 2003.

But this can't be the case for Rivera's Yankees, right? They went 102-1 when leading after eight innings in 1998.

Well, the 1948 team went 83-0 in those situations and their "closer" Joe Page had two fewer saves (16) than starter Vic Raschi had complete games (18).

In conclusion, closers really don't matter that much.

Mariano Rivera is the greatest one-inning relief pitcher of the past 20 years, but to label him anything more than that is to overrate him.

He is not the greatest closer of all-time, nor is he the greatest relief pitcher of all-time. Those titles belong to guys like Goose Gossage, Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter.

Caple references Jayson Stark's "The Stark Truth," in which he mentions how during Gossage's first year as a closer, the right-hander recorded at least 10 outs in 17 different games, including three appearances of seven innings or more.

In his career, Gossage recorded more than three outs in an appearance 531 times. Rivera has done that on only 234 occasions. That's less than half.

Some even go as far as to list Rivera among the greatest four Yankees ever. ESPN's Buster Olney tweeted that he'd put the reliever on the franchise's Mt. Rushmore with Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio. Really? Ahead of Mantle, Berra and Ford? Seriously?

This is the type of hyperbole attached to Rivera that has frustrated me so greatly over the past 17 years that friends think I don't like Mo or I don't think he's valuable. That's not the case. He's just not as valuable as people make him out to be.

Some like to argue about who has been more important to New York's latest dynasty dating back to 1996 - Rivera or Derek Jeter? To even ask the question is ludicrous. Jeter is an everyday player who has participated in around 22,000 innings in pinstripes. Rivera has played 1,219, and 81.4 percent of those appearances came when guys like Jeter had already played hard for eight innings to get the Yankees the lead.

 

But what about Rivera's postseason exploits? Obviously his 0.70 ERA and 0.759 WHIP in 96 games is spectacular, but bragging about his 42 playoff saves being 24 more than the guy in second place is ridiculous. Rivera has those 42 saves in large part because his team gets to the playoffs nearly ever year and because there are far more postseason games to save each October than there were 20 years ago.

And while Mo has certainly had his moments of playoff glory, many are quick to forget he has also blown some very important games.

In Game 4 of the 1997 ALDS against the Indians, Rivera served up the game-tying homer to Sandy Alomar in the eighth inning and the Yankees went on to lose the game and the series.

In Game 7 of the 2001 World Series (no big deal, right?), Rivera surrendered two runs in the ninth to cost the Bombers the title.

Three years later, he blew both Games 4 and 5 in the ALCS against the Red Sox, helping allow the Yanks' arch rival become the first and only baseball team to rally from a 3-0 deficit, which Boston would use to propel itself to its first World Series title in 86 years.

Many say New York would not have won five World Series championships without Rivera. You could just as easily say they would have won three more if not for Rivera.

So let's not get too bent out of shape that Mo may have pitched his final game. His replacement, David Robertson, is 4-0 with a 0.93 ERA over the past two seasons. Over that same time, Rivera is 2-3 with a 1.94 in eight fewer appearances.

In fact, in 2011, Rivera faced 139 batters in high pressure situations with opponents hitting .244 against him. In comparison, Robertson faced 127 men in those same spots with opponents hitting just .126.

Taking that one step further, the sample size may be smaller, but Robertson has actually performed better in high pressure situations than Rivera over their entire careers. When the going gets tough, batters hit .228 off Mo, but only .186 off Robertson.

The Yankees will be just fine.

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