Mariano Rivera has many awards in his collection, but he doesn't have an American League Cy Young Award yet.
Maybe you missed it tacked onto the end there, but the key word in that lead-in would be "yet." He still has this year to win one, and his chances are looking pretty good.
The longtime New York Yankees closer is proving all over again that there's nothing he can't do. And while the stars aren't perfectly aligned for Rivera to walk away with a Cy Young at the end of the year, there's certainly a hint of some sort of alignment.
Entering Tuesday's action, Rivera is tied for the major league lead in saves with Jason Grilli of the Pittsburgh Pirates with 17. Mo owns a 1.47 ERA, a 0.87 WHIP and is holding opposing hitters to a .541 OPS with a 7.0 K/BB.
That's how "dominance" is spelled in numbers, and these numbers are none too shabby for an older guy whose 2012 season came to a premature end thanks to a torn ACL.
The track record of past 43-year-old relievers says Rivera is playing way above his head and that he can't keep it up. He's already broken the saves record for 43-year-old relievers by six and is looking to be just the third 43-year-old reliever in history to make 40 appearances and post an ERA under 2.00.
Rivera's own track record says something else. Something along the lines of, "It's cool, it's cool. Dude's got this."
Rivera has posted an ERA in the 1.00-2.00 range 11 times already in his 19-year career, and eight of those have come since his age-33 season in 2003. Mo has been just as good, if not better, in his old age than he was at any point in his youth.
Rivera's cutter, meanwhile, is about as effective as it's been in the last decade or so. Per Baseball Info Solutions by way of FanGraphs, Rivera's wCT/C—that being the number of runs above average he's saving with his cutter for every 100 he throws—is 2.31. That's slightly better than his career mark of .206.
If we once again turn numbers into words, the translation here is "Still freakin' awesome."
All of this adds up to a portrait of a pitcher who's going to do just fine with the save opportunities he gets, and he could get enough of those to break one of the only closer records he doesn't already own.
That would be the single-season saves record of 62, set by Francisco Rodriguez in 2008.
I hadn't noticed until Dayn Perry of CBSSports.com pointed it out, but that's the kind of pace Rivera is on. With 17 saves through 19 appearances and a quarter of the season, he's on pace for about 63 saves.
So is Grilli, of course, but he'll have to excuse me for being skeptical about his chances to break K-Rod's record. He's got the stuff to have a brilliant season, but he's doing work for a franchise that hasn't had a winning season in something like a million years. The Pirates have flirted with snapping out of their funk the last two seasons, but couldn't quite get the job done.
The Yankees, on the other hand, are not the old and rusty train wreck they were supposed to be. They haven't been a steamroller, but there they are in first place in the AL East despite the fact they're still toughing it out without Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter and that one other guy, among others.
This is certainly no ordinary Yankees team no matter which way you slice it, but that could actually work to Rivera's advantage.
Rivera has had little trouble picking up save opportunities in the past, but he could get a few extra ones sent his way in 2013 by virtue of the Yankees' watered-down offense. The Bombers are only scoring 4.32 runs per game, their lowest per-game rate since the bad old days of 1991.
So enough save chances to make a run at K-Rod's record? That's a legit possibility. Mo should get enough chances to make a run at topping his personal best of 53, anyway.
For Rivera to loom large in the Cy Young discussion, the target number for saves is 55. That wouldn't be a single-season record, but it would put Mo in territory where few have tread in recent years. Outside of K-Rod's record-setting season in 2008, there have been zero 55-save seasons since 2004.
If Rivera gets there, he'll have the Cy Young voters' attention. Then he'll just have to hope that there isn't a clear-cut winner from the fraternity of starters, which is obviously the big hitch in the prospect of him contending for the Cy Young.
The voters weren't afraid to cast Cy Young votes for relievers for a period of time back in the day. The period from 1974 to 1989 saw Mike Marshall, Bruce Sutter, Steve Bedrosian and Mark Davis win the Cy Young in the National League. Between 1977 and 1992, Sparky Lyle, Rollie Fingers, Willie Hernandez and Dennis Eckersley won the Cy Young in the American League.
But since then, the only reliever to win the Cy Young was Eric Gagne in 2003. Voters have gotten over their obsession with relief pitchers, and this is one area where the sabermetric community isn't about to complain. In the eyes of the geeks, relievers are a sort of "meh" crowd.
Rivera's probably going to be out of luck if an AL starter puts forth a typical Cy Young-caliber season: 20 wins and an ERA in the 2.00s with over 200 innings pitched. There are guys who look like they could do that, such as Clay Buchholz, Felix Hernandez and Matt Moore.
On the off chance that nobody in the American League has a season like that, Rivera would be nothing short of a shoo-in for the award. That's his best hope, even if it is a fool's hope.
But let's say several pitchers in the American League end up having a typical Cy Young-caliber season. That would create a bicker-and-argue situation among the voters that could potentially open the door for Rivera to win the award. Instead of splitting hairs to determine who the best starter was, voters could just choose to flock to the guy who was clearly the best reliever.
Rivera's numbers could make that an awfully tempting idea, and sympathy could be what seals the deal.
Voters love a good narrative, after all. They gravitated toward R.A. Dickey—the once-forgotten guy who remade himself with a knuckleball—in the NL Cy Young voting last year even though Clayton Kershaw's creds were just as good. They could pull a similar act with Rivera this year, as his narrative is going to be at least as appealing as Dickey's.
It's going to be like something out of a cheesy Kevin Costner movie if Rivera actually makes good on the enormous potential of his start to 2013. The Cliffs Notes version would be:
- Act 1: Pitcher becomes greatest closer baseball has ever seen.
- Act 2: Pitcher destroys leg in gut-wrenching accident, putting career in jeopardy.
- Act 3: Pitcher returns, dominates, rides off into sunset.
Put that narrative next to some eye-popping numbers, and you've got a very attractive Cy Young candidate. Remove the competition or make it unspectacular, and you've got a wide-open door for said attractive candidate to walk through.
Rivera has contended for the Cy Young in the past, finishing second in the voting in 2005 and third in 1999 and 2004. If ever there was a year for him to win it, however, it's this year.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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