The countdown on the great Mariano Rivera's career is nearing the end, but the longtime New York Yankees closer shouldn't be in a hurry to prove anything at the last minute. Either way, he's poised to walk away from baseball as the single best relief pitcher the game has ever known.
There's also the fact that Rivera ranks among the greatest pitchers of the last 25 years, of course. The question is...where?
Three guys were asked to try and solve that riddle: B/R MLB Lead Writers Zachary D. Rymer, Joe Giglio and Jason Catania. They each looked at the riddle in different ways, and came up with their own rankings and explanations.
And now we present these things to you.
Rivera's Place According to Zach Rymer
Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs
I went into this thinking that I was eventually going to put Rivera in my top 10. Or at least the top 15. But when the dust cleared, there he was barely in the top 20. How did that happen?
Well, the simple way to do this would have been to just take WAR's word for it, and that's probably what I would have done if Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs agreed on Rivera's place among the pitchers of the last 25 years. But since there's quite the gap between the two sites, I had to improvise.
I decided to put together a list of the top aces of the last quarter-century and then put Rivera behind them. The idea was simple: As brilliant as Mo's career has been, it would be silly to put him ahead of or on the same level as any of the best aces to come along in the last 25 years.
There's no doubt that Rivera at least belongs outside my top 10. In terms of both longevity and excellence, that's the cream of the starting pitcher crop of the last 25 years. Also, it should be noted that John Smoltz was an excellent starting pitcher both before and after he was an excellent closer.
Then came CC Sabathia and the underrated Tim Hudson, who actually has a case to be ahead of Sabathia. But with Rivera, the bigger question was whether he belonged ahead of the more recent No. 1s after Sabathia and Hudson, particularly an ace as green as Clayton Kershaw.
But seeing as how Kershaw is going to become the first lefty since Sandy Koufax to log five straight seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA, it's clear that we're witnessing true greatness with him. So what I decided was that I would rather have five years of Kershaw than as many as, say, 10 or 15 years of Rivera. The same goes for Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Johan Santana, Roy Oswalt, who were/are Cy Young-caliber aces in their primes.
As for the guys behind Rivera, the best way I can put it is that none of them strike me as a true No. 1. Each of the seven has had his moments—particularly the recently ace-like Cliff Lee—but they each have the career numbers and the general vibe of No. 2s more so than No. 1s.
If we were to put together a gigantic (and totally theoretical rotation) made up of starters from the last 25 years, I wouldn't place any of the bottom seven ahead of any of the top 17. And since this is naturally one of those scenarios in which we're pretending to draw pitchers out of a hat, I certainly wouldn't take any of them ahead of the greatest closer of all time.
So I suppose my stance on Rivera can be summed up thusly: He's only a closer, but he's also the closer.
Rivera's Place According to Joe Giglio
Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs
Mariano Rivera was the exception to so many baseball rules and perceived notions. Beyond the sheer numbers, Rivera defied logic. Baseball, especially pitching, usually holds certain time-tested narratives when it comes to defining careers: Longevity, repertoire and value trump perception when assessing the best pitchers.
Over the last 25 years, Rivera deserves inclusion as one of the 10 best pitchers of a generation. Buoyed by a combination of durability, his signature cut fastball, the best adjusted earned run average in the history of baseball and a postseason career that created a legacy, Rivera stands side-by-side with a group of starters that could all make a claim for a call from Cooperstown.
As the table shows, Rivera is ranked 10th among the 15 greatest pitchers of the last 25 seasons. Using a combination of career WAR from both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs and ERA-plus, two select groups emerged among the best arms of a generation: Nine superior to Rivera and five who don’t quite match up to Mo, despite their overwhelming success as starting pitchers.
First, the nine. Simply put, in an era of offensive baseball, some of the greatest pitchers in the history of the sport emerged. While Clemens, Martinez, Johnson and Maddux should be atop any list, the Curt Schilling-Roy Halladay-Mike Mussina-John Smoltz-Tom Glavine quintet produced too much value, for too many years, to be overtaken by even the greatest reliever of all time.
Rivera’s place as a top-10 pitcher of a generation can be challenged by all five names below him, but his postseason dominance (0.70 ERA in 141 October innings) places him above members of a group that have either had postseason hiccups (Kevin Brown, Justin Verlander), failed to amass enough innings to vault pass Mo to this point (Kershaw), suffered through injuries (Santana) or never (yet) had the opportunity to compete on a big stage (Hernandez).
If you choose to attempt to separate October from Rivera’s ranking, something obviously not being done here, his 205 ERA-plus is enough for consideration on any ranking over the last 25 years. Mariano Rivera just didn’t dominate batters, he limited runs better than any pitcher in the history of the sport.
Building a pitching staff around a closer isn't a bold strategy, but other than the nine names above him, choosing Mariano to start a staff over the last 25 years wouldn't have been a ridiculous decision. He was that great.
Rivera's Place According to Jason Catania
Baseball Reference and FanGraphs
Where Does Mariano Rivera rank among the greatest pitchers of the last 25 years?
There are two ways to attempt to answer this question: There's the build-your-team approach (as Mr. Giglio just mentioned), and there's the choose-your-career approach. The first is about trying to pick a player to win in any given season or over the course of a handful of seasons, while the second takes a step back and considers a career as a whole up to the point in time at which the snapshot is taken (i.e., 2013).
Using the former, it would be tough for Rivera to crack anyone's top 25 or top 50 greatest pitchers of the last quarter-century. Think about it: If someone handed you the keys to a Major League Baseball franchise today and told you to construct your very own roster, your list of pitchers would be populated primarily with starters, right? This is the fantasy baseball approach, where owners usually don't pick a relief pitcher of any kind before selecting at least four or five starting pitchers.
Using the latter, though, is where Rivera simply becomes impossible to ignore. Think of it like this: If someone asked you which pitcher's career you would most want to have experienced over the past 25 years, you're just not going to reel off many names before you get to Rivera's, right? This is the retrospective, all-encompassing approach—the one I employed—and it paints Rivera as a pitcher who has enjoyed a top-10 career since 1989.
Sure, this particular approach flies in the face of what has come to be known about the inherent value of starting pitchers over relief pitchers. After all, starters, even the so-so ones, typically throw three (or even four) times as many innings as even the best relievers do in a season. This is why, whether you're using WAR from Baseball Reference or FanGraphs, there isn't a single relief pitcher in the top 25 for the 2013 season. (In case you're wndering: Koji Uehara of the Red Sox tops both lists, ranking 28th and 29th, respectively.)
It's perfectly fine if you want to use that process, by the way—it just means that, if faced with this question, you would then probably choose, say, Dan Haren or Mark Buehrle ahead of Rivera. And that seems silly, doesn't it?
When we're talking about the greatest pitchers over the last 25 years, the first nine names above are unquestionably ahead of Rivera. All were among the very best starters in the game and for the better part of a decade (or more). They were both individually noteworthy and incredibly valuable to their teams' successes. From Roger and Randy to Greg and Pedro to Curt and Roy, these are the hurlers we're on a first-name basis with.
As for the names who appear below that of the longtime Yankees closer, well, they were plenty great and plenty successful, too. (Heck, a few still have time to become more great and more successful.) But when weighing Rivera's all-around career accomplishments—from the statistics of your choice to the unfathomable longevity to the "Enter Sandman" aura to the five World Series championships—it's unlikely that many would choose to have had the career of Kevin Brown or Johan Santana or even Rivera's longtime teammate Andy Pettitte over the one belonging to the best relief pitcher in the history of baseball, who was a key member of the most successful team in the sport over the past 20 years, in no small part due to Rivera himself.
Plus, how many other pitchers in the past 25 years can say they're pals with Metallica?
Rivera's Place According to You
Here at the end, we're left with two guys who have Rivera as a top-10 pitcher of the last 25 years, and one tough customer who only has him as a top-20 pitcher of the last 25 years.
Now it's time for you all to tell us what you think. Any and all thoughts and/or questions about the three rankings are welcome down in the comments section below, and you're also more than welcome to share your own opinions as to where Rivera ranks among pitcher from the last quarter-century.
Have at it!
Follow Zach on Twitter: @zachrymer
Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeGiglioSports
Follow Jason on Twitter: @JayCat11