Mariano Rivera is going to the Hall of Fame. There’s no doubt about that. And everybody everywhere says he’s the greatest closer of all-time. There’s only one problem with that, though.
Closers haven’t existed for “all-time.”
What we think of today as the closer has really only been around for about 20 years. This kind of specialist, only pitching one inning, really started with Dennis Eckersley when he was on the A’s. It was a Tony La Russa invention.
Way back when, they were just relief pitchers, old washed-up starters thrown to the scrapheap of the bullpen. Sure, there was a Hoyt Wilhelm here and there, but they weren’t valued as specialists with any specific role.
Then, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Rollie Fingers and Sparky Lyle created what was then called the fireman, followed by guys like Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter. They would come in at a crucial point in the game with runners on base, hopefully get out of the jam and pitch the rest of the game. They were the closer, the setup man, and even the sixth and seventh-inning guy all rolled into one.
You didn’t have to find pitchers to span the bridge to the closer. They were their own bridge.
The most innings pitched in a season by Rivera has been 80.2 in 2001, when he appeared in 71 games. The most by Eckersley, since he was made a full-time closer was 80 in 1992 (69 games). Contrast that with Lyle, whose most innings pitched was in ’77 with 137 in 72 games.
Fingers appeared in 134.2 innings in 70 games in ’76. Sutter tossed 122.2 innings in ’84. And Gossage threw a whopping 141.2 innings in 62 games in ’75 with the White Sox. Some starters today can’t even do that. Lyle threw over 100 innings six times in his career. Fingers did eight times and Gossage four (as relievers). Rivera has never come close.
If you take a look at Rivera’s postseason career, he’s been used a little differently. In his ALCS appearances, he has pitched in 25 games, throwing 38.2 innings (1.53 IP per game). And in the World Series, his numbers are 20 games and 31 innings pitched (1.55).
Those still aren’t Rollie Fingers–like numbers, though. In Fingers’ Championship Series career (or the playoffs, as they were just called back then), he tossed 19.1 innings in 11 games (1.74). And in the World Series, 33.1 innings in 16 games (2.07).
In the 1977 playoffs against Kansas City, Sparky Lyle, after throwing one-third of an inning in Game One, pitched the last three games of the five-game series (on consecutive days).
In Game Three, he pitched 2.1 innings and gave up a run. Game Four saw him come in in the fourth inning, pitching 5.1 innings(!), not letting in a run and picking up the win. He got the win the next night, too, allowing no runs in 1.1 innings.
If a closer did that today, the Earth would rotate off its axis and drift off into space and we’d all be dead by the end of the postgame show.
The fireman role was just completely different than the closer’s. Today’s stopper doesn’t have to worry about getting fatigued during the game and hardly ever comes into a game with a runner on base.
In 52 of Gossage’s 310 saves, he had to get seven outs or more. Rivera has one career save like that. And Gossage had 24 saves when he pitched the final three innings.
Rivera has a better career ERA (2.31) than Fingers (2.90), Lyle (2.88), Gossage (3.01), and Sutter (2.83), but they pitched hundreds of more innings than he did (and Fingers and Gossage had some years as a starter).
And they weren’t just used in “save situations.” What would their stats look like if they were coddled like today’s relievers and only pitched the ninth inning with nobody on base? Their ERA’s would go down and save totals would go up. They were used according to game situations, not at the whim of a stat.
Rivera may be more talented than the others, but the old-time firemen did things he never did. If he pitched an extra 30 innings every year, would his numbers be the same? Probably not.
When Rivera comes into the fourth inning of a playoff game and closes it out, then you can say he’s the best of all-time. For now, he’s the best of the last 20 years. To say he’s the best closer ever is a knee-jerk reaction that needs historical perspective. And besides, he doesn’t even have a signature mustache.