New York Yankees "Sandman" Mariano Rivera and the Save Rule

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New York Yankees
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“Enter Sandman” blared again over the Yankee Stadium speakers. Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees tipped his cap to the crowd and beamed.The Yankee “stopper” had set a new major league record—602 career saves.

Needing just 13 pitches, the storied hurler notched a shutdown ninth inning on September 19th, locking up the Yankee 6-4 win over Minnesota. He got Trevor Plouffe, Michael Cuddyer and Chris Parmelee in order.

On May 23, 1995, the slender 25-year-old rookie Mariano Rivera, in his major league debut, lasted but 3 1/3 innings, yielding eight hits and five runs. The Yankees lost, 10-0 to the Angels at Anaheim Stadium. That season, the son of a Panamanian fisherman started 10 games, allowed eight homers and 35 runs in 50 innings and was demoted to the bullpen.

On May 17, 1996 at the old Yankee Stadium against the Angels, Rivera recorded his first career save, the first of five that season. He was primarily John Wetteland's setup man then.

In 1997, he became the closer for the Yanks. His money pitch, a sizzling cut fastball, was and is his mighty, some would say, his only weapon. Year after year opposing players have known it was coming, but they have done very little against it.

Throughout the baseball season of 2011—especially in New York City—there was much hype and hoopla over the 12-time All-Star’s quest to set the all-time saves record. And there has been much celebration, exaltation and lauding of the feat now accomplished.

Stats galore have been trotted out in tribute to the magnificence of the gentlemanly Rivera’s career achievements. Mo has a record 15 straight seasons of 25 or more saves, a stunning record 89 percent save percentage and the lowest career ERA (2.22) since the 1920s.

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In his 17-season Yankee career, Rivera has gone 75-57 with 602 saves recorded in 674 opportunities. And many have labeled the gentlemanly Yankee the "greatest pitcher of his era." Others have gone further calling him one of the greatest pitchers of all time. There are those who refer to Rivera as the greatest closer in baseball history.

On the other hand, however, there are some who claim that he ranks as the most overrated player in baseball history.

Bill Plaschke of the LA Times notes:

"Rivera has recorded an average of barely more than three outs, with 1,209 innings pitched in 1,039 games. How can he be considered among the game’s greatest pitchers if he works one-sixth of the time? How can he be considered among the game’s greatest players if he plays one-ninth of a full game?”

And legendary sports expert Len Berman adds:

“For someone to amass so many saves he not only needs longevity, he needs to play on winning teams for a great number of years. That's why all saves aren't created equal. You can hit homers, or have a high batting average against anyone. But to get saves, you really do need a ‘little help from your friends’ (The Yankees)."

These insightful comments notwithstanding, it is not Mariano Rivera under fire in the “saves” controversy. It is really the “save stat” and the whole culture connected to it.

The  “save rule” was created by respected Chicago baseball scribe Jerome Holtzman in 1960.

“At that time,” as Holzman explained, “there were only two stats to measure the effectiveness of a reliever: earned run average and the win-loss record.”

What Holzman had concocted was baseball's first new major statistic since the RBI in 1920. “The save” was officially adopted by Major League Baseball in 1969.  

Rule 10.20 in the Official Rule Book states:
Credit a pitcher with a save when he meets all three of the following conditions:

(1) He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his club; and

(2) He is not the winning pitcher; and

(3) He qualifies under one of the following conditions:

—(a) He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning; or

—(b) He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, or at bat, or on deck (that is, the potential tying run is either already on base or is one of the first two batsmen he faces; or

—(c) He pitches effectively for at least three innings. No more than one save may be credited in each game.

What Holzman had wrought became an over-blown, over-hyped, over-used stat that revolutionized the game. “Firemen” back in the day generally toiled multiple innings in a game. They also generally returned to pitch again the next day. From the time the save rule became an official stat through 1985, one-inning saves composed only 21 percent of all saves. Then things began to change.

Today’s stoppers have a much reduced workload, mostly one inning of work and generally no work the next day. Many hurlers would not have had the success they had had they been starters. Suddenly pitchers became superstar stoppers and wealthy men as a result of the “save rule.” Pitchers today make millions a season working almost solely ninth innings of games when their team is ahead.

This is the culture of the “save” and one that for better or worse Mariano Rivera has been part of that culture. Red Sox broadcaster and Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, beneficiary of all the “save” had to offer is, quite frank: "The save is overrated."

All of this, however, has nothing to do with Mariano Rivera. His grace under pressure, his machine-like efficiency, his piling up all these saves is a one of a kind, top of the hill accomplishment.

The rules were not made by the great Rivera. He simply did his job year after year in the time of the one-inning closer. His greatness is not to be questioned. However, the rules governing the “save” deserve some thorough questioning and perhaps some tinkering.  

 
**A noted oral historian and sports journalist, Harvey Frommer has written many sports books, including Fenway Park: An Oral and Narrative History of the Home of the Boston Red Sox.  His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men’s Heath, The Sporting News, and of course Bleacher Report among other publications.
Visit his website and purchase books here: http://harveyfrommersports.com/remembering_fenway/

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