Posted tagged ‘Mariano Rivera’

The Drop Off to Second Best


This morning Buster Olney of ESPN tweeted, “Because of the difference between Rivera and others at his position, for me, he should be part of NYY’ Rushmore, with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio.” I find this an interesting claim in a lot of ways. First note the 4 players: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Rivera. I would without a second thought shove Mantle ahead of both DiMaggio and Rivera. Second, I take his claim to be that the dropoff from Rivera to others refers to all other relievers, not just all other Yankee relievers. That follows an earlier tweet which said, “The difference between Rivera and any other player at his position in history is the greatest of any position.” That is a more interesting question. To get a quick and dirty look at the drop from the best to the second-best at various positions, I’m going to do a bit of fiddling with WAR, as measured on Baseball Reference. I will also summarily exclude 19th-Century Players. (This means I excluded both Cy Young and George Davis.) The method is simple: Take the WAR of player 2, divide it by player 1, and multiply by 100. This gives the second player’s production as a percentage of the first player. So, is the dropoff from Rivera the biggest? Let’s turn to the stats.


Player 1 WAR 1 Player 2 WAR 2 Percentage Total Drop
Gehrig 118.4 Foxx 95.2 80.41 23.2
Hornsby 127.8 Collins 126.7 99.14 1.1
Wagner 134.5 Ripken 89.9 66.84 44.6
Schmidt 108.3 Rodriguez 105 96.95 3.3
Ruth 190 Aaron 141.6 74.53 48.4
Cobb 159.5 Mays 154.7 96.99 4.8
Bonds 171.8 Musial 127.8 74.39 44
Bench 71.3 Fisk 67.3 94.39 4
W. Johnson 139.8 Clemens 128.8 92.13 11
Rivera 55.8 Gossage 39.5 70.79 16.3
Eckersley 58.3 Rivera 55.8 95.71 2.5
Rivera 55.8 Hoffman 30.4 54.48 25.4

First, these are full career WAR stats, so Ruth has a serious bump from being a pitcher, and Walter Johnson gets a nice little bump from his hitting. Second, I calculated relievers three different ways. First, I ran Rivera against Gossage, the two highest pitchers who accumulated almost all their WAR in relief. Next I did Rivera against Eckersley, because Eck had the highest WAR of any pitcher who is in the Hall of Fame as a reliever. Nonetheless, his WAR is so high because he gets a giant boost from all of his years as a starter. Finally I compared Rivera to the next highest modern closer, that is the highest WAR from a reliever since the advent of the modern closer circa 1980. That would be Trevor Hoffman. So where does this get us?

First, the drop at shortstop is gigantic. Even adding George Davis back in doesn’t help much. That is the lowest percentage drop among position players. Next, the drop from Ruth to Aaron is impressive. It is the largest raw WAR drop, and the third lowest percentage. Quite a drop considering this is Hank Aaron we are talking about. Finally, relievers are tricky. First, if Eckersley is included, Rivera isn’t the best ever. Next, if you include higher inning relievers from the 1970’s, the percentage is not the lowest, but it is second. Finally, if you limit Rivera to his most comparable group, other closers, you see Buster Olney’s point in big numbers. Rivera is nearly twice the pitcher of any other closer, when measured by WAR. I find that fact astonishing.

Prospects: A Feline Perspective


I have two cats, Apple and Toni.  Being cats, they both believe that daytime is for sleeping and night is for fun.  (I also have a little girl, and she more than a touch of cat in her as well.)  One consequence of the feline lifestyle is that I rarely sleep through the night.  When the cats wake me up, each espouses a fundamentally different view of what my being up at 3 am means.  When Apple sees me, she thinks it is likely that I am up to feed her.  But, she is not sure.  She thinks there is nearly as good a chance that I have decided to change the litter box at 2am.  I might even be under a strong compulsion to give her water.  Toni, on the other hand, has an unshakable faith that I am up in order to pet her. There is no other option. While Apple considers food, litter, and water all viable options, Toni knows that I am to pet her. My daughter, to give a third perspective, considers all things equally possible. Watch a little child, and you will see what I mean. Little kids alternate between a state of pure surprise, i.e. everything is shocking, and a state of complete complacency, i.e. nothing is astonishing. At that age, little children lack the track record against which to measure shock value. Now what does this say about prospects?

First, Toni prospects don’t exist. There are no sure things. Consider this article from Beyond the Box Score on the top college pitching prospects of the last 30 years. The highlights are Neal Heaton, who had a long and mediocre career, and Mark Prior, whose career was briefly brilliant. If anybody was a sure thing, you would think the very best college pitchers would be. They were not. Prospects, by definition, are prospects. Their value is in the future (prospective), and the future is uncertain.

Second, Apple prospects are common. The Apple perspective embodies the statistical notion of a confidence interval. When you make a statistical prediction, you should always report the confidence interval. You predict an ERA of 2.75 for Stephen Strasburg? What are the odds that he actually posts an ERA of 2.40 or 3.05? That is your confidence interval. For an example, look at this piece on Mariano Rivera’s save total. A prediction of 28 saves for Mariano Rivera gives an interval of 22 to 42 as a likely range.

Third, always keep a touch of my daughter when you look at a prospect. You are attempting to project people at ages 18-22. Think back to those ages. Would anything particularly surprise you? Josh Hamilton was an outstanding talent, until addictions crushed his career. That is not especially uncommon with people the age of most prospects. Mental makeup, so far, seems poorly scouted and even more poorly measured. Given that fact, consider this list of #1 overall draft picks. Ken Griffey, Jr. is an all-time great, but he proceeds the immortal Brien Taylor by four years. Taylor never made the majors. For supposed top prospects, notice how weak that list is. After 45 picks, you have no Hall of Famers. Of course, Griffey, Chipper Jones, and Alex Rodriguez are likely Hall of Famers, but no one has made it to the Hall of Fame as a #1 overall pick since 1965. Nothing should surprise you.

What can we learn about prospects? There are no sure things. Consider the range of any projection. Do not be surprised at anything done by wealthy males in their lower 20’s. These rules, derived from immortal scouts Toni, Apple, and my daughter, will help keep you from years of frustration at failed prospects.

Rivera vs. Lidge


Mariano Rivera is clearly one of the best closers of all time.  Brad Lidge is not.  Rivera is famously clutch, and his statistics demonstrate that he is as good as anyone can be in the postseason.  Lidge is not.  But how can we more carefully distinguish between these two relievers?  Why precisely are these two considered polar opposites?

For starters, Rivera has a career ERA of 2.25, while Lidge‘s is 3.56. With relievers, though, ERA is even more effected by chance than it is with most other pitchers. When looking at rate stats, Rivera strikes out 8.3 per 9 innings, to Lidge’s 12.1. He gives 0.5 HR/9, to Lidge’s 0.9. The only great difference in rate stats is in BB/9; Rivera is at 2.1 to Lidge’s 4.1. Still, when it comes to K/BB ratio, Rivera’s is 3.93, Lidge 2.99. Rivera is clearly the better pitcher, especially when the longer stretch of his career is factored in. But the difference is not massive.

Both of these relievers are famous for their postseason performances. Rivera has an ERA of 0.74 in 133.1 postseason innings, while Lidge’s is 2.52 in 39.1. Notice that Lidge has been better in the postseason than he has been in the regular season, though not by quite as large a margin as Rivera. Lidge has blown 4 postseason saves, while Rivera has blown 5. Rivera‘s have even been spectacular, like Lidge. In 1997 in Game 4 of the ALDS, he gave up a game-tying home run to Sandy Alomar, Jr. Completing the save would have won the series. In 2001, Rivera blew the save in Game 7, losing the Series. In 2004, Rivera blew consecutive saves in Games 4 and 5 of the ALCS that would have staved off the greatest collapse in postseason history. Yet Lidge is defined by his blown saves, and Rivera is not. Why is that?

Lidge is a victim of incredibly poor luck. While Rivera gave up a game-tying home run to the immortal Sandy Alomar, Jr. and a game-tying double to Tony Womack, Lidge was victimized by mere mortals Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. Mull that over for a second. Lidge’s most famous blown saves were against the two best players in baseball in the last 5 years. Rivera’s much more forgotten blown saves were against substantially lesser players. In some sense, Lidge’s reputation is contingent upon being on Pujols and Rodriguez’s highlight reels. Second, Lidge is accused of dwelling on his past mistakes and allowing them to affect his future performance. Is that true? Pujols’ home run in 2005 did not preclude Lidge’s good season in 2007 and astounding 2008, but they might have effected his performance in a poor 2006. Rivera, in contrast, had great seasons after each of his blown saves. I have used him as an exemplar of the short memory necessary to be a great athlete.

In the end, they are polar opposites because of how good professional baseball players are. For a second, consider the distribution of baseball talent in the population at large. It is likely a bell curve, with a lot in the middle, a few hopeless, and a few great. The entire MLB is drawn from the great end of the distribution. If I am the exact median baseball players, the distance from Albert Pujols to Yuniesky Betancourt is dwarfed by the distance from Betancourt to me. Yet Betancourt should soon be out of the big leagues. In the end, Rivera is better than Lidge, though not by a lot. But in such a dramatic narrowing of the talent distribution, every little bit gets magnified outrageously. Because of that, Rivera is great, and Lidge is forever a goat.

The Importance of Forgetting


Why is Mariano Rivera such a great closer?  He has no memory.  Few people in baseball history can have a finger pointed at them and people say, “You lost the World Series.”  Rivera is one of those unfortunate few.  He was already a great closer prior to the 2001 World Series, having set the record for consecutive scoreless innings in the postseason with 34 1/3.  Yet he blew the save in the 9th inning of game 7, coming in with a 2-1 lead and leaving after taking a 3-2 loss.  He gave 3 hits, committed an error, and hit one batter.  It was a truly exceptional meltdown.  How did he respond?  By compiling 310 saves and a 1.95 ERA in the next 8 seasons, from ages 32-39 (i.e. after his prime should have ended).

It would have been easy for the 2001 Series to end his career.  The obvious comparison is Donnie Moore, who never recovered from his one bad pitch in the 1986 ALCS.  Rivera has since 2001 had good games and bad.  In 38 1/3 postseason inning since, he has 3 total runs.  2001 is a distant memory, and his career has rolled with only an injury-induced hiccup in the 2002 regular season.

This lesson applies across sports.  After Ernest Byner’s famous fumble with the Cleveland Browns in 1987, he went on to win a Super Bowl with the Redskins and make the 1990 and 1991 Pro Bowls. Given the weakness of the Bills pass defense and the strength of the Saints passing game, that is what they need from Leodis McKelvin. His fumble in Week 1 was critical to that loss. However, he must follow the examples of Mariano Rivera and Ernest Byner, putting that fumble behind him to be a productive member of a taxed Bills secondary.

AL Cy Young Wrap-Up


The Cy Young ballot is unusual among baseball awards.  You only get to vote for three players.  The MVP ballot and the Hall of Fame ballot both run 10 players deep, but for some reason the Cy Young is limited to three.  I think five pitchers have a legitimate shot to be part of that 3 on the AL side:  Zack Greinke, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, and Mariano Rivera.  Scott Feldman had a chance, but his last start killed his ERA and allowed Hernandez to pass him for the league-lead in winning percentage and tie for second in the league in wins.  He should no longer get a vote.

Sabathia leads the league in wins, but I think he is the weakest candidate of the five.  That does not mean that he won’t win the award in November, but he should not.  Sabathia’s ERA is slightly lower than Verlander’s, who has the highest of the five candidates listed above, however he has done it with 70 less strikeouts for a notably superior team.  Verlander leads the league K/9 and is second in FIP, the stat introduced yesterday.  He is hurt by playing in front of a poor fielding team in Detroit.  Greinke leads the league in FIP, ERA, fewest hits, complete games, HR/9, etc. He is having the most dominant season in the majors. His only problem is a lack of wins. He has won 15 to Sabathia’s 18, and Verlander and Hernandez’s 17. That is what pitching for Kansas City will do to you.

That leaves Rivera. I have already argued that Rivera might win the Cy Young. It is difficult to predict when a reliever will pick up a Cy Young, but they do it with regularity. Rivera is the best closer in the American League this year. If relievers are added in, Rivera suddenly leads the league in ERA and pulls ahead of Greinke in K/9, BB/9, and K/BB. However, he has only pitched 62 innings, fewer than any reliever to have won a Cy Young. I don’t think he will or should win, but it would not be a travesty if he nudges past Greinke for the award.

My ballot:
1. Zack Greinke
2. Mariano Rivera
3. Justin Verlander

The Real AL Cy Young Race


The sabermetric community online is pushing heavily for Zach Greinke to win the AL Cy Young award.  These arguments tend to juxtapose Greinke’s statistics against those of the other leading candidates, usually some combination of CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Roy Halladay, and Justin Verlander.  Sabathia leads the league in wins, Verlander in strikeouts, Halladay is often acknowledged as the best pitcher in the AL over the course of the last 3 years, and Hernandez has been touted as the next big thing since his rookie season. For examples of this, see the discussion in the last paragraph here and here. These discussions have the misfortune of ignoring Greinke’s real chief rival, Mariano Rivera.  Rivera has three primary advantages:  a long and unrewarded track record, a pennant winning team, and the likelihood that his best years will soon be behind him.

Rivera has been consistently the best reliever in the American League for the last 13 seasons.  Despite the relatively high number of relievers to win the Cy Young, 9 since two awards have been given out starting in 1967, Rivera has never won.  In Rivera’s prime, Eric Gagne picked up the award in 2003 with a spectacular season, but Rivera remains on the outside looking in.  He is certainly in the discussion of greatest pitchers never to win a Cy Young Award since the award started in 1956, with Juan Marichal as likely his chief rival.  This is one source of pent-up goodwill for Rivera.

A winning team is not as important to pitchers as it is to hitter when award season rolls around.  Nevertheless, voters like to mention how much extra weight should be given to high leverage situations.  The deplorable state of the Royals has eliminated any chance Greinke has had to pitch in a serious pennant race.  Rivera in contrast pitches on the best team in the American League.  He has excelled in the pressure situations so far, with the exception of last night’s walk-off home run by Ichiro.  Rivera has importantly attracted more attention because of his contributions to a winner than Greinke has for his contributions to a cellar-dweller.

Rivera turns 40 in November.  By any normal measure of baseball excellence, his career should be swiftly drawing to a close.  Baseball writers are running out of occasions to award him for his greatness.  Greinke, in contrast, is merely 25, and he should have more good seasons ahead of him.  As all three points show, Rivera is the target for all voters who vote based on sympathy or team excellence.  Greinke’s only hope is a focus purely on statistics, primarily rate stats like ERA and K/9. 

Given my previous post on Joe Mauer’s MVP candidacy, I think the previous performance of Rivera should be irrelevant to the vote this year.  Greinke strikes me as the best candidate.  I would not be surprised, though, to see Rivera finally achieve the Cy Young that has eluded him so far.

Pitchers for MVP?


Below is a list of all pitchers to have won the MVP award. First it should be noted that 14 of the 23 winners occurred before the advent of the Cy Young Award.  In an era in which no major award was set aside solely for pitchers, ptichers were very competitive in the balloting.  The Hank Aaron Award has not yet served a similar function for hitters, as it really has not become a major award.

Second, the next drop-off comes with the introduction of the designated hitter. 5 of the 9 MVPs won since the Cy Young began to be awarded were given in 17 years between 1956 and 1973. This is tougher to explain. Note the pitchers who win in the pre-DH decade and a half. They were not getting bonus points for their hitting. In fact, Koufax in particular was renowned as one of the worst hitters ever to play the game. Nevertheless, the DH rule devalues the importance of pitchers to a successful baseball team. (DH’s suffer the same backlash in reverse, as Don Baylor in 1979 is the only DH to win an MVP.) MVP voters put some weight on the claim that a player contributes to more areas of a team’s success, i.e. that the player is involved in daily hitting and in daily fielding. Pitchers, by contrast only pitch every five days. This might explain the relative success of relievers in MVP voting as three of the four pitching MVP awards went to relievers. (In 1981, Fingers pitched in 47 games, out 109 games in the strike-shortened season.  Hernandez appeared in a league-leading 80 games in 1984.  Eckersley pitched a career high 69 games in 1992. Clemens only pitched 33 games in 1986, though he pitched substantially more innings than either closer.)

What does this mean for this year’s MVP voting? Don’t hold out hope for Zach Greinke, Chris Carpenter, Tim Lincecum, or Adam Wainwright? Similarly, don’t be surprised if Mariano Rivera does better than expected.

1913, 24 – Walter Johnson
1924 – Dazzy Vance
1931 – Lefty Grove
1933, 36 – Carl Hubbell
1934 – Dizzy Dean
1939 – Bucky Walter
1942 – Mort Cooper
1943 – Spud Chandler
1944, 45 – Hal Newhouser
1950 – Jim Konstanty
1952 – Bobby Shantz
1956 – Don Newcombe (Also won the first Cy Young Award)
1963 – Sandy Koufax
1968 – Bob Gibson
1968 – Denny McLain
1971 – Vida Blue
1981 – Rollie Fingers
1984 – Willie Hernandez
1986 – Roger Clemens
1992 – Dennis Eckersley