Keidel: Rivera’s Greatness Is Hard To Quantify — Until You See Mere Mortals Of Today
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By Jason Keidel
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When the Joe Torre dynasty tumbled, the sheen wiped off the pinstripes, Aura and Mystique stumbled back to the strip clubs, the haunting, daunting ghosts forever discarded … the stat troubadours slowly consumed the game.
Call them the Bill James Tribe, the Moneyball barristers, Sabermetricians, or just number nerds. And while they have a place and purpose in our pastime, the Coke bottle glasses gang took it too far in one regard.
The accountants made it trendy to assert that the closer was overrated. Moreover, Mariano Rivera wasn’t nearly as vital as the mythologists thought. We dinosaurs don’t get the nuance and immutable math of WAR and OPS and other, bold metrics born in caps.
There’s got to be neutral ground between baseball religions, a treaty between treatises. The old-school guy paints the Nu Skool guy as a geek tweeting from grandma’s basement, World of Warcraft blaring on his laptop, and Code Red Mountain Dew on IV drip. He has few friends, fewer dates, and no life.
The stat guy sees the old-timer as a chunky, red-faced gargoyle who waddles around ballparks, a half-chewed, splintered cigar pinched between his yellow teeth. The old guy believes in heart and grit and instincts; the young guy wants you to take pitches until the pine tar melts off the bat, get walks and Earl Weaver’s prized three-run homer.
So when David Robertson surrendered at least five runs for the second time in two months, we should assume that’s just how it goes. Until you realize that the immortal Mariano Rivera also surrendered five-plus runs twice — in two decades. It took Robertson eight weeks to cough up a nickel. Rivera did it in 1,105 appearances.
The pitcher nonpareil chatted with Mike Francesa on Wednesday afternoon, looking as spry and sounding as pious as ever.
And so it’s time to tip a final cap.
So Rivera is overrated? Is Mo more ornamental than essential? Sure. So was his 0.70 playoff ERA. So were his 42 playoff saves, double the next pitcher in history.
Heck, even Mike Mussina took a thinly veiled crack at Mo, asserting that he’d have a ring now had Mo not blown the 2001 World Series. Technically true. But a bit below the belt when considering the galactic context of his career.
It’s easy to declare a team doesn’t need a closer when there’s only one Rivera. So sure, in a strict, scientific sense you don’t need Mariano Rivera since teams win World Series all the time without him. But that’s a rather warped way to debate it.
Ask the Braves and Bobby Cox if Rivera is overrated. Ask David Justice, who knew the difference once he migrated to the Bronx. Justice mused over his years in Atlanta, saying the Braves would have won a fistful of rings with Rivera. Is that absolute? No. But ask Mark Wohlers and Jim Leyritz about the power of the dominant closer.
The laconic, iconic closer impacted the game in ways that don’t fit into a hard drive. There’s no metric to measure the confidence the Mo imbues his Yankees, or the disconsolate, forlorn feeling of the opponent when they see Sandman jog toward the mound.
So then the Yankees have lost three straight home games to three different teams for the first time since 1915, when they played in the Polo Grounds. Two of which were blown by closers, the “overrated” vocation. And the latest wretched, relief appearance didn’t come from Robertson, but from Dellin Betances, the very pitcher people were clamoring for right after Robertson blew that game against the Twins.
So the closer is overrated. Those final three outs are the same as the prior three. The nouveaux metrics can’t measure the extra pump in the pitcher’s heart, the gushing adrenaline, the insects swirling around his face, the fans shrieking at him in unprintable nouns, the stadium trembling and an umpire squeezing you an inch at a time.
Stats have their place, and no sport is more steeped in statistics than baseball, which fuels the barroom debates and the need for a baseball card collection and a way to assert your dominance over your friends. Numbers can’t be disputed. They are what they are. And thank heaven most of you don’t particularly care.
Perhaps overrated closers have a 0.571 WHIP and 0.32 ERA in 16 ALDS. PlayStation stats. Or surrender two — two! — home runs in 96 playoff appearances. Or giving up a paltry 86 hits in 141 playoff innings. Rivera pitched in 16 divisional series, 9 ALCS and 7 World Series, and he amassed 110 strikeouts while issuing 21 walks.
We can copy-and-paste Mo’s postseason milestones, his undeniable place in history, the symmetry of bearing Jackie Robinson’s number a decade after it was retired, as though he were the only one worthy of wearing it. He was. His talent and temper were so special and reserved that he can, if possible, be underrated.
Derek Jeter, Mo’s partner in crime, Core Four, future Hall of Famer, and Monument Park is enjoying (or enduring) his retirement tour, one uncomfortable rocking chair at a time, from clubs who don’t care about him and players who weren’t alive when he broke into the big leagues. The perfunctory applause is pleasant, but sterile. It’s overkill, especially with someone of Jeter’s understated persona.
The five boroughs bought in, and he paid off. Not only will Yankees fans miss Jeter, but so will baseball fans. Jeter is an October monolith, the perfect avatar of the sport’s past dominance and diversity. And I don’t know — gasp! — his lifetime WAR.
But even better was another chap who charred opposing hitters and charmed a nation. Jeter may have owned the Big Apple for nearly two decades, but Rivera is the core. And there’s nothing overstated or overrated about it.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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