‘Hart of the Order’
By Sean Hartnett
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The closer position has often been discriminated against by statistical mavens and a certain faction of baseball writers.  ESPN’s Jim Caple famously wrote that closers earning a save in the 9th inning “merely conclude what is usually a foregone conclusion.”

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I’ve read the works of Baseball Prospectus along with a bevy of notable writers who constantly downplay the importance of the save.  Their stance is that the save is a glorified statistic that caters to the team’s star reliever by creating a role that pays them a higher wage than a set-up man or middle reliever.  Another criticism of the closer’s role is that it is a marketing tool that generates excitement that keeps fans inside the ballpark to continue filling the owner’s pockets.

Statistically, chances are slim that the trailing team will come back from a deficit of two or three runs.  In those situations, 94-96% of saves are completed.  There is definitely a strong argument against using your best reliever exclusively in the 9th inning.

Formerly, the top bullpen arm would enter in the 8th inning or sometimes 7th inning to relieve the starter who had gotten into a jam and finish the game.  The ‘sea change’ in closer usage occurred during the 1980s when managers decided that it was best to save their best reliever for one-inning appearances.  It is completely the manager’s discretion which inning to use his top reliever.  Whether it is to close out a game in the 9th inning, relieve a faltering set-up man or to be called upon when the 3-4-5 hitters in their lineup come around, this is entirely the manager’s call and their preference is not affected by salaries or marketing.

Managers today simply feel safer having their best reliever close out games.  Let’s not hold this practice against Mariano Rivera or his record-breaking accomplishment of 602 career saves.

To downplay Rivera’s achievement would be like saying that a superb-fielding infielder only gets awarded a Gold Glove because ‘it is a forgone conclusion that he can cleanly field routine grounders.’  It’s not Rivera’s fault that he isn’t usually called upon in the 8th inning when the opposition’s 3-4-5 hitters come to bat.

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Simply put, Rivera is the most efficient and consistent closer the game has ever seen.  His saves record of 602 and counting should be revered similarly to Nolan Ryan’s strikeout record.  Randy Johnson fell well short of matching the Ryan’s mark of 5,714 and when it’s all said and done, it will be a very difficult task for anyone to surpass Rivera once he decides to call it a day.

For argument’s sake, let’s say that Rivera finishes this season with 5 additional saves and averages 40 saves over the next four seasons and retires at the age of 45.  That would bring his career total to 767.

Francisco Rodriguez’s save total currently stands at 291 and is serving as the Milwaukee Brewers’ set-up man behind closer John Axford.  Rodriguez will in all likelihood become a free agent after Milwaukee declines his $17.5M option.  K-Rod is still only 29 and will attempt to sign on with a team that offers him a long-term contract to become their closer.

For Rodriguez who will be 30 in 2012 to surpass Rivera’s estimate, he would have to pitch twelve more years at a rate of 40 saves per season.  That would bring K-Rod’s career total to 771.  There isn’t any guarantee that Rodriguez will be able to pitch Rivera’s current age of 41 or be anywhere near as consistent to continue closing at that age.

How about a more conservative example of Rivera deciding to pitch only two more years instead of four?  Using the 40 save per season guide, Rivera would finish with 687 if I include an estimated five additional saves of 2011.  Rodriguez then wouldn’t even equal Rivera’s potential mark if he averaged 40 saves over the next nine seasons at 651.  For all we know, K-Rod could be reduced to a set-up man or out of baseball entirely by the age of 38.

Once he retires, Rivera’s record will be a legitimately difficult one to break.  His consistency is something we celebrate today but it will look even more outstanding once his career is finished.  Mariano is simply the best all-time example of a closer and I’m certain we will not see another like him.

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Does Rivera’s record deserve greater praise from the baseball community?  Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartyLFC.