Mariano Rivera is 40 years old, still pitching extremely well, and is first in baseball history in ERA+. Among active pitchers, he's ranked first in ERA, WHIP, H/9IP, K/BB, HR/9IP, WPA, and fielding percentage. (Go ahead and carefully re-read that last sentence.)
He's an 11-time All-Star, finished in the top 5 for the Cy Young 5 times, and received MVP votes in 9 different seasons.
He's also the career leader in post-season ERA (despite having more IP than every other pitcher in the top 10) and has been a part of 5 World Series championship teams.
The question of where Rivera ranks in all-time baseball history is a complex and muddled affair. He's clearly a Hall-of-Famer. But is he, perhaps, the best pitcher in the history of the game? Click through to discuss and vote in the poll.
Discussions of the "best ever" in sports are always difficult but perhaps none are more difficult than baseball pitchers. The way that pitchers are used has changed so dramatically that it's tough to compare pitchers today to pitchers from 100 years ago. Rivera is certainly the best closer in history but how can we go about evaluating him on the same scale as pitchers who threw complete games virtually every time out and didn't often have the benefit of a bullpen behind them?
Well, let's take a look at the stats such as they are and discuss further.
Here are the most seasons by a pitcher with an ERA+ of at least 200 (no minimum IP):
This list is dominated by closer-type pitchers. The only starters are Pedro Martinez and Walter Johnson. It's definitely the case that pitching fewer innings in a season helps a pitcher maintain an ERA so far below league-average and if Rivera averaged 200 IP per season (instead of 79 per 162 games) his career ERA would undoubtedly be higher.
So dropping the ERA+ requirement to a somewhat more human 170, here are the most seasons all-time:
Now we have the top 3 closers of the last 20 years (Rivera, Hoffman, and Wagner), a couple of earlier closers (Gossage and Wilhelm), a few top starts (two Johnsons, Clemens, Martinez) plus Henke and Benitez. This list is still heavily stilted towards closers.
Still, the dominance on all these lists by modern closers suggest that it's not a fair way of evaluating all pitchers.
Looking at cumulative career numbers, here are the ERA+ leaders among pitchers with 1000 career innings pitched:
|8||Smoky Joe Wood||146||1434.1||1908||1920||18-30||225||158|
This list is somewhat more balanced in terms of representing players from all eras. Two things occur to me:
1) Again, it's not really fair to compare Rivera with 1100+ innings to, say, Lefty Grove with nearly 4000 innings. Rivera's arm would be a lot more worn down if he threw 4 times as many pitches. It's impossible to think he'd have pitched nearly as well in so many more innings.
2) Still, though, his ERA+ lead is SO BIG over every other pitcher in history. His ERA could be increased by a significant percentage and he'd still lead all pitchers.
Here are the all-time WHIP leaders (minimum 1000 IP):
Here's where things start to get interesting. This list is completely dominated by players from the early 20th century (and a couple from even earlier.) Rivera, Hoffman, and Martinez are the only players to appear in MLB after 1928. They've played in a very high run-scoring environment. For Rivera and Hoffman, they've usually pitched with a slim lead, often faced pinch-hitters and never an opposing pitcher, and still rank among the all-time best in fewest Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched. Pretty amazing stuff, if you ask me. (As a caveat, both will likely see their WHIPs increase a bit before their careers end, although both also have the chance to rack up more seasons qualifying for the earlier lists in this post.)
Let's look at one more stat--Leverage Index. For those who don't know, the LI measures the importance of pitching situations by looking at how much the Win Probability for the pitcher's team can change in given situations. Here are the pitchers with the highest all time average LI (minimum 1000 IP):
Once again, this list is dominated by modern closers. (Keep in mind that WPA and LI data only goes back to, I think, 1950, so nobody before that even has a chance to appear here, but starting pitchers never make this leaderboard anyway since so many of their innings come early in games, which tend to be low-leverage situations, especially if the score is lop-sided.) The fact that closers dominate the list is a function of how they are used, just about always pitching in games with slim leads, and often being on the mound when their team either wins or loses the game. The importance here is to think about how difficult it is to pitch in these situations. The opposing team is within striking distance, trying their best to squeeze out one or two runs. These pitcher rarely got to pitch during 'garbage time' when rookies, pitchers, and defensive replacements were allowed to bat. They faced the best the opponent could send to the plate (within the confines of whichever part of the batting order happened to be up).
The bottom line is that Rivera has amassed the best numbers in MLB history, albeit over many MANY fewer innings than many other Hall-of-Fame quality pitchers, but also did it under just about the most difficult circumstances.
So, let's discuss below and please vote in the poll:
This entry was posted on Friday, August 13th, 2010 at 6:36 am and is filed under Season Finders. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.