Bill Plaschke: Mariano Rivera is great, but let's not overdo it
Then all hell broke loose.
Mariano Rivera, the New York Yankees legendary reliever, recorded his 602nd career save Monday afternoon against the Minnesota Twins to set baseball’s new career record, and suddenly he is Whitey Ford! Make that Lou Gehrig! Actually, no, he’s Babe Ruth!
The praise, which has been flying as furiously as his signature cut fastball, is also just as baffling.
Mariano Rivera is certainly the greatest relief pitcher ever, with a record 89% save percentage and the lowest career ERA (2.22) and WHIP (1.00) of all pitchers since the 1920s. He is also one of baseball’s greatest pressure players ever, with a record 0.71 postseason career ERA to accompany his record 42 postseason saves.
But one of the greatest pitchers or players ever? A guy whose records are comparable to those legendary marks held by Joe DiMaggio and Pete Rose? Have we completely lost our ability to count?
A baseball game is 27 outs. Over the span of the average career, a decent starting pitcher records 15 of those outs. The great ones record 18 outs.
Rivera has recorded an average of barely more than three outs, with 1,209 innings pitched in 1,039 games.
Put it another way: How can Mariano Rivera be Cy Young if he’s never even won a Cy Young Award?
Some of the furor over Rivera’s record can be attributed to geography. He plays for baseball’s marquee team in its biggest market, and no media are more parochial -– nice or nasty -– than the New York media. Some of the furor can be attributed to timing: Rivera has pitched on Yankees teams that have won five world championships. That postseason save record is cool but, well, how many other relievers have had as many postseason chances?
I remember the celebration in San Diego when Trevor Hoffman, whose 601 saves were eclipsed Monday, broke Lee Smith’s career record with his 479th save in 2006. His teammates mobbed him, his fans applauded him, and that was it. It was a nice mark by a nice player who, like Rivera, is considered an extremely nice guy.
But nobody suddenly compared Hoffman to Randy Johnson. Nor should anyone compare Rivera to Greg Maddux or Pedro Martinez or even Curt Schilling. That’s like comparing innings to oranges. It just doesn’t compute.
After Rivera, 41, retires, he will certainly warrant first-ballot entry into baseball’s Hall of Fame. But once inside, he will join a small group, as the Hall of Fame has only five relievers among 68 pitchers.
You can’t fool history. Mariano Rivera is the greatest reliever ever, but it is wrong to classify him as one of the greatest of anything else.
Photo: Mariano Rivera. Credit: Justin Lane / EPA