Monday, March 10, 2014

"Mariano Rivera -- An Unpopular Opinion" by Dad


     Let me first say flat out: I have huge personal respect for Mariano Rivera. Through a long career in a tough town, he carried himself with the greatest possible class. I am moved by the story of his asking Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel, whether it was okay with her that he was the last player still wearing Jackie’s number 42. Her response, and I paraphrase, “I’m so pleased you’re the last player ever to wear Jackie’s number. You are the greatest possible ambassador for Jackie’s values."  




     And I agree completely.
     That said, I’m afraid it also has to be said that to be the greatest closer ever is simply to be the best pitcher not good enough to be an elite starter.
     Let’s go back to the mid ‘90s. At the beginning of their careers, it wasn’t clear for either Rivera or Andy Pettitte whether they’d be starters or relievers. In fact, at that early point, it seemed more likely that Rivera would be groomed to be a starter and Pettitte relegated to the bullpen. And relegated was the word back then. 
     Then a few things happened, the most important for Pettitte being that he developed a curve, which rounded out the assortment of pitches he needed to be a starter.  Rivera never mastered the 2 or 3 plus-pitches a starter needs, which left him the bullpen as his only option, where of course he mastered the cutter that became his ticket to closing. And as closers go, there’s never been a better one than Rivera.
     But does anyone really believe that any elite starter couldn’t close? Is there anyone who doesn’t think that Clayton Kershaw or Steven Strasburg couldn’t save 45 games a year?
     Doubters need only consider the cases of John Smoltz and Dennis Eckersley, the only pitchers ever to have won 20 games in one season and saved 50 in another. Smoltz was an elite starter who had Tommy John surgery and spent the next three years as the best closer in the National League. Then, when he’d regained sufficient arm strength, he went back to starting and had a good, long second run as a starter. And Eckersley went to the bullpen only after reaching the end of a long and successful run as a starter. His bullpen numbers may well have been the more important factor in his induction to the Hall of Fame.
     To close (pun intended), there are just a few simple truths at work here: First, if you have a Clayton Kershaw, you’d rather run him out there for 200 innings a year than for 60.  Second, a pitcher with one pitch can’t face a batting order twice in the same game, and so can’t be a starter. But third and finally, if that one pitch is a dominant one, it may still be enough to be a closer.
   Which all leads to the simplest truth of all: A dominant closer isn’t as good a pitcher as an elite starter.