It’s amazing how smart you can make someone look if you dumb things down enough. New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera has been hailed as a baseball god this week for breaking the all-time saves record, and it’s true that no one has ever been better at doing what he does: pitching one inning in relief without giving up three runs.
It is a special skill to jump over the lowest hurdle again and again without ever tripping. But is it the stuff of Willie Mays and Babe Ruth, or even Greg Maddux? The truth is, if you can’t throw one inning without giving up three runs, then you don’t even belong in the big leagues.
That has been a huge portion of Rivera’s 603 saves. The save has come to mean something totally different from what it did years ago, from what it did even 15 years ago. Yet his save total is being used to measure him through history, to judge him better than the past, when the guy who closed the game might come in during the seventh inning, bases loaded, no outs, one-run lead.
“I used to love that,’’ said Goose Gossage, Hall of Fame reliever. “They used to use and abuse us, but think of the pressure. You couldn’t even let them put the ball in play.
“But when I pitched the ninth inning to save a three-run lead, coming in with no one on base, I felt guilty. I would go home and be embarrassed. Rivera is an awesome pitcher, but what he’s doing is easy. It really is.’’
This isn’t to doubt the greatness of Rivera, one of the best relief pitchers of all time. He might even be The Best, though there is no way of knowing because his all-time status is attached to his saves number.
He will probably end up with more than Rollie Fingers and Gossage combined, though Fingers and Gossage are his equals in the best-ever argument. Maybe Bruce Sutter, too.
The problem isn’t with Rivera; it’s with the save itself. And it’s with an ESPN mentality that sells the “wow’’ factor and insists that the best today is better than the best ever was before. The numbers and rules and statistics are perverted to prove it.
We need a little perspective on Rivera. The past is the place to find it.
“Mariano Rivera is a great relief pitcher,’’ Gossage said, and then he paused a couple of seconds and added, “In the modern sense. What he did and what we used to do is apples and oranges. It’s not fair to compare what closers today do with what we did.’’
The truth is, Rivera’s number is a fraud. Rivera isn’t. The number is.
The entire save statistic is a mistake, at least the way it’s figured and fabricated.
The statistic itself is on steroids, built up and bloated to produce much more than it should, to create a real and marketable excitement over false accomplishments.
And it is just another example of our need — mostly the media’s — to tell us that what we’re seeing now is bigger and better than anything before. Ever!
That isn’t right.
But Rivera has 603 saves. Gossage had 310. Fingers had 341.
“Rollie Fingers is the greatest relief pitcher I’ve ever seen,’’ Gossage said. “The save, the way it’s being used today . . . it’s convoluted. When you’ve got a three-run lead and you come in in the ninth inning, if you can’t save that game, then you’re in trouble. You’re not very good.’’
Gossage might sound like one of those old-timers who insists that everything was better in his day. He is forced to fight the modern mentality. But in his case, he’s right.
Do you think anyone will ever get to 600 saves again?
“Abso-freaking-lutely,’’ Gossage said, only he used a different F-word. “Four or five of us in the past would have gotten there if we’d have been used the way they use these guys now, just to get saves.’’
That includes all, or almost all, of Gossage’s, Fingers', Sutter’s, Sparky Lyle’s, Dan Quisenberry’s and Lee Smith’s careers. Those are the guys Gossage kept mentioning.
Just like Rivera, they all could get saves for finishing a game when they pitched the final three innings; or when they entered with the tying run on base, at bat or on deck; or when they threw at least one inning with no more than a three-run lead.
The stat was created by legendary Chicago baseball writer Jerome Holtzman, who correctly thought there needed to be some better way to measure relief pitchers. Back then, as Gossage pointed out, the bullpen was just a junk pile of washed-up starters who couldn’t throw nine innings anymore, or guys who weren’t quite good enough to start.
Slowly, relievers developed a real value. But then a strange thing happened. The save stat actually changed the game, instead of reflected it.
Pitchers became specialists, and managers began to use their relievers in ways to get the save.
“They didn’t want to be second-guessed,’’ Gossage said. “I was there for the whole evolution of relief pitchers. Managers wanted to be able to say that they did the right thing, they put in their closer to close. They go by a big Bible of how to use relievers now. Righty faces righty. Lefty faces lefty. Face one batter. Don’t use a closer more than one inning. They use three guys now to do what we used to do by ourselves, two setup guys and a closer.
“They’d put me in when we were losing by a run, with men on base, because they needed to get that out. If we had a three-run lead going into the ninth, they didn’t even put me in. Anyone can finish that. Today, if a closer comes in in the eighth inning, it makes headlines. It’s embarrassing.’’
So we called Stats LLC to see whether Gossage knew what he was talking about. How many of Rivera’s 603 saves came when he threw just one inning, entering a game with a three-run lead and no one on base? How many in the same situation with a two-run lead? And what about the same numbers for Gossage?
Here are the numbers:
Rivera has had 291 saves in which he pitched one inning, entering a game with no one on base and a three-run lead (129 times) or a two-run lead (162 times). That accounts for almost half of his saves.
Gossage? Thirty-three times (13 with a three-run lead and 20 with a two-run lead). That accounts for about 11 percent of his saves.
Gossage saved 52 games in which he recorded seven outs or more.
How many times has Rivera done that?
Trevor Hoffman, whose record Rivera broke, did it twice.
During the evolution of the save, it has been only about 15 years since most saves came after throwing one inning or less.
The stat has not stood the test of time, and that has made it appear that Gossage hasn’t, either. It took him nine years to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame, because his spot in history was attached to a number, 310, that didn’t look impressive anymore after he retired. And now, a bigger and better number comes up from the greatest reliever of this generation, and the narrative insists that the number tells a story through history.
You know, in some ways, it’s not even fair to Rivera. He has been turned into a ninth-inning specialist thanks to a faulty statistic.
When he broke the record against the Minnesota Twins on Monday, he came into the ninth inning with a two-run lead, nobody out. With his unhittable cutter, you just knew the record was his. Thirteen pitches later, he had the save.
What had he saved exactly?
Rivera has been used for longer stretches in the postseason and been brilliant then, too. Imagine the thrill of watching him in the seventh, bases loaded, one out, tie game. Who knows what he could have done if we hadn’t dumbed things down.
But instead, we might have actually shortchanged his greatness.