The following article is the first part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2018 Hall of Fame ballot. It has been adapted from The Cooperstown Casebook, published in 2017 by Thomas Dunne Books. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
Nobody closed the door like Mariano Rivera. The wiry, unflappable Panamanian not only set the all-time record for saves (652), he prevented runs at a greater clip relative to his league than any other pitcher. Yet neither of those accomplishments capture his brilliance in October. During Rivera’s 19-year-career, the Yankees missed the playoffs just twice, and for all of his regular season dominance, he was even better when the stakes were the highest, helping the Yankees to five championships. He was the last man standing on the mound an unprecedented four times, securing the final outs of the World Series in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009.
Rivera did all of this while relying almost exclusively on one pitch, a cut fastball discovered almost by accident in 1997, his first year as closer. Even when batters knew what was coming — and at speeds as high as 98 mph in his younger days, it was coming fast — they could rarely predict its sideways movement well enough to make hard contact. If they connected at all, they often broke their bats. Teammates and opponents marveled at the success of the pitch, while writers placed it in the pantheon of great signature offerings, alongside Nolan Ryan’s fastball, Roger Clemens’ splitter, Sandy Koufax’s curve, Steve Carlton’s slider, Pedro Martinez’s changeup, and Hoyt Wilhelm’s knuckleball.
Debates have long raged over how to value relievers and determine their fitness for the Hall of Fame, no small task given that just six are enshrined, as much for their roles in shifting the paradigm for closers as for the numbers they racked up. Yet Rivera’s case shuts those debates down like they’re opponents trailing by three runs in the ninth inning of a playoff game. He’s so far ahead of the field on so many levels that one could argue he’s the lone reliever outside the Hall worthy of entry, and as the top newcomer on the 2019 ballot, he’ll likely become just the second reliever to gain first-ballot entry, after Dennis Eckersley (2004).
|Avg HOF RP||38.1||26.5||32.3||27.7||19.2|
Born in Panama City, Panama on November 29, 1969, Rivera was raised 25 miles west of the capital in Puerto Caimito, a fishing village of about 17,000. While soccer was his first love, he played baseball on the beach with makeshift equipment such as tennis balls, milk cartons, and tree branches. At 16, he dropped out of high school to work on his father’s commercial fishing boat, but an accident at sea, during which he was injured and his uncle killed, intensified his desire to escape a life of fishing. Baseball became his way out.
As a scrawny, 155-pound amateur shortstop, Rivera caught the eye of Royals bird dog scout Herb Raybourn at the national 18-to-25 tournament in La Chorrera in 1988. A year later, after Raybourn had become the Yankees’ director of Latin American operations, he saw Rivera volunteer to pitch in the tournament, and fell in love with the 20-year-old’s athleticism and the movement of his pitches despite his pedestrian 85-to-87 mph velocity. He signed Rivera for a $2,000 bonus in February 1990, and later that year signed his cousin Ruben, an outfielder who played nine years in the majors.
Rivera pitched well in the low minors, winning the Gulf Coast League ERA title with a 0.17 mark, aided by a seven-inning no-hitter in his final start. Injuries slowed his progress, however, most notably a 1992 surgery to fix nerve damage in his elbow. By the start the of the 1995 season, he was 25 and in Triple-A, with a 88-90 mph fastball and decent secondary pitches — a fringe prospect. Recalled for his debut on May 23 against the Angels, he didn’t escape the fourth inning, and was demoted after compiling a 10.20 ERA in four starts. Later that month, his fastball suddenly skyrocketed into the 95-96 range according to organizational reports, and Yankees general manager Gene Michael cut off trade talks with the Tigers, who showed interest in Rivera as part of a return for David Wells once a Detroit scout confirmed the velocity.
While Rivera struck out 11 White Sox in eight innings after being recalled on July 4, he couldn’t replicate that success in five further starts, and spent most of September in the bullpen. Despite finishing with a 5.51 ERA, he made the roster for the Yankees’ first postseason appearance since 1981, but it took a level of desperation for manager Buck Showalter to call upon the rookie. In the 12th inning of Game 2 of the Division Series against the Mariners, Rivera earned the win with 3.1 shutout innings and five strikeouts. He made two other scoreless appearances, though the second was too late — in the eighth inning of Game 5, immediately after David Cone had walked in the tying run with his 147th pitch. Though Rivera extricated them from a bases-loaded jam, the Yankees lost the game and the series in the 11th inning via Edgar Martinez’s double.
Rivera very nearly wound up a Mariner himself. After starting shortstop Tony Fernandez suffered a season-ending right elbow fracture in March 1996, the Yankees were concerned their 1992 first-round pick, a 21-year-old named Derek Jeter, wasn’t quite ready. They considered sending Rivera to Seattle for shortstop Felix Fermin, but the trade was never consummated; Jeter ended up winning AL Rookie of the Year.
Rivera fared well, too. Under new manager Joe Torre, he broke camp with the team and by late April had graduated to a setup role, often pitching two or even three innings in front of closer John Wetteland. He sparkled in the role (2.09 ERA, 107.2 innings, 130 strikeouts); his 5.0 WAR hasn’t been surpassed by a reliever since. The Yankees won 92 games and the AL East, and Rivera added 14.1 innings in the postseason while allowing just one run. His two innings in Game 6 of the World Series against Atlanta, protecting a one-run lead, helped clinch the Yankees’ first championship since 1978.
The Yankees let Wetteland, the World Series MVP, depart in free agency. Rivera struggled upon assuming the closer role, blowing three of his first six save chances in 1997. Torre stuck with him nonetheless. While in Detroit in late June, Rivera serendipitously discovered his signature pitch while playing catch with teammate Ramiro Mendoza, who became upset when the closer’s throws kept veering to his right. Utilizing the same grip, Rivera worked with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre on the discovery, a pitch that broke away late from right-handed batters, and in on lefties. Rivera saved all three games in Detroit, and the rest is history. “A gift from God” he called it. As former Yankees beat writer Buster Olney described it:
“Most pitchers release the fastball with their fingers draped over the top of the ball, essentially aimed straight at the catcher. But Rivera throws his cutter with the index and middle fingers of his right hand tilted slightly inward — as if he is pointing at eleven on the face of the clock, rather than twelve o’clock. That means that while the ball is flying toward the hitter, it actually is rotating sideways, spinning backward… It is like a car skidding across ice, the front veering to the side, the whole thing fishtailing… The movement on the cutter comes so late on its trip to home plate that most hitters are not even aware of it until their bat shatters in their hands.”
Rivera finished his inaugural year as closer with a 1.88 ERA in 71.2 innings, with 43 saves in 52 opportunities, not to mention his first All-Star appearance. The Yankees won the AL Wild Card, and while he saved the Division Series opener against the Indians, he faltered in Game 4, serving up the tying home run to Sandy Alomar Jr. in the bottom of the eighth on a high fastball (not a cutter); they would lose that contest and Game 5. For as crushing as the defeat could have been, Rivera remained stoic, buttressed by both his religious faith and confidence in his own ability. Of the hitters who would beat him, he told Olney, “You can’t let them get to you. You have to be the same, no matter what.” Remarkably, Rivera would allow just one more postseason home run over the remainder of his career, a span totaling 119.1 innings.
That 1997 season kicked off a remarkable 15-year run over which Rivera posted a 2.01 ERA (223 ERA+) and 8.1 strikeouts per nine while averaging 69 innings, 40 saves and 3.2 WAR. He made 12 All-Star teams in that span, and placed as high as second in AL Cy Young voting. Only 11 pitchers topped his 48.4 WAR during that stretch, all of them starters, and all but one of whom threw at least twice as many innings as Rivera (1,036.2) in that span.
Rivera gained higher visibility in 1997 for another reason: For the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut, Major League Baseball retired his uniform number 42 league-wide, grandfathering the 14 players currently wearing it, including Rivera. He would outlast the others, and grow into the responsibility that came with the jersey number. “He carried himself with dignity and grace, and that made carrying the number a tribute to Jack,” said Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, in 2013.
The resilient Rivera rebounded from the Alomar home run in 1998. He didn’t allow his first run until his 11th appearance, on May 14, and didn’t allow his second until a month later, by which point the Yankees had opened up a 10-game lead in the AL East. They would set a modern record with 114 wins, outdistancing the Red Sox by 22 games in the division “race,” then went 11-2 in the postseason, sweeping the Padres in the World Series. Rivera saved 36 games in 41 chances with a 1.91 ERA, and didn’t allow a run in 10 postseason appearances totaling 13.1 innings. He secured the Yankees’ 24th championship by retiring Mark Sweeney on a weak groundball.
In 1999, inspired by the Padres’ use of AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” whenever closer Trevor Hoffman entered the game, the Yankee Stadium scoreboard staff began using Metallica’s rousing “Enter Sandman” to accompany Rivera’s entrances. Backed by that soundtrack, Rivera would nail down the Yankees’ 25th and 26th championships, sending the Braves and Mets off to never-never land in the next two years. He led the AL with 45 saves and posted a 1.83 ERA in 1999, and finished third in the AL Cy Young vote, but slipped to 2.85 with 36 saves in 2000 due in part to struggles with his command.
After an AL-high 50 saves in 2001, accompanied by eye-opening strikeout and walk rates (9.3 and 1.3 per nine, respectively), Rivera was poised to nail down championship number 27 when all hell broke loose. Protecting a 2-1 lead against the Diamondbacks in Game 7 of the World Series in Arizona, he allowed a leadoff single to Mark Grace, then committed a throwing error while trying to get the forceout at second on Damian Miller’s comebacker instead of taking the easy out at first. After forcing pinch-runner David Delluci at third on Jay Bell’s bunt, he surrendered a game-tying double to light-hitting Tony Womack, then hit Craig Counsell with a pitch. Despite breaking Luis Gonzalez’s bat, Gonzalez blooped the ball over the Yankees’ drawn-in infield, bringing home Bell with the series-winning run.
Undaunted, Rivera climbed off the mat again and continued to excel, though his 2002 season was plagued by injuries that sent him to the disabled list three times. He set a new career best with a 1.66 ERA in 2003 and produced an indelible highlight in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Red Sox. The Yankees had just rallied for three runs against a flagging Pedro Martinez in the bottom of the eighth inning, tying the score at 5-5. Rivera kept the Red Sox at bay for three innings before Aaron Boone hit a walkoff homer off of Boston’s Tim Wakefield in the 11th inning. The sight of the exhausted closer rushing to the mound to kneel, kiss the ground and thank God as Boone circled the bases produced the most famous photo of his career. Alas, Torre’s resistance to calling upon him in the extra innings of Game 4 against the upstart Marlins, after he’d made two scoreless appearances, proved the Yankees’ undoing, as the erratic Jeff Weaver allowed a walkoff homer to Alex Gonzalez in the 12th. Rivera didn’t pitch again that series.
Though he notched a career-high and AL-best 53 saves in 2004, Rivera had rough luck in that year’s ALCS rematch against the Red Sox. Called upon to protect a 4-3 lead in Game 4 — the potential clincher, as the Yankees had built up a three-games to none lead — he shut Boston down in the eighth inning, but allowed the tying run in the ninth, keyed by pinch-runner Dave Roberts’ famous stolen base; the Red Sox stayed alive with David Ortiz’s 12th-inning home run. Less than 24 hours later, Rivera blew another save when he entered another 4-3 game in the eighth with runners on first and third and none out. Jason Varitek’s sacrifice fly scored Roberts, and the Sox won in 14 innings on an Ortiz RBI single; they would win the next two games and sweep the World Series, their first championship since 1918.
It would take five more years for the Yankees to return to the World Series, as they suffered a few stunning early exits. Their return, in 2009, owed plenty to the contributions of free agents CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira joining the homegrown “Core Four” remaining from the 1998-2001 run, namely Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Jeter, and Rivera. The closers of seven of the eight postseason teams each blew at least one save, including those of the Twins, Angels and Phillies, the Yankees’ three opponents. Rivera, the only closer who did not, was the last man standing when Philadelphia’s Shane Victorino grounded out to end Game 6, giving the Yankees their elusive 27th championship.
Rivera turned 40 less than a month after that World Series, but remained as stifling as ever, finishing with ERAs below 2.00 each year from 2008-2011, with fewer than 10 walks in the two bookend seasons. On September 19, 2011, he saved his 602nd game, surpassing Hoffman for the record. His run of dominance was interrupted on May 3, 2012, when he tore his right ACL while shagging fly balls in Kansas City, a career-threatening injury for a 42-year-old. Rivera didn’t want to depart on that note; after arduously rehabbing, he returned the following spring and posted the numbers of a pitcher in his prime: 2.11 ERA, 44 saves, 6.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. They earned him a 13th All-Star berth as well as AL Comeback Player of the Year honors.
Teams around the league paid tribute to Rivera during his retirement tour, showering him with gifts, and Rivera returned the favor, spending hours meeting with specially selected groups of fans in the 17 cities he passed through — grieving families, children battling cancer, wounded warriors, survivors of some trauma or another. Rivera inspired those people, and in turn, drew inspiration from them. The end came on September 26, 2013, when manager Joe Girardi deputized Jeter and Pettitte to go the mound to pull Rivera from his final appearance, a mop-up effort for a team that had just been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. The waterworks flowed before the all-time saves leader doffed his cap and departed to an extended standing ovation.
As for Rivera’s spot in the Hall, first, it’s worth remembering that the six relievers already enshrined — Hoyt Wilhelm (elected 1985), Fingers (1992), Eckersley (2004), Bruce Sutter (2006), Gossage (2008), and Hoffman (2018) — are there as much because they reflect the evolution of the role as because of their numbers, including their save totals. Of that sextet, only Wilhelm, Fingers, and Hoffman have held the all-time record for saves, though Smith could join them via this year’s Today’s Game ballot. Having sketched out a history of relievers in the Hall in Smith’s profile earlier this month, I’ll avoid repeating myself here.
That said, whether judged on traditional or advanced stats, Rivera’s merits for a plaque in Cooperstown are clear. Beyond the saves record, the All-Star appearances, and the five World Series rings, three things stand out: his ERA relative to the league, his total of long saves, and his postseason record.
Rivera’s 2.21 ERA is not itself a record. He’s 13th among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings, well behind Ed Walsh’s 1.82 in 2,964.1 innings from 1904-1917. Walsh and the other 11 pitchers ahead of Rivera spent most or all of their careers in the 19th century or the dead-ball era, when scoring rates were low. Adjusting for park and league scoring environments, Rivera’s 205 ERA+ is tops by a wide margin — he allowed fewer than half the number of runs a league-average pitcher would have allowed over the same number of innings — with Clayton Kershaw second at 157 and Walsh 10th at 146. While I generally stick to Baseball-Reference’s index stats to accompany their WAR, FanGraphs’ way of expressing run prevention relative to the league makes more intuitive sense: Rivera’s 49 ERA- (49% of the park adjusted league average) is tops, with Kershaw second at 62.
Beyond Rivera’s sheer volume of saves is the degree of difficulty, given the way the job of relief ace has evolved from that of a multi-inning fireman who might enter games with runners on base in the seventh inning to that of the specialist who ideally pitches only the ninth inning, and only in save situations. For 119 of his 652 saves, he pitched more than one full inning, entering the ballgame in the eighth, usually with runners on base. Rivera’s total of long saves ranks “only” 11th (Fingers is first at 201), but of the 10 pitchers above him, only the career of Smith (who’s fourth at 169) overlapped with Rivera, and he last pitched in 1997. Of the pitchers from the post-1992 expansion era, Hoffman and Keith Foulke are tied for second behind Rivera, with 55 apiece, current candidate Billy Wagner had 36, and the active leader is Kenley Jansen with 30. Nobody is catching Rivera.
Torre and Girardi called upon Rivera for long saves with even greater frequency in October. Of his 42 postseason saves, 31 were of at least four outs; the next-highest total is Gossage’s seven, with Jansen (six) second in the Wild Card era. Seven of Rivera’s long postseason saves came in series clinchers, including the 1998 and 1999 World Series, but those performances are merely part of a larger, more jaw-dropping body of work: a 0.70 ERA in 141 postseason innings, equivalent to the workload of two seasons. He allowed just two homers and walked just 21 batters (four intentionally), a rate of 1.3 per nine, with 110 strikeouts (7.0 per nine). Nobody with more than 26 postseason innings has a lower ERA. No pitcher has more postseason appearances (96); Rivera’s former setup men Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton are a distant second and third with 55 and 53, respectively, while Brad Lidge is second in saves with 18 and Jansen third at 16. Granted, Rivera’s high totals are a function of playing within the expanded Wild Card-era playoff format, but they are impressive nonetheless.
Saves and ERA aren’t the only means of measuring reliever contributions, of course. One can do so with WAR, which illustrates that ever-more-specialized closers rarely approach the values of even above-average starters in a given season. In its Baseball-Reference version, WAR contains an adjustment for leverage — the quantitatively greater impact on winning and losing that a reliever has at the end of the ballgame than a starter does earlier — while measuring relievers against a higher replacement level than starters, since they allow fewer runs per nine innings. By that version of WAR, Rivera (56.2) trails only Eckersley (63.0) among pitchers who made more than half their appearances out of the bullpen, though the dirty little secret is that the bulk of the latter’s WAR was compiled during his early years as a starter, as was all of his peak score (38.1). Rivera’s 10 seasons of at least 3.0 WAR are nearly as many as the second-ranked Gossage (six) and third-ranked Foulke (five) put together.
Rivera’s 56.2 WAR would rank only 83rd all-time if measured against starting pitchers, between Orel Hershiser and 19th century hurler Jim Whitney. Hoffman, who had only 51 fewer saves than Rivera, was almost exactly half as valuable; his 28.0 WAR would tie for 311th among starters, with Reb Russell and Jack McDowell — nobody you’d put in Cooperstown. The peak scores of Rivera (28.7) and Hoffman (19.4) would stack up even less impressively if measured against starters, with Rivera tied for 256th with Milt Pappas, a hair below the lowest Hall of Fame starter, Rube Marquard. Meanwhile, Rivera’s 42.5 JAWS trails Eckersley’s 50.2 among relievers, but even if you exclude Eckersley in calculating the standard (which drops from 32.3 to 28.9), only Rivera, Wilhelm, and Gossage are above the bar, with Gossage the only other pitcher with a peak score (31.9) that surpasses Rivera’s. Smith (24.9 JAWS), Hoffman and Wagner (23.7 each) are well below either standard.
As the debate over incorporating leverage and its cousin, win expectancy, into reliever valuation has gone back and forth, so have I in using JAWS to gauge reliever fitness for the Hall. In recent years, with the candidacies of Hoffman, Wagner, and Smith in the spotlight, I’ve included two measures that reward the degree of difficulty, something that the save itself does not, namely Win Probability Added (WPA), which accounts for the incremental increase (or decrease) in chances of winning produced in each plate appearance given the inning, score, and base/out situation; and a related measure variably called situational wins or context-neutral wins, which incorporates leverage index as well, and is generally abbreviated WPA/LI.
Rivera holds commanding leads in both of those stats, and in a composite measure that also incorporates WAR, he towers over the field:
|Hall avg w/Eckersley||37.8||27.7||19.2||28.2|
|Hall avg w/o Eckersley||32.8||27.0||17.9||25.9|
Rivera is clearly a slam dunk by both traditional and advanced statistics, as well as being a player with a sterling reputation off the field. As I noted in my intro to the ballot, had the Hall of Fame allowed the BBWAA to follow through with its plan to publish every voter’s ballot, he had a puncher’s chance at becoming the first unanimous pick in the institution’s history. The Hall put the kibosh on that, however, and since the naysayers can still cloak themselves in anonymity — as they’ve done even for Ken Griffey Jr., who received a record 99.3% in 2016 — unanimity seems less likely, and that’s on top of the fact that some voters may be philosophically opposed to including relievers in the Hall, even the best in baseball history.
Still, Rivera appears to be lock to surpass Eckersley (83.2%) for the highest vote share for any reliever. It remains to be seen whether he can surpass Greg Maddux (97.2%) for a spot among the 10 highest shares of all time. That won’t mean he’s better than Maddux et al, or more deserving of enshrinement, but it will reflect a career — and a character — on whom so many can agree. See you in Cooperstown, Mariano.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.