When he began spring training by announcing that 2013 will be his final year in baseball, New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera turned his season into a retirement tour, the likes of which will likely not have been seen since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s teammates gave him a Rolls-Royce. Rivera will justifiably go down as the greatest relief and postseason pitcher of all time, but he also has a less laudable legacy — changing how closers are paid and bullpens are managed in ways that completely missed the point of what made him so great and successful. The overpayment and misuse of the modern closer might be the greatest bane of the Internet baseball fan, and a lot of it is Mo’s fault for being so good.
Rivera was so good, and on such good teams, that it was hard for baseball executives to grasp just how much better (and luckier, in some senses) he was than his peers. Rivera’s numbers do his greatness a considerable amount of justice, of course: an all-time best 608 saves and five Rolaids Relief Man of the Year awards (tied with Dan Quisenberry — yes, that Dan Quisenberry) to go with his five rings, plus a 0.70 ERA in 141 postseason innings. “Jimmy, back in my day,” we’ll say to our grandkids, “there was a man who let fewer men score runs on him in the postseason (11) than have walked on the moon (12).” (Jimmy will want to know why people walked on the moon when the roller coasters on Mars are “so much cooler.”)
When you have success on as big a stage as Rivera had, you’ll have imitators. And when you produce something like the Yankees did with Rivera or, let’s say, what Apple did with the iPhone, competitors will often try to imitate the end product rather than go through the longer and harder task of recreating the process you used to get to it. But hasty imitations of wildly effective and popular items aren’t usually successful themselves — Samsung’s touch-screen smartphone products haven’t sold that well, and they lost a $1 billion lawsuit to Apple for patent infringement. There are a lot of Samsung equivalents among non-Mariano major league closers.
Nearly every single major contract given to closers after Rivera signed his own contracts in 2001, 2003, 2007 and 2011 could be seen as a result of the market he set, as teams scrambled to acquire their own knockoff version of him. $10 million a year became the “going rate” for “big time” closers following Mo’s first payday, and money has piled up ever since for those lucky enough to accumulate monstrous saves numbers and not fall off the face of the earth until after signing their free-agent contract. Of the eight contracts in the article linked above, for example, only Joe Nathan’s and Brad Lidge’s could be said to have been worthwhile for their teams, and while the Phillies got a trophy with Lidge closing, they also had to endure his 7.21 ERA the next year. The rest range from epic flops (Toronto’s B.J. Ryan, who barely played at all) to solid performers on teams for whom the money might have been spent a lot more effectively elsewhere (Cincinnati’s Francisco Cordero). The most glaring example of failed Mariano me-too-ism, though, is — because the Sports Gods feast on the sadness of Mets fans — Billy Wagner’s 5 year, $10.75 million-per-year contract from 2005.
Wagner’s deal was not-so-coincidentally the highest ever for a closer on a per year basis, topping Rivera’s 2003 raise by $250,000 annually. Wagner was brought in to play across the East River from Rivera, a splash signing by splash-signing specialist Omar Minaya, who is no longer the Mets GM because of contracts like Wagner’s. Wagner even caused a pseudo-controversy in New York by taking the mound to Mariano’s signature “Enter Sandman” riff. His save totals dropped from 40 to 34 to 27 in the first three years of the contract as a competitive Mets team got progressively worse, and then he got injured and traded to Boston. Meanwhile, Mariano was re-signed in 2007 to a 3-year, $45 million contract, and the Yankees won the World Series two years later. The point isn’t that Billy Wagner was a bad pitcher, because he wasn’t. The point is that those Mets had other weaknesses; their money could have been better spent, and Wagner used effectively in situations besides ninth innings when the team had a lead. The Yankees, without Rivera, would still have been a top-tier team, and they can put as much into their payroll as they feel like — paying, for example, other talented relievers to handle jams earlier in the game, saving Rivera for the finish.
Many Mariano imitators are much worse investments than Wagner, who had a great career. Lots of pitchers can put up a nice ERA and a lot of saves pitching 60 innings in a year; you shouldn’t pay them like Mariano Rivera unless you think they can do it sixteen years in a row like he did. ERA fluctuates a lot when you don’t pitch that frequently. There are better indicators of consistency, like strikeout-to-walk ratio (Mo’s is 4.0397, 4th all time) or baserunners let on each inning (.9998 WHIP, 2nd). And save totals are, of course, a notoriously flaky way to judge a pitcher’s quality. Mo’s astronomical number of saves is tied to the astronomical number of save chances created by his Yankees teams’ consistently superb rotations and powerful offenses, which have allowed them to set up their bullpen for the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings with the lead in quite a few games over the last two decades. The Yankees have had the luxury of being able to win a lot while using Rivera, their best reliever, nearly exclusively in those ninth innings. (They do get credit for being unafraid to bring him into the eighth in big games.)
Mariano didn’t pioneer the hyped-up one-inning closer role — we can probably blame that on Dennis Eckersley and Tony LaRussa — but the fact that the Yankees were so successful with Rivera working in that capacity certainly didn’t encourage other teams to experiment with their relievers. The Red Sox, to name another team working in the psychological shadow of the Yankees at the time, tried to debut a situational-closer system in 2003 only to torpedo the idea amidst a hurricane of fan and media anger when they allowed a ninth-inning game-losing home run in their first game of the year.
It’s understandable that GMs have had trouble grasping just how big the gap between Rivera and other would-be closers is, given that they won’t get 90% of his production by paying someone with 90% of his ERA 90% as much. Jerry Rice is probably the major-sport figure closest to being the best ever at his position by the distance that Rivera is. But there are still a lot of other wide receivers in the Hall of Fame. Mo’s peers at closer are Trevor Hoffman, Eckersley, some not-quite-Cooperstown types (Lee Smith has gotten more than 50% of the Hall of Fame vote but seems unlikely to get the 75% needed to make it in) and a lot of flashes in the pan.
This is actually a reason for optimism for fans of enlightened bullpens. There are other relievers who earn their big paychecks — the Phillies’ Jonathan Papelbon is one, and the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel appears set to be — but none that have the psychological hold over the league and its fans that Rivera does. Now that Rivera’s status as the Ideal Relief Pitcher toward which all teams aspire won’t loom over the league, it will be easier for managers to play around with situational closers, or use their best reliever in the seventh inning, or for GMs to go through a make-or-break offseason without committing $55 million to a wild-throwing retread who happened to spend the last half-season getting lucky in the ninth. It’ll be a tough year for Yankees fans, and the playoffs won’t be the same without Mo, but everyone rooting for another team (and for more exciting, and forward-looking baseball in general) can find a reason to cheer the exit of the Sandman.