Friday, May 4, 2012

The Crossroads of Stats and Being a Fan

Mariano Rivera will probably never throw another pitch for the Yankees after tearing his ACL yesterday in Kansas City. This sudden, shocking twist of events has amplified and accelerated the discussion of his career. Rivera's career can be looked at in two ways: one, he plays an overrated position and while he is the greatest ever at his position it doesn't mean much, or two, he was a centerpiece to one of baseball's greatest dynasties, a stoic force that vanquished opponents' chances one cut fastball at a time.

How you view Rivera's career probably says a lot about how you look at baseball. If you take the view of SABRmetrics you might say that Rivera's 39.4 career WAR is less than JD Drew's. Or you might argue that the save is a ridiculous stat that should be abolished and closers aren't as valuable as fifth starters. A more casual fan might say that Rivera shortened every game he entered and his steady consistency was a dramatic part of his success and the Yankees' five championships. (A major league manager might say this). Personally, I fall somewhere between the two.

I understand the rational arguments against the closer position and think that Rivera was probably overrated and overpaid (although the Yankees don't give a shit about overpaying). On the other hand, as a fan of the sport, Rivera's dominance over the past fifteen years cannot be measured just by numbers. You don't have to be a Yankees fan to appreciate Rivera and his impact for the team. Would they have won five World Series without him? It's impossible to say, but ask any Braves fan about Mark Wohlers or Indians fan about Joe Table  blowing playoff leads. Having a dominant bullpen makes a huge difference in the playoffs, especially when Rivera would routinely throw multiple innings. Rivera threw 140 innings in the playoffs with an ERA of .70. I can confidently say that that level of dominance will never be matched by any other closer. In 96 playoff appearances he had one loss. Those numbers are fucking ridiculous and to think that Trevor Hoffman could put up those same stats is absurd (Hoffman amazingly has more postseason losses than Rivera in only 12 appearances). Rivera stood head and shoulders above every closer of his era and he did it for a team that was always fighting for a playoff spot in the pressure cooker of New York.

I also subscribe to the human element of baseball, something that I don't think stats can accurately measure. Having a dominant closer instills confidence in pitchers who know they don't have to go seven or eight innings and puts pressure on the opposing hitters to score runs before Rivera enters the game. These subtle factors add up over the course of a season and matter even more in the playoffs. I watched teams, with the notable exception of the Red Sox (and only after about a decade of failure against #42), give up in the 9th. Other closers have been able to come close (sorry) to that level of dominance with Eric Gagne and John Smoltz coming to mind, but never for 15 consecutive years. If Rivera has in fact played his last game in the majors we shouldn't focus on the closer position, or his WAR, but enjoy his dominance. He pitched the 9th, and sometimes the 8th, inning better than anyone in the history of baseball for 15 years while winning five championship and that's what counts.

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