Mariano Rivera saved his 600th game on Tuesday night. That immediately led to people running their mouths about how he was THE BEST CLOSER EVER. But honestly, it shouldn’t have taken a round number to make this claim about Rivera. He’s been the best reliever in the game for years, and it has nothing to do with his impending dethroning of all-time saves king.
In his career, Rivera has thrown 1157 innings. That’s tenth among relievers since 1971, with only Jesse Orosco, John Franco, and Mike Timlin ahead of him on the list that have pitched in the past decade. He’ll pass Timlin next year, and Franco and Orosco in 2013, if he’s still around.
Of all relievers with at least 1000 innings thrown, Rivera ranks third in strikeout rate with a mark of 8.31, behind just Hoffman, Lee Smith, and Dan Plesac. His walk rate of 1.98 is also second lowest among the group, tied with Doug Jones and higher than just Dan Quisenberry. His 4.20 strikeout to walk ratio is best among all 1000 inning plus relievers as well. Hell, if you bump the threshhold down to 800 innings, only Dennis Eckersley has a better ratio than Rivera. There are a fewer players who have a lower home run rate than Rivera’s mark of 0.44, but none of those hitters are in the running for “the best ever”.
But what about the most important (cough cough) part of a pitcher’s game, ERA? Rivera’s career ERA is 2.06. To find a reliever with a better career ERA than that, you need to take the minimum innings all the way down to 160, where you’ll find Jonny Venters and Andrew Bailey, in their second and third seasons respectively. Rivera has a lower career ERA than every reliever ever who stayed in the big leagues for more than three seasons. Whether or not you like the stat, that’s a pretty impressive feat.
For the stat loving crowd, Rivera has a 2.66 FIP. No reliever with more than 500 career innings has a better mark. If you go any lower than that, you find guys like Rob Dibble and Jonathan Papelbon, each only veterans of seven seasons apiece.
Finally, let’s look at a stat that looks at a player’s overall value: WAR. According to Fangraphs, Rivera has accumulated 38.3 WAR over his career. The next highest mark on that list for relievers is Goose Gossage at 29.7. Over his career, Rivera has accumulated close to 30% more value than Gossage, who was the prototypical ace reliever during his career. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2008. In recent years, a few relievers have gotten into the Hall of Fame. Aside from Gossage, we’ve seen guys like Bruce Sutter and Dennis Eckersley get elected. Sutter was worth just 22.3 WAR as a reliever in 100 less innings, while Eckersley was worth 20.6 as a reliever, but also had a lot of value as a starting pitcher.
Is Rivera the best reliever of all-time? Unquestionably. Is he going to go to the Hall of Fame? No doubt. What does his candidacy mean for other relievers? Lee Smith has never gotten any traction in getting elected, despite being third all-time in both saves at 478 and WAR at 28.1. Billy Wagner is fourth all-time in WAR with a 24.7 mark, and he’s got the highest strikeout rate of all-time among pitchers with at least 500 innings while only Rivera has a lower career ERA. He’ll make it as well. But what about the current, and soon to be former, save king in Trevor Hoffman? He’ll probably make the hall, based strongly on the “round number” of 600 saves. But he compares more to Smith than to Rivera, and if one belongs, the othe does as well. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works in baseball.