Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Greatness Defined

(The G.O.A.T.  Courtesy of EPA)

I touched on it briefly yesterday after he recorded out number 3 to officially set the MLB all-time saves record, but Mariano Rivera and the record he set yesterday deserves more than just one short paragraph, so we'll kick off today's AB4AR schedule with some more praise for the man, the myth, the legend.

Like I said yesterday, there are all kinds of numbers and milestones in baseball that really don't mean anything.  For example, ESPN devoted air time last week to mentioning Tim Wakefield's 200th career win and Johnny Damon's 400th career stolen base.  No disrespect to either of those guys, but those aren't really records and they really don't mean shit in the grand scheme of things.  They're nice numbers that were achieved through longevity more than baseball excellence, and while that does merit some recognition, it doesn't merit as much as Mo's record because Mo's is a combination of both longevity and excellence.

After already being anointed as the greatest at his position in the history of the game, Mo reached a statistical level that supports that greatness yesterday.  His record allows him to sit atop the closer mountain and look down upon all his peers, not be lumped in with a group of other players, no matter how small and exclusive the group is.  Sure, A-Rod can say it's great to be a part of the 600-HR Club and likewise Jeter with the 3,000-Hit Club, but those are still clubs and neither of those guys is at the top.  Mo's "club" is far more exclusive, just 2 members, and he's the #1 member after yesterday.  Overrated or not as a statistic, there is something to be said for the greatest closer of all time also having the most saves of all time.  Having that record associated with Mo actually gives more importance to the record rather than it being the other way around.

Beyond just the record itself, though, it's the way he reached it that truly separates Mo from the rest of his competition and from the rest of the record breakers in Major League history.  After being dominant for the entirety of his career leading up to this season, and at an age where most other players are long retired, Mo is not only still playing, but still playing at the highest level.  His cutter might not sit mid-90s like it used to, but he has adapted to that fact and his drop-off in production has been negligible as he's aged, that is if you even consider his numbers over the last few seasons to be a drop off.  He is 41 years old and still the undisputed gold standard when it comes to measuring modern closers.

And not even modern closers.  Another aspect of Mo's career that makes him so incredible is his workload.  If you really look at the numbers and consider it, Mo can be looked at as the bridge between the multi-inning, rubber-armed first generation of closers from the 70s and 80s and the almost always strictly 1-inning specialists of today.  Mo started out as a fireballing multi-inning setup man for John Wetteland and when he transitioned to the closer role he maintained that reputation as a guy who could be called on 4, 5, 6, and sometimes more outs if needed.  He was old school, the fireman, setup guy, and close all in one.  Even in these last few years, as his age has increased and fastball velocity has dropped off, Mo still has the ability to go out and get more than 3 outs when his manager needs him to, and Joe won't think twice about going down that route in this postseason if he has to.

That's the kind of confidence Mo has inspired over his career, a closer whose role isn't defined by just the 9th inning.  And it's the success he's had as a hybrid old school/new school-style closer that has fostered that confidence and fostered that reputation.  There are very few closers in today's game who will get that call, and even fewer than can consistently deliver in that multi-inning, 3+-out situation.  Mo always has been one of those few and still is today.  He's the kind of closer that fans and former players from any generation can appreciate.

Baseball is largely a game of failure.  You can make the perfect pitch and still give up a home run, you can hit the ball right on the screws and still make an out, and you can fail 70% of the time at the plate and be an All Star.  Even knowing all that, it still comes as a shock to every Yankee fan when Mariano Rivera fails to convert a save.  He has been as close to automatic as any closer can be from Day 1, and because of that we expect him to convert every time and never even consider the likelihood and reality that he's NOT going to convert every time, he's NOT going to convert every save opportunity because that's how baseball works.  He is no less human and no more infallible than any other closer who's ever pitched the 9th inning, and yet he is the only closer who elicits such a strong response when he DOESN'T come through.  That, my friends is true greatness.  When you succeed so much that it starts to get taken for granted, and only your failures, however minute, infrequent, and completely normal as they may be, register in the minds of your fans.  And that is the level of greatness that Mariano Rivera has achieved.  He's as close to a sure thing as there is in baseball, and in all likelihood nobody will ever come close to reaching that level of prolonged success and excellence again.

Babe Ruth was great at hitting home runs.  Rickey Henderson was great at stealing bases.  And Pete Rose was great at collecting hits.  But none of them measure up to Mo when it comes to trying to compare and standardize individual performance in the game of baseball.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, Mariano Rivera is the best in the history of baseball at executing one part of the game, and the undisputed greatest closer ever.  And when you're talking about the greatest closer ever, it's only fitting that he should hold the record for the stat that defines closers.  Congratulations, Mo, on reaching the record.  And I think I speak for all Yankee fans and all baseball fans in general when I say that I want to see you continue to do this for as long as you want.

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