Intro to Mariano Rivera: Baseball Haiku Poet

Mariano Rivera is an iconic baseball player. Here is how sportswriter Joe Posnanski describes Rivera:

“He is the best relief pitcher who ever lived. But he's also a failed starter. Baseball is such a fickle game. When I think of Rivera setting the save record, I think about how PERFECTLY he fits his era, his space, his team, his role. There are so few people who are ideal for their moment of time. John Wayne was, I think. Johnny Carson. Elvis. Lucille Ball. John Unitas. Michael Jackson. Seinfeld. Oprah. Michael Jordan. If they had come around in another era, in different circumstances, there's no telling how they might have expressed their talents, but it seems likely that they would not have inspired a generation.”

Those words are from a blog Posnanski wrote after Rivera recorded his 600th career save. Posnanski contextualized Rivera’s place in baseball history, pointing out that Rivera’s particular role of one-inning closer is a relatively recent development (circa 1985-1995, while the first professional baseball game was played in 1871). In another blog, Statistics and Stories, Posnanski points out that Rivera’s team, the New York Yankees, by far the most successful team in the history of baseball, figured out the importance of having a “closer” long before the term was coined, when there were just starting pitchers and relief pitchers. Since Rivera became their closer the Yankees have won 97.2 percent of games they led going into the ninth inning. From 1951 to 1964, before Rivera was born, the Yankees won 97.3 percent of games they led going into the ninth inning. During those 14 years 55 different pitchers saved games for them. Back then starting pitchers completed a good portion of their games. Teams carried fewer pitchers. Starting pitchers learned to pace themselves or burn out. The Yankees from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s were phenomenally successful. Between 1947 and 1964 they went to the World Series all but 3 years, in one of which (1954) they won 103 games, finishing in 2nd place. They won 10 championships. An interesting pitcher to compare to Mariano Rivera from that era is Allie Reynolds. In his time pitching for the Yankees in the World Series, where Mariano Rivera most excels, Reynolds won 5 complete game starts, had another 2 relief wins, and saved 4 games. In the World Series Rivera has 2 relief wins and 11 saves. Of course, Reynolds played at a time when postseason play consisted solely of the World Series. Today there are 2 extra playoff rounds, so in total Rivera has 8 postseason relief wins and 42 saves. Those numbers portray Rivera as a more limited pitcher than Reynolds, who, in the regular season won 182 games, had 137 complete games, 36 shutouts, and 49 saves. Obviously, Reynolds was primarily a starting pitcher. He led the American League in shutouts twice, strikeouts twice, ERA once, and in 1951 threw two no-hitters. Yet in 1953, a year after he won 20 games and led the league in ERA, strikeouts, and shutouts, Yankee manager Casey Stengel used him primarily out of the bullpen.  Stengel was very conscious of durability, using his best starting pitcher, Whitey Ford, mostly only against the Yankees’ toughest opponents. Stengel was tapping into the collective intensity of his pitching staff. He wanted his pitchers to be sharp and in command for as many games as possible during the regular season and for every inning and every pitch of the World Series. That level of intensity is attained differently today than in the days of Casey Stengel, Whitey Ford, and Allie Reynolds.

New York Post baseball columnist Joel Sherman considers Mariano Rivera the best baseball player of the past 40 years. Sherman, who began following baseball at the tail end of the careers of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, qualifies this judgment by stating steroids casts a cloud over players like Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. Sherman argues Rivera is better at what he does than any none-steroid suspected player of the period, leaving other closers in the dust. Sherman acknowledges Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Joe Morgan, and Ken Griffey, Jr. as great players, but claims Rivera had a bigger impact on winning games than they did. He cites as example Rivera’s 1996 season, the year before Rivera became a closer, wherein he pitched in middle relief.  The Yankees were 47-14 when Rivera pitched and 45-56 when he did not. Since becoming a closer in 1997 Rivera’s continued dominance straddles the careers of great starting pitches from the late 1990s/early 2000s (Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, and Randy Johnson) with the careers of current great starters (Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, and Johan Santana).  Rivera’s consistent dominance eclipses that of starting pitchers not connected to steroids in the timeframe Sherman is referring to. Rivera is essentially the same pitcher today at 41 as he was in 1996 at 26. And it’s a unique dominance: a calm, perhaps even icy dominance. Everyday ballplayers and starting pitchers approach their craft differently from closers. With closers dramatic intensity is condensed, and for that reason I call Mariano Rivera a baseball haiku poet. I created an animation centered upon the image of Rivera. The animation incorporates a quote from Rivera I found in Joe Posnanski’s Statistics and Stories blog.

Animation duration: 2 minutes and 15.3 seconds, before looping.

Peter Schmideg

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