SPORTS SEPTEMBER 19, 2013
Mariano Rivera, baseball's all-time saves leader, announced during spring training that this season is his last. Since then he’s been on a farewell tour around the country, meeting fans and employees of teams that, in the Times’ words, “drive the machinery of baseball." Rivera has also been bathed in praise on the field, including by the rival Boston Red Sox, who honored Rivera at Fenway Park on Sunday night. He will be honored by his own team this Sunday before an afternoon game against San Francisco. By his standards, Rivera has struggled this season—his seven blown saves, including two against the Sox, are the most he's ever had1—but he's still recorded 44 saves, the third best in baseball, and has a 2.25 ERA. There are few teams on which the 43-year-old Rivera wouldn't be the ninth-inning guy.
But his success has come at a cost to his sport. Every team wants its own Rivera now—or the closest approximation—and team owners are willing to splurge for it, paying pitching specialists tens of millions of dollars merely to get three outs at the end of the game. “In some ways Rivera has been bad for the game, because managers and general managers all want to create Rivera clones,” Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci told me.“They want their closers to be as reliable as Rivera. It’s a job that really chews guys up—physically and mentally. Guys don’t last in that job. Everyone wants to treat their guy as Rivera. He’s so far beyond everybody else that he’s the exception to the rule, but people treat him as the rule. It’s like trying to look for another Hope Diamond.” Rivera, by no fault of his own, has accelerated the hyper-specialization of a game that seeks less for more, often trading long-term growth for short-term risk and—Moneyball be damned—ingenuity for custom.
There was a time, even just a few decades ago, when starting pitchers would complete the majority of their games, regardless of pitch count. The percentage of complete games gradually declined throughout the twentieth century, though, as power pitching meant more of the responsibility for getting outs shifted to the pitcher, and not just his fielders. Today, the active complete games record holder is Roy Halladay, who has completed 67 games in his 16-year career; the next highest is CC Sabathia at 37 games in 13 years. According to Baseball Prospectus writer Colin Wyers’s analysis, starting pitchers today throw less than 70 percent of total innings. “I’m an old-timer. I grew up in a time when starting pitchers completed games all the time,” ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian says. “Because of this specialization, all the roles have changed. Starting pitchers now believe that they throw six or seven innings and they’ve done their job. That’s a detriment to the game. We aren’t getting our best out of starters.”
The rise of closers was fast and arbitrary, and depended on the imagination of particular managers, who often used starters and position players to fill in as relievers. Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers, both Hall of Fame closers, came from this rush. Our real “first kiss” with the modern closer, as Wyers writes in Extra Innings, was with Eckersley in 1987, who salvaged a physical decline by protecting leads for an inning at the end of games—a clever conservation scheme devised by Oakland Athletics manager Tony La Russa. Eckersley went on to win both the Cy Young Award and the MVP in 1992, a feat achieved only six times previously. The floodgates then opened: Every team wanted a specialist like him. But even Eckersley wasn’t enamored; he recently told the Times’ Tyler Kepner that closing games is "not as tough as you think." Kepner agrees, telling me that even a journeyman can step in and do Rivera’s job: “It might not look good on the preseason magazines to hand the ball to one of these random guys, but often it works out just as well. The closer who makes eight or ten million a year often does just as well as the guy who makes a third of that... I can’t think of an example where someone paid a closer a ton of money and he turned out to be a great investment. Rivera is a special case.”
Rivera isn’t just a special case because of his prolonged success. He also uses one pitch, a cut fastball, that has baffled batters—and broken bats—since he began throwing it in 1997. (He has said the pitch came to him as "a gift from God.") Alas, most Major League clubs, lacking that kind of singularity, rely more on brute force. “A scout once told me I can fill a stadium with pitchers who throw 95 miles an hour, but it’s hard to find a pitcher who has a great feel for pitching. This is really changing in the last few years," Kurkjian said. "You can see a pitcher throwing 95 out of the bullpen, and I’ve never heard of them.” Closing has also become a breeding ground for showmanship: The placid Rivera has helped spawn an army of flashier, flame-throwing closers like Jose Valverde and Fernando Rodney, who are known as much for their demonstrative quirks as they are for their velocity. Part of the volatility of the position stems from its pressures. “It’s a very high stress job; you have everything riding on you. There’s nothing behind you, and you can lose your job if you blow it two or three times,” the Wall Street Journal Yankees beat writer Daniel Barbarisi says. “It’s really hard to deal with the failure of that role, and people try to grab on and ride the wave and do it with adrenaline. It’s very hard to do it the Rivera way. It’s not easy to psyche themselves up with the possibility of failure so close.”
Closers' quirks aside, fans are bearing the brunt of the increased specialization. Teams now employ setup pitchers for the eighth inning, and setup pitchers for the setup pitchers, and so on. All these pitching changes lengthen the game and interrupt its rhythm—a distinctive element of baseball. “If you were going to ask me what the biggest drawback of pitching specialization is—from an intellectual standpoint I understand why different situations call for different pitchers. With millions of dollars riding on the outcomes, I understand it," Melissa Segura, a Sports Illustrated staff writer, says. "But when I’m sitting there bringing my five and three year-old out to the game, I might not appreciate it as much.” Though longer, games now see fewer than 18 minutes of action—a number that's surely dropped, if Wyers’ numbers are indicative of this shift. Per his calculation, the Balls in Play Per Plate Appearance statistic correlates almost perfectly with the percentage of innings thrown by a starter: As of 2011, just 70 percent of hitters put it in play, compared to around 90 percent at the beginning of the twentieth century.
There could be some kind of market correction to the problem of more fractured games and overpaid specialists, and there could even be an entirely new method—one that still rewards managers who can win with more complicated bullpen configurations. Verducci predicts the oncoming of a kind of “supercloser” who can throw 100 innings a year—Rivera's annual average is 67—and is used regularly in the eighth inning, and possibly even the seventh. “It would take a real maverick thinker to commit to that sort of policy, and it’d take the right kind of pitcher,” he said. Meanwhile, some teams have applied the Moneyball technique of finding little-used pitchers and turning them into valuable, and affordable, relievers: The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series in 2011 with the $435,000 Jason Motte as their closer, a reliever who'd only had two full years of big-league experience; and the (likely) playoff-bound Pittsburgh Pirates have turned the journeyman reliever Jason Grilli into an all-star for the first time this year. You don’t need someone of Rivera's caliber to do the closer’s job proficiently.
There's every reason to believe that, much like the complete-game pitcher, the one-inning closer will become a thing of the past. What began as an innovation has become dogma, creating a ripe situation for a less hidebound manager. “I think baseball very clearly has been innovative with strategy compared to what its reputation is. There are managers who are by the book, but there’s always a manager out there who just wants to win. He’s always out there looking for new ways to get an edge—that last little piece that’s going to put his team over the top,” Wyers said. “If he succeeds, more teams start copying him. Eventually everyone has to catch up to it. That’s how we got to the current situation, and it also points to how we’re going to get out of it. Some team is going to find something that works better, and they’re going to stick with it, and then someone will copy it."
Ten years from now, baseball writers and analysts might be bemoaning the prevalence of the supercloser. For now, though, Mariano Rivera remains not just the gold standard for pitching specialists, but also the standard-bearer for one of baseball's most tiresome features.