This post stems from a conversation I had at a game last year. The Yanks were clinging on to a one-run lead in the bottom of the eighth, I could see Mo warming up in the pen, and I had that familiar feeling that I was about to see the most dominant figure to play this sport in the 30 years I've been on this green Earth.
I turned to my friend and said, "Mo is the best baseball player of my lifetime, period."
He looked at me sideways for a second, thought about arguing, then thought better of it. I think that's probably the reaction you'd get from most Yankee fans of my generation.
It's a tough idea to get your mind around, and most people just plain disagree. The predominant thinking being that the best player has to be a hitter, and a good defender to boot. In most cases, I'd agree with you. I don't think pitchers should qualify for MVP awards. The Cy Young is for pitchers. If you look at my Player of the Game archive, you'll see that Mo has only won my award 4 times in 114 games. That being said, no player has dominated the game like Mo has. That is a statement of fact, as far as I'm concerned. Below, I will state Mo's case.
Thesis: Mariano Rivera is the best baseball player of my lifetime (1976-2007)
Let's take a look at these numbers for a second. Mo's worst year (as a reliever) was 2000, when he only had 36 saves, a 2.85 ERA and a 1.097 WHIP. He's gotten better with age, posting sub 2.00 ERAs from 2003 through 2006. His career numbers are mind-boggling. Before he became the best closer in the history of the game, he posted possibly the best season as a set-up man in 1996.
Then, of course, there's this:
Mo is the best post season performer, bar none. The hiccup in game seven of the 2001 World Series only highlights exactly how dominating he has been when the games really count. He has a full season's worth of post season work over his career, and these are his numbers: 8-1, 34 saves, 112.7 innings, 10 earned runs, 0.80 ERA and 0.74 WHIP. Those numbers are unbelievable.
When you take into account the type of innings Mo is asked to pitch in the post season, the level of competition and the fact that he routinely pitches more than one inning, on back-to-back days, it becomes very clear that no one even comes close to him.
I'll be the first one to tell you that you can't rely solely on statistics when judging a player. There are players who are so far inferior to their stats that you cringe whenever they come to the plate or step on the mound. With Mo, the stats, while wholly impressive, don't do him justice.
No player deflates the hopes of an opposing team like Mo. The clock starts clicking in the fifth inning, teams start to realize they only have maybe 9 more outs to mount a rally because they KNOW they won't get it done against Mo. That's a huge psychological edge for the entire team. Once Mo gets into the game, he doesn't just get batters out, he embarrasses them. I wish there was a statistic on bats broken by a pitcher per inning pitched (BBBPPIP). If such a stat existed, Mo would own that one as well.
There's also a legend around Mo. It gets built up every time we hear "Enter Sandman" and he jogs in from the bullpen. Here are a couple of anecdotes which further my point:
Before the 1998 season, Mo's second as the full-time closer, he made a conscious decision to not strike out so many batters. I know it seems like crazy talk, but Mo realized that his cutter was so devastating, he didn't need to go into deep counts on every single batter to put them away with a K. He could just as easily break a bat early in the at bat, thus keep his pitch count down throughout the year, and remain effective through September and beyond.
It sounds like a noble thing for a pitcher to do. It sounds like lip service, something that a person would never follow through with because in the "you vs. me" pitcher/hitter battle, ego almost always plays a role. Well, Mo was true to his word. In 1998 he only struck out 36 batters in 61 innings of work, but remained dominant. His WHIP dropped to 1.060 and his ERA was a sparkling 1.91. He completely changed the type of pitcher he was, and still remained the premier closer in the league. He did this for his team.
In April of 2002, the Yanks and Sox met up in Boston. Shea Hillenbrand was a rookie, and he was hitting the cover off the ball. In the second game of the series, HIllenbrand hit a walk-off bomb off of Mo in a 7-6 game. After the game, Hillenbrand was quoted as saying, "I feel really comfortable up there against Mo." Mo didn't respond to the press, his response came in the next game.
Rivera came into the game in the bottom of the eighth with two men on and a 4 run lead, he struck Manny out looking to end the threat. In the bottom of the ninth, he got Daubach on a broken bat liner back to the box and then Hillenbrand stepped up to the plate. The first pitch was a 95 MPH heater right under his chin. He went on to retire Hillenbrand and then Varitek to record the save. I don't think Hillenbrand ever felt comfortable in the box against Mo again.
There's one last question you have to ask yourself when determining the best player of your lifetime. If it comes down to one instance, one at-bat, one inning, one game, who do you want on your side?
If you have one game to win, which starting pitcher do you want on the mound? I don't think there's a clear-cut answer to that question. Maybe Pedro in his prime. Maybe David Cone. Maybe Randy Johnson.
If you have one at bat to win the 7th game of the World Series, who do you want at the plate? Again, no clear-cut answer. Jeter? Bonds? A-Rod? Again, no clear cut answer.
If all you need is three outs for a win, who do you want to give the ball to? Simple, Mariano Rivera.