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His injury is awful, but the Yankees will be OK without Mariano Rivera

May 4, 2012, 7:54 AM EST

Mariano Rivera Reuters

Losing Mariano Rivera for the year and possibly forever is horrible for Yankees fans and non-Yankees fans alike. He is easily the best relief pitcher of all time and, as I sit here right now, I am struggling to think of any player in the past 20 years who is as universally respected and admired as Rivera. Jeter, Pettitte, Posada and all of those other Yankees of their time annoyed everyone at least once, right?  But Rivera comes in and shuts your team down and all you could ever really do is tip your cap and wish like hell he played for your local nine.

But for as big a loss this is mentally, it is possible to overstate what his loss means in purely baseball terms.  Indeed, it is probable that as the day is filled with commentary about Rivera’s injury, that baseball impact will be overstated.  Why?  Because we always overstate how much value a closer brings to a team in empirical terms.

Steven Goldman of Pinstriped Bible tackled that this morning.  And, for as big a Yankees fan as he is, he is right to note that no matter how great Rivera has been, his contribution is nonetheless a smaller one, in purely baseball terms, than most other players on that team.  Why?  Because he only pitches about four percent of the Yankees’ total innings each year. And a quarter of those innings are not particularly high-leverage ones, given that he will often come in with a three-run lead.  Goldman:

That’s Rivera’s total contribution that actually mattered—roughly three percent of the team’s total innings … No matter how beloved Mariano Rivera is (not least by me), no matter how great he has been at what he does, if a team can’t find a way to reassign 39 innings out of 1450, it wasn’t going to win anyway.

Yes, you can talk about how the ninth inning is more important than the others (it’s not true, but you can talk about it).  You can talk about the psychological comfort having Rivera brings. You can talk about his intangibles and his leadership and all of that. And, obviously, you can be devastated that we may never again get to see the greatest reliever of all time ply his trade ever again.  Those things are all real and all contribute to the misery that is inherent in the loss of Mariano Rivera.

But when it comes to things that can actually be measured — innings pitched and tangible contributions to baseball victories — Rivera’s contribution is nowhere near that of other players, and the Yankees can and should be able to survive it.

  1. acdc363 - May 4, 2012 at 8:02 AM

    Time for Robertson to step up

  2. dparker713 - May 4, 2012 at 8:05 AM

    Problem isn’t the regular season. Its the postseason when those percentages can shoot up dramatically due to scheduling.

    • henryd3rd - May 4, 2012 at 9:57 AM

      Absolutely! Let’s not forget negative thinking that goes on in the oppostion’s dugout knowing full well that Mariano was up and warming up. Many a team knew that the game was over if the Yankees had a lead going into the ninth.

      His grace and dignity will be sorely missed in Yankee Stadium

  3. Detroit Michael - May 4, 2012 at 8:07 AM

    Craig wrote: “… you can talk about how the ninth inning is more important than the others (it’s not true, but you can talk about it).” Sorry, Craig, but it is true. The average ninth inning is no more important than the average first inning, but Rivera does not pitch in average games. He pitches in games that tend to be close and tends to rest on days when the Yankees are far ahead or far behind entering the late innings. There is a statistic called leverage index that measures this and Rivera (and nearly all closers) much in innings that have a greater influence than average on which team wins the game.

    Even taking that into account, we still tend to exagerate how valuable closers are, plus the Yankees have other capable relievers, so the post’s broader point is correct.

    • Old Gator - May 4, 2012 at 9:01 AM

      Sorry, I don’t buy the idea of equivalency of all innings. It’s the kind of platitude that sounds wiser than it actually is. In a close game, if a visiting team falls behind by a run in the bottom of the fifth inning they’ve still got at least twelve outs to work with to score two more. Fall behind in the bottom of the ninth and you’re dead, as in, I’m not even coming back to eat your brain. And of course for the home team, the seriousness of losing that advantage – to close it out and be done with it – is also more significant than it would be even in the eighth inning.

      Evaluating the importance of a headsman like Mariano Rivera based solely on the number of innings he pitches completely elides the importance of the time and place of those innings. If there are ways to overestimate a closer’s importance, there are just as many ways to underestimate it too.

      • pauleee - May 4, 2012 at 9:33 AM

        Elides!? I learned something new today, that means I can go home, right? And it’s only 6:30 in the morning. Thanks, Gator! Hello weekend.

        And what’s up with the thumbs down on Detroit Michael?

      • deadeyedesign23 - May 4, 2012 at 9:51 AM

        I agree with that, but I think the conversation is that the “best” relievers are relegated to the 9th inning regardless of context. It’s just as likely that the most important inning is in the 7th or 8th, when you have runners on, but mangers use closers within the context of the inning and not the actual situation on the field.

    • deanmoriarity - May 4, 2012 at 9:16 AM

      You realize that every game starts with the score tied, right? So technically, starters pitch in far more close games than Rivera ever has. And if a team is either way up or way down, the starters get pulled.

      He’s called upon to come in for one inning and not give up a run. That’s not more than is asked of starters. If a starting pitcher gave up a run in the first inning a lot, he would not be a MLB player.

      Craig nails it here. His worth is vastly overrated.

      • Francisco (FC) - May 4, 2012 at 9:43 AM

        You realize that a starter who allows a home-run in the first inning has at least eight more to recover, but the relief pitcher who allows a walk-off home run in the 9th or later is basically toast.

    • phillyphreak - May 4, 2012 at 9:56 AM

      Leverage index is a function of the situation and inning not the pitcher. The pitcher can “earn” the leverage but does not “bring” the leverage. So even though Rivera pitches in those higher leverage situation, it doesn’t mean that other pitchers won’t do the same.

  4. churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - May 4, 2012 at 8:15 AM

    The problem isn’t that the Yankees can/can’t replace the closer role, as they have to viable relievers in Robertson and Soriano. The problem is chaining. What was arguably the best bullpen in baseball last year with Mo, Robertson and Soriano (or maybe 1B to the Braves), now has Robertson, Soriano and Wade? Rapada? Logan?

    Last year they were able to push the non-elite relievers into mop up roles or 6th inning duty. Now one of those relievers may get stuck pitching in a high leverage situation in the 8th if say Soriano has pitched two days in a row or Robertson is unavailable due to pitching two saves in a row.

    • wlschneider09 - May 4, 2012 at 8:25 AM

      This.

      Looks like we’ll see the Yankees looking for relievers this year?

    • Kevin S. - May 4, 2012 at 8:31 AM

      Meh, I’m not worried. I’m pretty comfortable with Wade as the third guy, and once Pettitte’s ready Hughes will join them. ’09 isn’t happening again, but he’ll be decent out there, IMO.

      • purnellmeagrejr - May 4, 2012 at 10:00 AM

        epic use of “meh” I instantly gain respect for someone who has learned to speak from their television.

      • wlschneider09 - May 4, 2012 at 12:55 PM

        Maybe so, but one of the things that makes the Yanks consistent winners is not settling for comfortable. I predict that someone (Huston Street?) gets pulled into the Yankee bullpen around the trade deadline.

    • spudchukar - May 4, 2012 at 11:05 AM

      Correcto Church, up until about a week ago the Yanks had arguably the youngest, most talented and most productive relief corp in the bigs. Robertson may well be ready to step into Rivera’s shoes, might though they be. The problem is the “ripple effect”. Not only has the order been disrupted, but not one but two vacancies need to be filled with the promotion of Phelps to starter.

      Maybe the Yanks have answers, but I doubt two holes can be filled without some degree of retrograde.

  5. randygnyc - May 4, 2012 at 8:32 AM

    Robertson is the best relief pitcher in all of baseball. The Yankees won’t be losing anything at closer with him taking over. The earlier art of the bullpen is another story. Robertson was better than anything the Yankees can put out now during the eighth, and soriano is better than what can be put out in the 7th.

  6. yankees177 - May 4, 2012 at 8:40 AM

    I whole heartedly disagree with the metrics that a closer isnt a very important position on a baseball team. I understand the numbers that boil down to how many innings a closer is really worth but this is a role that doesnt necessarily follow the numbers.

    The closer actually pitches 39 innings a year that count? Those 39 innings generally represent 39 different games on the line correct? When you put those numbers together they actually mean less than as separate games. Not to mention in the playoffs when the intensity of games is ratched up 10x.

    The numbers usually dont lie but in this case, they just might.

  7. frankvzappa - May 4, 2012 at 8:47 AM

    It may be about a different Mariano, but this song pretty aptly captures the feeling of loss for baseball anyway.

    “It has been awhile since I have seen the face of Mariano…”

  8. Charles Gates - May 4, 2012 at 8:54 AM

    Is Aardsma still due back in July?

    • Kevin S. - May 4, 2012 at 8:57 AM

      Does it matter? He doesn’t crack the bullpen over Hughes.

  9. gotampabay52 - May 4, 2012 at 9:08 AM

    See ya #42 good career but NY deserves this

    • jimeejohnson - May 4, 2012 at 4:43 PM

      There we go: one tasteless LOSER comment just to keep things in perspective.

  10. jehzsa - May 4, 2012 at 9:11 AM

    As a Rays fan I cannot candidly admit that I’m sorry to see him go.

    But as a baseball fan, I’m so glad that he might exit doing what he loved…probably best of all. Shagging flyballs in the outfield. Most people never get that opportunity.

    I feel fortunate to have seen him play. Yep…he was great.

    • jimeejohnson - May 4, 2012 at 4:48 PM

      Your classy comment restores my faith in Tampa and its sports fans.

      • jehzsa - May 10, 2012 at 12:17 PM

        Do you have any idea how many times Mo has blanked the Rays? Dozens, though it feels like hundreds. Literally, we go 1, 2, 3.

        I guess it’s like a masochistic thing. :)

  11. davebrownspiral - May 4, 2012 at 9:33 AM

    I think the Yankees will be okay. It’s not as if Rivera has contributed anything to the current four game losing streak. Starting pitching and an anemic offense is the culprit there. Robertson is arguably the best set-up man in baseball and is more than capable of closing out games. Yanks have Soriano there as well. So while Rivera’s injury hurts, it is not as bad as everybody thinks it is to the Yanks prospects this season. Starting pitching will dictate how the Yanks go this year.

    With that said, Rivera will be back next year. No way he goes out like this. He is too proud, and will go out on his own terms, which will be closing out a victory at the Faux Yankee Stadium next season.

  12. inthearex - May 4, 2012 at 9:39 AM

    When it’s all said and done, it’s all about the postseason. In 2009 7 out of the 8 closers blew saves that postseason. I guess you all can guess who didn’t. I hate when Craig tries to make it a stat and numbers game. How can you possibly say a one run save on the road in Fenway is the same as a one run save in Pittsburgh. Not buying it.

  13. buffalomafia - May 4, 2012 at 9:40 AM

    Try tobtrade for Venters from Atlanta?

    • Kevin S. - May 4, 2012 at 9:44 AM

      No.

      (And nit just because I watched him choke Tuesday in person, either).

  14. maccars - May 4, 2012 at 9:43 AM

    Craig, say what you will about the Yankees being all right, but the sheer intimidation factor on opposing batters facing Rivera in the bottom of the ninth with everything on the line has been priceless. Robertson may become effective in the role, but it will take a career for him to have the psychological effect on batters Mo has achieved. God Bless Mariano – he’s a Yankee treasure.

  15. Francisco (FC) - May 4, 2012 at 9:51 AM

    There’s a cognitive dissonance when you qualify Rivera as the greatest reliever of all time and then you proceed to belittle his contribution to his team.

    • phillyphreak - May 4, 2012 at 10:00 AM

      You read that as belittling? I read it as a) Rivera is important but b) not as important as everyone likes to think relievers may be.

    • Craig Calcaterra - May 4, 2012 at 10:01 AM

      No there isn’t. He’s the greatest reliever of all time. His contributions to his team are greater than any other reliever’s contributions to their team. Overall, however, relievers’ contributions to their teams compared to the contributions of position players and starters is lower.

      Is that really a controversial notion?

  16. rooney24 - May 4, 2012 at 11:10 AM

    I love how the experts pull out various stats to show that closers are overrated. But, as soon as your team doesn’t have a good one (or, he isn’t doing his job), it falls apart. If you have a good closer, it helps you line up the rest of the bullpen into defined roles, which usually helps them be more effective. Numbers may not back that up, but if you look at bullpens in disarray, the pitchers will often complain about not knowing when and how they will be used. Sounds like a poor excuse, but you see it all the time, so there has to be something to it.

    A great closer also changes how the other team plays. They put extra pressure on knowing they better score in the 6th or 7th, as their chances in the 8th or 9th will be minimal. And, when Rivera was a little younger, he wasn’t always just a 3 outs guys. He often got 4 or 5 outs if it was needed, which made him more special than your run of the mill solid closer.

    • giselleisasucubus - May 4, 2012 at 11:19 AM

      great point rooney, I totally agree. I’m a Red SOx fan, I am seeing it first hand. Some people, like myself, realized that Pap has major flaws(too many walks) but he strikes guys out and it saves him. Rivera is automatic, doesnt give up many baserunners, and he is the glue of the bullpen. This is going to be a huge loss for the Yanks.

  17. giselleisasucubus - May 4, 2012 at 11:15 AM

    You and Goldman are both nuts if you thiink this should be easy to fix. Ask any Red Sox fan how easy iit is to replace a closer, and PAP cant hold Mo’s jockstrap. The intimidation factor is HUGE for the Yankees, and now maybe their best asset(bullpen) just lost their anchor. To say that they will be OK w/out him sounds like a fan trying to sell himself that everything is fine. It isnt. The Yankees WILL feel this injury, big time.

  18. bobwheel - May 4, 2012 at 11:42 AM

    There is only one Rivera.

    Robertson is an All-Star with electric stuff, better than most current closers in the league, and was the likely candidate to step into the role next year. I consider Soriano as the second option at this time, regardless of his experience.

    The team will indeed be fine.

  19. greymares - May 4, 2012 at 12:18 PM

    Injuries suck, but the Yankees can’t have to much bad luck as far as i’m concerned.

  20. Jack Marshall - May 4, 2012 at 1:11 PM

    Craig’s point about closers is correct; I’m not sure that means he is correct in his assumption about how this affects the Yankees. The Yankees have been absolutely unique for almost two decades in never having to deal with a closer in a slump, press debates over whether one was over-used or used too soon, or whether a stumbling closer should lose his job. They had both mystique and ability, plus near certainty. Losing Rivera alters a significant part of the team’s character and nature, and I don’t think there is adequate precedent for that with a closer for anyone to be dead certain of the results. Probably Craig is right, but I sure wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

  21. jason9696 - May 4, 2012 at 2:36 PM

    Good. I hope the one pitch wonder never pitches again. Just being honest folks. Go Red Sox!!! Go Blue Jays!!!

    • jimeejohnson - May 4, 2012 at 4:46 PM

      Honest, or mean-spirited, hate filled, jealous and small-minded? I’m no Yankee fan, but I wanted to see Rivera go out in style. He epitomized class and dignity, something you lack.

  22. jason9696 - May 4, 2012 at 5:32 PM

    Just being honest man. I don’t like the Yankees.

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