Tonight we should get the official word: Mariano Rivera is the most overrated baseball player of all time.
Awaiting the 2019 Hall of Fame results, all indications are that Rivera, the former Yankee star closer, will be the first unanimous choice in history. Whether the vote is actually unanimous or just very close really isn’t relevant – such an overwhelming vote for a part-time player and hyper-specialist is enough to show how out of whack the praise can get for a limited player witch such minimal impact on winning games. The even less-deserving Trevor Hoffman was elected last year, though his 79.9% vote magin wasn’t as overwhelming as Rivera’s will undoubtedly be.
It should be obvious that all closers are overrated. Yes, in his limited way, Rivera was great at what he did. And he did it for a long time, giving him a leg up on other top closers who typically had shorter shelf lives. The cut fastball that he unveiled in short bursts (2-3 times a week), the one that flummoxed hitters who knew it was coming, was enough to put up great numbers one inning at a time. But it wasn’t enough to utilize him for 200 innings a season (a longstanding rule in sports, you may have noticed, is that the better you are, the more you play). A part-time offensive player who hits .300 and pops 10 homers in 150 at-bats isn’t going to the Hall of Fame, because no one assumes he’d produce at the same level for 500 at-bats. So why genuflect to a 70-ininng pitcher? Aside from a handful of (mostly bad) starts very early in his career, did Rivera ever have to face the same batter twice in a game?
But, you say, counterbalancing the light workload is that trendy baseball term: leverage. A closer’s innings aren’t numerous, but they’re extra important, coming as they do in the ninth inning while protecting a one, two, or three-run lead. Sorry – wrong. Pitching with the score 0-0 in the first inning is as important as any time in a baseball game. Fall behind early, history shows, and your chances of winning fall greatly. Low leverage innings do come up after a game becomes one-sided, but all innings in which the game is close are equally important. The 56 career WAR that Rivera gets from baseball-reference.com – barely Hall territory to begin with – was inflated by a leverage multiplier that incorrectly placed extra value on the innings he pitched.
Remember May 3, 2012, when Rivera tore his ACL shagging batting practice fly balls in Kansas City and was lost for the season? If you believed every baseball talking head who came on that night, the loss was supposed to devastate the Yankees. Of course it didn’t – the team won 95 games to win the A.L. East and then won a playoff round before being swept out of the A.L.C.S. by Detroit. Rivera’s replacements, David Robertson and Rafael Soriano, combined to blow four 2012 games that turned ninth inning leads into losses, the same number that Rivera blew the year before.
On Tuesday, noted baseball historian John Thorn tweeted on the topic of Rivera looking like a unanimous choice despite the great Walter Johnson, possibly the best pitcher of all time, settling for four of every five possible votes. His tweet: “Percentages reflect herd mentality, not player merit.”
Thorn wasn’t necessarily saying that he wouldn’t vote for Rivera, but his point was right on the mark. Certainly, there’s never been a greater herd mentality than the one that exists for Mariano Rivera. When one baseball columnist, Bill Ballou from Worcerster, Mass., wrote a sensible column last month against Rivera’s Hall of Fame qualifications, he was lambasted every which way, from east to west and across the twitterverse for daring to do anything other than bow at the feet of The Great Rivera.
Here’s a fact: when a major league baseball team leads a nine-inning game after eight innings, its chances of winning stand at 95%. That’s the historical average. A top closer might nudge you up a bit, but starting from a 95% base leaves little room for improvement, no more than an extra win or two per year. There’s value there, but at the margins, not as a core player. And certainly not as a Hall of Famer.