Mariano Rivera’s Cy Young Candidacy Relies On The Overvaluing Of Closers

A little over a week ago, I offered my opinion about who should win the American League’s Most Valuable Player award. In a roundabout sort of way, and after wondering why Kevin Youkilis hasn’t garnered more support, I said it’s clear that Minnesota’s Joe Mauer is most deserving of the honor. In fact, this is the rare race in which there is an unquestionably right answer; Mauer is the league’s most valuable player, and if you think otherwise, you are wrong. Baseball Prospectus’ Joe Sheehan agrees with me, even if he is more optimistic than I am about the voters ultimately choosing Mauer. In any case, I no longer feel compelled to participate in this particular debate (unless he doesn’t win, in which case you will most certainly be hearing from me).

I hadn’t thought much about the American League Cy Young award race until last night. I was watching the MLB Network when former player-turned-analyst Dan Plesac said something very closely resembling the following:

“I’ll tell you what, Mariano Rivera should be in the thick of the Cy Young discussion. He’s simply the best ever at his position and he’s having another great season. To have a guy that can come in and get the twenty-sixth, twenty-sev… uh, the last few outs of the game every time, that’s a huge advantage for a team. I know there’s the Rolaids award for relief pitchers, but he should be in the Cy Young discussion.”

After chuckling at Plesac’s struggle to remember the number of outs typically required for a baseball game to end, I paused to consider his opinion. Then I rejected it.

As I’ve mentioned several times, 70 innings of brilliant pitching are not as valuable to a team as 200 innings of excellent pitching. One time, I was condescendingly instructed “not to think of it as innings pitched, but as appearances, as the number of games a player can affect” (had this person written his suggestion, I’m positive he would have written “effect”). This is also wrong. A team must throw a minimum of 1,458 innings to make it through a baseball season. You can divide the pitchers up into however many appearances you’d like, but the minimum number of innings is static. Wouldn’t you rather have 15% of those innings soaked up by an excellent pitcher, instead of 5% by a brilliant one? Especially when that 5% is often against the bad part of a lineup with a three-run lead? This is why I disregard relief pitchers as Cy Young candidates. Unless the reliever throws 100 brilliant, high-stakes innings (no, the 9th inning does not automatically qualify), he’s not qualified to win the award.

Mariano Rivera’s proposed candidacy gets even more dubious when you look at the numbers themselves. Look at Rivera’s key statistics compared to the two most qualified Cy Young award candidates, Zach Greinke and Felix Hernandez:

  • Rivera: 53 IP, 1.87 ERA, 1.0 HR/9, 1.5 BB/9, 10.0 K/9
  • Greinke: 173.1 IP, 2.44 ERA, 0.5 HR/9, 2.0 BB/9, 9.5 K/9
  • Hernandez: 178.1 IP, 2.73 ERA, 0.7 HR/9, 2.7 BB/9, 8.7 K/9

Greinke and Hernandez (the former in particular) have performed about as well as Rivera, but in three times as many innings pitched. That has much greater value to a team than Rivera’s small but brilliant contribution.

I think there’s no chance of Rivera actually winning the award, so I’m not as worked up about this as Mauer’s candidacy. But I think Plesac’s misguided opinion of closers’ contributions to a team is fairly common and needed rebutting. A good starter is more valuable than a great closer, period. Assuming Mauer wins the AL MVP award, I hope that this realization is the next frontier in Cy Young voting.


4 Responses to Mariano Rivera’s Cy Young Candidacy Relies On The Overvaluing Of Closers

  1. Jonah Falcon says:

    Just wondering:

    There were eight closers in the playoffs. 7 of them blew saves, 1 didn’t.

    Funny how the only team whose closer didn’t blow a save won it all, and affected every close game they were in.

  2. Jonah Falcon says:

    “That has much greater value to a team than Rivera’s small but brilliant contribution.”

    Small? How many games did Rivera pitch in, and how many did Greinke and Hernandez pitch in?

  3. Kevin says:

    My response to that is in the sentence preceding the one you quoted. Greinke and Hernandez each threw about 230 innings in 2009. Rivera threw 66. A baseball team is required to pitch 1,458 innings in order to complete a season. A pitcher that throws 4.5% of those innings (Rivera) is making a small contribution compared to a pitcher that throws 15.7% of them (Greinke/Hernandez). This is particularly true when the 15.7% guys have ERAs under 2.50, and the 4.5% guy has a 1.76 ERA.

  4. Kevin says:

    And yes, Rivera had a huge effect on the Yankees’ World Series run. He’s a luxury that no other team has. But, let’s not act like there’s total cause and effect between Rivera’s performance and the Yankees’ victory. In the 2009 postseason, the Yankees had the second highest OPS and had the best starters’ ERA. Great hitting and great starting pitching had a ton to do with their success.

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