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.