The Unparalleled Greatness of Mariano Rivera

The Yankees closer just played in his 1,000th game. A look at what has made his career so remarkable.

MarianoRivera_Mike Stone_post.jpg

Reuters/Mike Stone


The pitch itself was unremarkable, a fastball that hugged the outside corner and strayed perhaps a quarter of an inch from the catcher's target. But when the ball hit backstopper Russell Martin's glove for a called strike one, history was made in the Bronx.

With the pitch in Wednesday's matchup with the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera officially played in his 1,000th major league game, becoming just the 15th pitcher ever to do so. More significantly, Rivera became the first player in the league's 135-year history to pitch in 1,000 games for the same team.

The achievement garnered scant national attention, less than the buzz Alex Rodriguez received for his 600th home run last summer or the recognition Derek Jeter will get when he reaches 3,000 hits later this season. But Rivera's accomplishment is the most remarkable, the latest milestone in the career of the lithe, quiet reliever from Panama who by at least one metric is the greatest team sports athlete in modern history.

Rivera is obviously no Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, or Wayne Gretzky. But if you judge a player's greatness by the distance between him and the second best player to ever play that position, Mariano stands alone. Only wide receiver Jerry Rice can claim a similar distance from his peers, and even at 41, Rivera's career appears to be far from over.

How much better is Rivera than the countless other relief pitchers to play the game? The argument should really end with this simple fact: For the last 15 years, any major league team that could choose one reliever to pitch the final inning of Game 7 of the World Series would have chosen Mariano. That is a period of position dominance unmatched by anyone in baseball history—no one else can come close to approaching his stretch of excellence. But for the stat wonks who demand quantitative proof of Rivera's supremacy, here are just a few of his unbelievable numbers:

572 saves (second all-time)
Earned run average under 2.00 in 10 of 15 full seasons (career ERA: 2.22)
ERA+ of 205 (first all-time by 51 points)
Career WHIP (walks + hits per innings pitched) of 1.002 (third all-time)
Playoff save percentage: 89.3% (42 of 47)
Playoff ERA: 0.71
Never allowed more than two earned runs in an entire playoff series (and only did that twice)

The numbers don't even begin to tell the story. Rivera came into the league with a wickedly darting 97 miles per hour fastball and quickly developed the most unhittable pitch in baseball history (his cut fastball, which breaks in on lefties and away from righties, is responsible for thousands of broken bats and causes most switch-hitters to bat right-handed against him). As his velocity slowed over the years, Rivera re-invented himself and developed Greg Maddux-like accuracy, allowing him to remain on top with a fastball that at this stage of his career barely exceeds 90 mph. His career is littered with unforgettable moments, like saving three of New York's four wins in the 1998 World Series without allowing a run, ending 1999 with 43 consecutive scoreless innings, or pitching three scoreless frames in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against Boston to earn the win, then sobbing with joy and exhaustion on the mound.

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Jake Simpson is a New York-based writer.

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