Mariano Rivera helped define the ninth-inning closer role with the New York Yankees and now holds a record that Major League Baseball historians said may stand forever.
With 602 saves over 17 seasons, Rivera broke Trevor Hoffman’s record as the Yankees defeated the Minnesota Twins 6-4 yesterday. No other reliever has 500 saves and the closest active player, 36-year-old Francisco Cordero of the Cincinnati Reds, is 279 behind.
Rivera, the 41-year-old son of a Panamanian fisherman and a member of five World Series championship teams in New York, has brought unprecedented success and stability to a role in which pitchers regularly flame out or fall apart, historians said.
“I imagine he’s going to have this save mark until the end of time,” Peter Golenbock, who has written more than a dozen books on the sport, including several on the Yankees, said in a telephone interview. “He is Mr. Consistency in the most unbelievable way. Game after game. You just can’t quantify how important that is.”
Rivera has averaged 40 saves since 1997, when he took over as the Yankees’ closer, a reliever who specializes in getting the final outs in a close game, usually in the ninth inning. The team has a 633-41 record when he’s had a save opportunity, according to MLB.com.
Rivera surpassed Hoffman as the saves leader when he struck out Minnesota’s Chris Parmelee for a perfect ninth inning at Yankee Stadium in New York. After his teammates greeted him in the infield to celebrate, Rivera returned to the mound and tipped his cap to fans during an extended standing ovation.
“For the first time in my career, I’m on the mound alone. There’s nobody behind me, nobody in front of me,” Rivera said in a news conference. “I can’t describe that feeling. It was priceless.”
While the save has been an official major league statistic since 1969, the role of bullpen closer has emerged and evolved over the past three decades.
Relievers such as Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage got the majority of their saves pitching more than one inning. Dennis Eckersley was among the first pitchers to be used almost exclusively in ninth-inning situations when his team held a lead.
“The save is a highly exaggerated statistic,” Donald Honig, a baseball historian and author who has written 44 books about the sport, said by telephone. “Not every save is won with a lot of effort and sweat. Some of them are easily achieved -- you come in, throw two pitches and get a save. The most remarkable thing about Rivera is that he’s been able to do it for so many years. No question he’s a Hall of Famer.”
‘Above It All’
Sutter, Gossage, Eckersley, Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Wilhelm are the only relievers in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Lee Smith, whose 478 saves rank third in major league history, has fallen short of induction each year he’s been on the ballot.
“Even if you wonder about the validity of that statistic, Rivera is so head and shoulders above it all,” said Honig, 80.
Rivera has a career 2.22 earned run average and has had eight seasons with at least 40 saves. He’s one of two pitchers, along with Eric Gagne, with two 50-save campaigns.
Rivera’s numbers are even better in the playoffs.
In helping the Yankees win five World Series titles, he’s 8-1 with a 0.71 ERA in a record 94 postseason appearances. His 42 saves are 24 more than any other pitcher. Rivera has even exceeded the expected job of the modern closer, with 14 playoff saves of six outs or more.
Rivera, who trots into games at Yankee Stadium to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and cheers from the home fans, has had no significant injuries and few failures in his career. The foundation of his success is a cut fastball that can break bats, a pitch he’s called a gift from God.
“He’s a modern marvel,” Golenbock said. “Pitchers get hurt all the time and somehow Mariano has managed to stay healthy. It’s amazing. I can’t tell you how many people come in and have a fantastic season and then end up injured or ineffective the next season.”
Rivera’s failures have been memorable. He couldn’t close out the 1997 American League Division Series against Cleveland, allowing an eighth-inning Game 4 home run to Sandy Alomar Jr. He blew a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against Arizona, and had three blown saves in the 2004 playoffs, including two against Boston.
Rivera has shown little sign of decline as he ages. He had a 1.65 ERA over the previous three years, allowing 128 hits and 36 earned runs in 197 innings. This season, Rivera has 43 saves and a 1.98 ERA. The right-hander has one season left on the two-year, $30 million contract he signed in the offseason.
When Rivera does retire, it’ll be the end of an era for the Yankees. He’ll also leave the sport with a record save tally that may be insurmountable for future closers.
“It is a different game today and he has excelled at it,” Honig said.