An Inning with Mariano Rivera’s Command

Here is a true sentence about Mariano Rivera. Though, for his career, he’s managed to strike out the same rate of batters as Arthur Rhodes, he’s issued a higher rate of walks than Carl Pavano, and he’s allowed the same BABIP as Armando Galarraga. Based on one’s associations, one might not read that sentence and conclude that Rivera is amazing. But then, who’s familiar with Pavano and Galarraga, and not Rivera? Rivera is amazing, for all of the reasons you know, and for additional reasons we haven’t yet even discovered. Rivera’s going to retire soon, at 43, and his ERA’s under 2. He’s walked as many batters this year as Shawn Tolleson, who has faced two batters.

Though Rivera didn’t invent the cut fastball, he made it a somebody. In Rivera’s hands, the cutter became a pitch with which everyone’s familiar. Rivera knows how to throw lots of other pitches, but he doesn’t take them into games. He just leans on the one pitch, and if another pitcher in baseball leans heavily on one pitch, we say he’s being Rivera-esque, at least in approach. It’s rare that a pitcher can have Rivera’s success, and it’s rarer still to be able to do it with one weapon — the list of such pitchers basically reads “Mariano Rivera.” Clearly, in order to do what he’s done, Rivera’s had to have impeccable command.

See, hitters know what’s coming. No pitcher in baseball is more predictable than Rivera, and unpredictability is a key for any pitcher’s success. But pitch identity is only one part, and pitch location is another. Rivera likes to alternate locations, and he hits his spots like nobody else. He puts his pitches in places where they’re difficult to square up, leading to all the weak contact. Rivera’s allowed a career .079 ISO. No other active pitcher with a long enough track record shows up under .100.

We don’t have a measure of “command.” We have only approximations and reputations. If asked which pitcher has the best command, though, I’d suggest Rivera, and you probably would, too. I’d think a little about Cliff Lee, but then I’d talk myself out of it. Lee’s command, I assume, is great. Rivera’s command, I assume, is nearly perfect, as humans go. Rivera’s the one active pitcher I’d trust to never issue a single walk if he didn’t want to. He’s the one active pitcher I’d trust to knock down a bad guy with a baseball during a bank robbery in which guns and other potentially injurious items are curiously unavailable. What Rivera wants to do, I figure he does.

So I’m going to give Rivera the Carlos Marmol treatment. Marmol has terrible command, so last week I watched an inning of his work and tracked how his pitch locations compared to the catcher’s targets. I’m going to do the same with Mariano Rivera, focusing on his Friday appearance against the Red Sox. Rivera threw 13 pitches and 11 strikes in an inning, allowing two hits and generating a strikeout. You’ll see 13 screenshots, with the pitch location, and a red dot indicating the presumed intended pitch location, set by the catcher’s glove. I can’t think of a way to examine command any better than this.

The same caveats as with Marmol: we don’t know what Rivera is usually like. We’re looking only at one inning, and 13 pitches, and it stands to reason command can waver, since it’s all based on mechanics and mechanics are complicated. We don’t know what an average looks like, and so this is an experiment without conclusions. But I’ve already prepared the screenshots, so I’ve no choice but to make use of them. Following, some pitches from Mariano Rivera, on Friday, May 31.

rivera1

Cutter, good spot. If you want to be a jerk, you could say Rivera missed high, but it’s a matter of inches, and Rivera hit the desired edge. The point was to stay away from Jonny Gomes. Rivera succeeded.

rivera2

Cutter, bit of a miss. The pitch still wound up in the vicinity, but it was higher and more over the plate than the previous pitch, and here Rivera was ahead in the count 0-and-1. Gomes hit the ball well, but flew out to left.

rivera3

Cutter, pretty good spot. It’s hard to tell with the off-center camera angle, but this pitch was a little off the plate inside, and it came in north of Dustin Pedroia‘s belt. But it still went for a called strike, and Rivera hit the glove, if not the palm.

rivera4

Cutter, miss. Pedroia, obviously, wasn’t going to crush this pitch, but it nearly put him on base, as Rivera missed high and in.

rivera5

Cutter, miss. The idea was to give Pedroia something on the outside edge. Instead, Rivera threw a pitch belt-high over the plate.

rivera6

Cutter, pretty good spot. Again, Rivera threw a pitch above the intended target — this was a pattern for him — but he hit the edge against David Ortiz and got the strike call. I wonder if Chris Stewart might make a habit of setting up below where he expects the pitch to go. Or, Rivera was just missing a little up.

rivera7

Cutter, good spot. Stewart wanted a pitch around the belt on the inside edge. Rivera threw a pitch around the belt off the inside edge, but Ortiz grounded it into the outfield to put runners on first and second with one out.

rivera8

Another cutter, another fine spot that was a little elevated. Rivera hit the proper edge, but Mike Napoli‘s a powerful guy, and he was the tying run. That’s a more dangerous pitch than Stewart called for.

rivera9

Cutter, miss. Rivera wasn’t way off from the target, but ahead 0-and-1, he threw Napoli a pitch at the belt over the middle of the plate. Napoli liked what he saw; he just happened to swing through it, because the cutter’s a tough pitch, and Rivera’s cutter is a tougher pitch.

rivera10

Cutter, similar miss. I don’t want to hold Rivera to a standard of perfection, and this wasn’t way off, but this was a fastball in an 0-and-2 count to a power hitter representing the tying run. It was, again, at the belt, and over the middle of the plate. Napoli struck out, and maybe there would’ve been some element of surprise, but in isolation I’m not a fan of this pitch, really. Hypothesis: with a runner on second, Stewart wasn’t setting a target until Rivera was already beginning his delivery. Could that in any way be distracting? Could that in any way have an effect on a pitcher’s command? Was Rivera working off of his own mental target?

rivera11

Cutter, miss. Stephen Drew was to get a first-pitch cutter on the outer edge. Instead he got a first-pitch cutter on the inner half, not that it compelled him to swing. It wasn’t, at least, a bad eventual spot for Rivera. But it wasn’t the plan.

rivera12

Cutter, same as some pitches before. Rivera nailed the edge, but the ball wound up more elevated than intended. Not by a lot, but by enough to make a difference. I’m thinking horizontal location is more important than vertical location. I’m open to being wrong. I don’t know how this could be tested easily.

rivera13

Cutter, nailed it. Stewart and Rivera wanted to jam Drew inside, so that’s what they did, and Drew tapped back to the mound, where Rivera assisted on the final out. This pitch was off the plate, so it probably would’ve gone for a ball, but Drew would’ve expected it to tail back to the edge, so there was a strong impulse to swing. This pitch was more or less classic Mariano Rivera.

As with Marmol, I went into this blind, not knowing exactly what to expect. I figured Rivera would do a better job than Marmol of hitting his targets, and indeed, we don’t see the terrible misses. That’s hardly a surprise, and that’s what we all would’ve assumed. Only twice, really, did Rivera miss by a lot horizontally. But he routinely missed by a little bit vertically, and on a few occasions he missed over the plate when he was shooting for the edge. Looking through the screenshots, this wasn’t, for Rivera, a perfect inning, and it wasn’t a perfect inning in the box score, either. Rivera didn’t nail his spot every single time.

But we don’t know how Mariano Rivera ordinarily looks. And we don’t know what might make for a fair and reasonable standard. By how many inches can you miss your spot, and still be said to have hit your spot? How close to perfect is great? How close to great is mediocre? Should pitchers be given credit for missing “well”? At present, for me, these are unanswerable questions, but they’re remarkably fun questions to think about.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


29 Responses to “An Inning with Mariano Rivera’s Command”

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  1. Dan Rozenson says:

    It’s amazing how consistent his body position is in these still frames.

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  2. taprat says:

    As a preemptive strike to anyone who feels like complaining, I really enjoy this style of article. If there isn’t a conclusion to be drawn, best not to force it. This is interesting and useful information. And identifying the right questions is often just as important as answering them.

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    • Sleight of Hand Pro says:

      well, its interesting yes… but im not sure its useful. you said yourself no conclusion was drawn. personally i like these posts, but i could see the point of someone thinking it was just filler.

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      • James d. says:

        I think these posts work well any time of year, but they especially work when you’re simply trying to look at a moment in time rather the longer periods of time Fangraphs usually assesses.

        Usefulness for what many usually come here for? Maybe not. But even when examining normal acts of randomness, to borrow from Keith Law, this is so much more insightful than simply hearing an announcer or reading a columnist rave about the result without adding much of anything.

        The playoffs are an especially good time to have a deep dive into a moment, last year’s post on the final pitch of the World Series being a brilliant example.

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        • vikedawg says:

          I agree. These are the types of posts that can inspire someone to dedicate more time and effort to the analysis. This isn’t a dig at Jeff in any way, he does enough already.

          Just from this and the Marmol piece, I am asking myself how this relates to pitch framing. Is the ump being manipulated somehow by the initial catcher position. Are certain catcher glove movements more “acceptable” to umps? Not even related to the post.

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  3. Jon Roegele says:

    I’ve always thought about doing this too. I believe there is at least one group that does track all catcher glove movements for all pitches, but the information is not made publicly available.

    There would be a wealth of articles on this topic if it was ever released.

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  4. murphym45 says:

    This is great stuff. I’ve constantly wondered about what a pitcher with good command looks like when you compare the intended target and the pitch location. I feel like writers frequently use it to illustrate pitchers missing their spots, but there’s not really a baseline to compare it to.

    Rivera obviously has great control, and even he consistently missed vertically and also missed horizontally 15% of the time (in a small sample, of course). I guess my point is that you can take any pitcher and put together a few screenshots or gifs of them missing their spots a couple times, but without context it doesn’t really carry a lot of weight.

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  5. Derek says:

    It’s a good way at looking at command..watching Greg Maddux at the height of his powers, I could see Greg doing just that pitch after pitch. The catcher could set up his target and close his eyes almost. Announcers would marvel at his command, how the catcher never had to move his glove. So, I at least sort of pay attention to this whenever I get to watch a game.

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  6. Evan says:

    Pretty sure that yes, Stewart sets up a little lower than where he wants the pitch, since it’s preferable to come up on a pitch than stab down at it, if you have framing in mind, which he does.

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    • Choo says:

      I was going to to explain it all in much more detail. Glad I don’t have to. But yes, this is a standard fundamental skill of catching, taught at the earliest possible age for all of the reasons you can probably figure out on your own.

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  7. blwfish says:

    Clearly I have no more reference points than anyone else on this subject (other than, probably, Rivera, Stewart and the pitching coach) but judging by the box score one could easily speculate that this inning is in the lower 25% of Rivera’s innings, as far as command. Over the course of 1240 innings, he averages 0.77 hits/inning or 0.998 WHIP, and he gave up well more than that. It’s only 13 pitches, of course.

    It’s still a fascinating article.

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  8. Hank says:

    Jeff that 0-1 pitch inside to Pedroia was a 4 seam fastball not a cutter. While it’s generally fair to assume everything he throws is a cutter he will occasionally throw a 4 seamer, especially inside to righties, especially to a hitter that likes to dive in like Pedroia.

    I suspect his command of that pitch is far less than the cutter

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  9. Nick O says:

    I’d love to see an analysis of a start like this to basically set the high watermark for how good a major league pitcher’s command could be. Joe Posnanski was sent the game on VHS and broke it down a few years ago, but that post is no longer online.
    http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA199707020.shtml

    I also think it’d be interesting to analyze a pitcher with limited stuff but great control – Kevin Slowey, Bartolo Colon, someone like that.

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  10. Dave S says:

    His walk rate is actually lower than Pavano’s

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  11. 5 says:

    “Rivera‚Äôs allowed a career .079 ISO. No other active pitcher with a long enough track record shows up under .100.”

    Holy god.

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  12. Treeclimber says:

    Typical Mariner ball washer. Trying to expose the G.O.A.T. closer is an epic failure.

    How’s mr. #6 org doing.

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  13. Astro Villain says:

    I wish he wasn’t retiring after this season. It would be amazing to see how long he can be effective. I suppose he has lost some velocity since 2011, but with command like that it probably wouldn’t matter.

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  14. MLB Rainmaker says:

    I’d be interested to see if command is more important pitch to pitch. I’d think its worse to miss your spot with your fastball vs. with your slider — at least with the breaking pitch you’d have the change in speed from off the fastball and the break to help you out.

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  15. Westside guy says:

    One of the things I appreciate about Jeff is he has the flexibility to write these sorts of articles in addition to the usual stat-heavy stuff that’s more typical of FanGraphs. This appealed to the pure baseball fan inside of me – the guy who watches Mariano Rivera and just enjoys his craftsmanship without thinking about his xFIP or whatever.

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  16. Mr. Jones says:

    Any chance we can get one of these on Rangers LF David Murphy’s appearance against the Red Sox last night? It was the only inning of the game in which the Red Sox didn’t score.

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  17. Bob says:

    Being the best closer of all time is like being the best punter of all time. You’re just another Guy*.

    Thank you, thank you. I’ll show myself back to Deadspin now.

    *Ray Guy

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