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.
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.
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.
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.
Cutter, miss. Pedroia, obviously, wasn’t going to crush this pitch, but it nearly put him on base, as Rivera missed high and in.
Cutter, miss. The idea was to give Pedroia something on the outside edge. Instead, Rivera threw a pitch belt-high over the plate.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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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