Buster Olney’s profile of Mariano Rivera in The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty paints him as a quiet soul. He never chose that song so closely associated with his reign of excellence, yet he’s just the type who meticulously shaves his face with the precision of an assassin before taking the field, shedding weakness in those salted and peppered whiskers.
If that seems overdramatic, well, it is. Bear in mind, grizzly ol’ Mariano’s job is to throw a ball at speeds in upwards of the mid-90s a few times every other night while holding a polar demeanor. His allure is entirely dependent on the amount of hype and dramatization one applies to the situation. It’s a rough life, for sure, if one that pays well and has lead to a life of luxury and high-end endorsement deals.
That’s not an insult to Rivera. He does his job better than just about anyone ever has. Sometime down the road, perhaps long down the road, someone will do it better, but for now, Mariano is the high water mark. Using him as such when it comes to reliever evaluations is hardly new. Using him as the only thing that matters when it comes to reliever evaluations is silly. However, there is at least one thing to be gained from Rivera’s career, and that’s this: Phil Hughes’ season was of teeth-rotting quality out of the pen last year.
Hughes as reliever posted some incredible numbers. He struck out a little under a dozen per nine innings, had a 1.40 ERA and 1.83 FIP, struck out 65 batters while allowing a total of 43 baserunners, and did all this in 51-and-a-third innings. A respectable single season sample size for a reliever, albeit one small by regression standards. It’s because of that (and something else coming up in a moment) that makes Hughes’ ascent to Firpo Marberry in 1926 status a bit premature.
Ignoring that Hughes is a starter-turned-reliever with a highly capable atlatl on his right side, he’s also looking for his second straight sub-2 FIP season. And it’s just probable. Remember that foolish idea of comparing a reliever’s ability solely to that of Rivera? Yeah, well put on the dunce cap and follow this moron off the cliff.
When the Yankees turned Rivera into a full-time reliever in 1996, he posted a 1.88 FIP in 107 innings as a set-up man. A year later he became the closer and his FIP shot up to 2.96. Rivera has yet to post a FIP under 2.00 despite coming absurdly close in 2008 (2.03). Rivera has posted nine straight seasons with a FIP under 3. His career high for consecutive seasons with a sub 2.5 FIP is a trick question, because he’s never actually accomplished that feat.
That also means he’s never done back-to-back sub-2 FIP seasons. Only three pitchers with at least 40 relief innings have FIP of 2 or lower in back-to-back seasons. And only Rob Dibble has three consecutive seasons. The others are Octavio Dotel and Eric Gagne (the full list resides after the jump). The most insane number is that we’re talking about 20 seasons worth of data and only 32 occurrences.
Yes, FIP likely underrates Rivera. He does things we can’t quantify. Things like limiting contact, mind control, and possessing spice-richened hair follicles. His job is not always boring, but much like bull fighting; entertainment’s apex is reached only when the matador is on the ropes. That’s not a situation Rivera finds himself in often though and wasn’t one Hughes found in 2009. Hughes almost certainly won’t replicate that success in 2010. Pick any reason as to why. At the end of the day, it’s not just because he pitched worse. Even Rivera couldn’t top the odds.