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Mariano Rivera and Age: Which Side Is Losing?

If you’re a baseball fan — and if you’re not, why are you reading this? — you’ve undoubtedly been bombarded these past few days with stories about Mariano Rivera. I swear, every time I log onto Twitter, I see another five articles taking a stab at answering the same question: Is Mo declining? He’s been hit around three times this week, allowing four runs in only 1.2 innings pitched, and he’s both blown a save and lost a game. Judging from the media attention these struggles have been given, it sounds as though Mo should just hang up his spikes now and call it quits.

But of course, that’s absolute rot. In the battle between Mo and age, it looks like even Father Time can’t catch up with his cutter.

For the past five seasons, people have been overreacting to every blown save by Mariano, assuming that, this time, his struggles are signs that age is finally catching up to him. But guess what? So far, he’s still as dominant as ever. His 2.40 ERA is slightly high for him, but there are still only five closers in the majors that have a lower ERA than him this season. His strikeouts are up from last year (7.8 K/9) while his walks are down (1.0 BB/9), and he’s still allowing home runs at a rate well below league average. His 2.81 SIERA is better than he produced last season, and suggests he’s going to be just fine going forward. He may not be quite as dominant as he was in his early 30s, but hey, who is? That doesn’t mean he isn’t still great.

I’d get tired of this yearly drama regarding Mo, except it actually serves an important function: it reminds us just how amazing Mariano is. At 589 saves — only 12 behind Trevor Hoffman’s record 601 saves — he has already locked up the title of Best Closer of All-Time, and he’s still going strong. But at 41 years old, is Mariano the best old closer in history as well?

Turns out, it’s debatable. Here’s the saves leaderboard for all pitchers 40 years old or older:

Remember, Mariano’s age-40 season was just last year, so these results are from less than two seasons of work. Hoffman pitched until he was 42 and Eckersley lasted until he was 43, and as Mo is showing little sign of slowing down, he will likely finish with more saves and a much better ERA+ than both of them.

But Hoyt Wilhelm? He might be untouchable, even for the great Mariano. Wilhelm was a starter early in his career, but then switched to the bullpen as he got older in order to extend his career. He pitched until he was 49 years old and, up until he was 45, he regularly threw 90 innings or more a year. Like Mariano, he was a one-tricky pony, relying heavily on his knuckleball for his success.

When Mariano finally retires, my guess is the only category Wilhelm still outpaces him in his Innings Pitched. There are various theories on why Mo has struggled of late — the leading hypothesis is that it’s location related — but there are no signs right now that his struggles are anything more serious than a passing funk. All pitchers go through periods in time where their location isn’t as sharp as they’d like, so I’m firmly of the opinion that all Mo needs in order to straighten things out is time. He’ll come out of this just fine, and continue on his way toward being the most dominant closer — and old closer — the game has ever seen.

At what point will time finally catch up with Mo? How old does he have to get before entropy sucks him down like everyone else? I don’t know, but I’m hoping it’s never.