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The Best Reliever of All-Time, Mariano Rivera

Detractors of advanced statistics love to point out specific instances where the advanced and traditional stats don’t align, as evidence that the saber-stats are far from perfect. You mean to tell me that Derek Jeter isn’t good at defense? That Ben Zobrist is as valuable as Robinson Cano? Or that Tim Raines deserves a Hall of Fame vote? Many of these sort of statements go against people’s first reactions and assumptions, making the stats backing them up an easy target for ridicule.

But these sort of debates miss the larger point: quite often, advanced stats agree with traditional assessments.  Torii Hunter was dang good at defense there for a while, and players like Cal Ripken Jr. and Ricky Henderson easily deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. Sports fans like to argue, though, and what fun is it debating topics with only one side? It’s much more entertaining to talk about things that are contentious, and as such, the distances between mainstream and saber stats can look like a gaping chasm when in actuality, it’s more like a meandering brook with handy stepping stones.

Enter Mariano Rivera. As you have surely heard, Mariano Rivera got his 602nd save yesterday, passing Trevor Hoffman on the all-time list and entering into first place all by his lonesome. As much as us saberists love to disparage the save, this record highlights an all too evident truth: Mo is the best relief pitcher of all time. And it’s not even close.

If you prefer old-school statistics, Rivera has the lowest career ERA (2.06) of any relief pitcher to throw more than 200 innings.* That’s considerably lower than Trevor Hoffman (2.87 ERA), and better than any of the current relievers in the Hall of Fame: Hoyt Wilhelm (2.52), Goose Gossage (2.63), Bruce Sutter (2.83), and Rollie Fingers (2.83), and Dennis Eckersley (2.85**). And not only that, but in an age where relievers typically don’t shoulder large workloads, Mo has thrown 1,159 innings — the 14th most in major league history.

Mo has the lowest walk rate of the Hall of Fame relievers (1.9 walks per nine), and his strikeout rate is by far the highest (8.3 per nine). He’s only blown 65 saves, while Goose Gossage blew 97 and Bruce Sutter blew 90…yet Mo has pitched in over 1,000 games while Gossage appeared in 900 and Sutter in 650. You can go on and on with the comparisons, but they’re still just as unremarkable; in short, the traditional stats make Mariano out to be a soul-destroying, bat breaking machine.

And when you turn to the new-school statistics, you find that it’s not just saves that really likes Mariano; it’s everything. He has the most career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of any relief pitcher and by a longshot too. Heck, only nine relievers have ever pitched good and long enough to accrue over 20 WAR, and of those nine, only one has ever cracked 30. With 38.3 WAR, the next closest player (Goose Gossage) is a full 9 wins behind.

But it only gets better. Mo has by far the most Win Probability Added of any relief pitcher (55 WPA) over the course of his career, a full 23 ahead of the next closest guy (Trevor Hoffman). And he may have recently set the all-time saves record, but he’s already the all-time leader in Shutdowns (539).

This one save doesn’t change his place in history, but it does serves as yet another of how the saber and mainstream aren’t as far apart as you’d think. It doesn’t matter what statistics you like to look at, the final conclusion is the same: Mariano Rivera is not only the best old reliever of all-time; he’s easily the best reliever the game has ever seen. The role of the closer may be a young one and not steeped in legend yet, but Mo is crafting his own over in New York.

*You guys are so smart. One reader caught that Mo’s career ERA is actually 2.22, while I listed above that it’s 2.06. The numbers I referenced above are Mo’s stats as a relief pitcher; he had 10 starts early in his career that inflate his career ERA. And since Dennis Eckersley also started some games, I excluded all games started when comparing the relievers against each other.

**Again, this is Eckersley’s ERA as a relief pitcher.