Can Mariano Rivera Defy Father Time?

After three straight seasons of declining saves totals, Mariano Rivera rebounded to post 39 in 2009, his highest total since he notched 43 in 2005. Rivera is a wonder, but he faces long odds to match his saves total from last year in 2009. Trevor Hoffman is the only pitcher in MLB history to post 39 or more saves at age 39 (or above), the age Rivera will be this season.

Yet the mock draft crowd has faith in Rivera, making him on average the fifth reliever picked in drafts. He has an ADP of 83, making him a late-seventh-round pick. Assuming you want a reliever at that spot, is Rivera a good choice?

There has been no drop-off in velocity with his famous cutter and Rivera has been able to maintain excellent K/9 numbers.

But there are three factors that helped Rivera to his outstanding 2008 season, when he was the second-best reliever in the game behind Francisco Rodriguez. First, Rivera had a .232 BABIP, over 100 points lower than he did in 2007. Second, he posted the lowest walk rate of his career with a 0.76 BB/9 mark. And third, Rivera had the highest strand rate of his career with an 87.6 percent LOB%.

Rivera has had an ERA under two in five of the last six years. There is no reason to expect him to fall off a cliff in 2009. But given his age and his incredible peripherals last season, there is not much reason to expect a repeat of 2008, either. The mock drafters are knocking him down but I would suggest not far enough.

Instead of Rivera in the seventh round, why not wait a round and take Joakim Soria, he of the 97 ADP? Or wait two rounds and take Jose Valverde, he of the back-to-back 40-save seasons. These two pitchers do not have the name recognition of Rivera, but are likely to put up comparable or better seasons as the venerable Yankees closer.

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19 Responses to “Can Mariano Rivera Defy Father Time?”

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  1. AJP says:

    2nd best reliever in 2008? How about the best, Rivera put up incredible numbers last year (only 6 BB in 70 IP!) and easily was the best. Saves are blown out of the water, K-Rod only got so many because he was with the Angels. You put another top of the line reliever in K-Rod’s spot and I gurantee they also get 60+ saves.

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  2. Rory says:

    2nd best from a fantasy perspective. Rivera as a pitcher was better but from a fantasy perspective the saves total that K-Rod had makes Rivera 2nd best.

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  3. msm says:

    Why is there such an emphasis on saves. The number of saves any closer can accumulate is entirely dependent on pitching in save “opportunities”, which he has no control over. As far as how one ranks closers, it should certainly be based more on save percentages, whip, or K/BB ratio.

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  4. Brian Recca says:

    Closers are supposed to get you saves in fantasy baseball, anything else is extra. From a fantasy perspective Francisco Rodriguez was the best closer/relief pitcher in baseball last season. From a baseball perspective Mariano Rivera was the most effective closer in baseball. Not that hard to understand.

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  5. CCW says:

    Yes, but saves in one season are not predictive of saves in the next season (except to the extent they track underlying peripherals). And I believe we’re talking about what is likely to happen in 09, not what happened in 08.

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  6. Jim says:

    Brian, why does he face such long odds to record 39 saves when the number of saves he records depends on how many opportunities he gets? Jow Blow Borowski recorded 45 saves with a 5.07 ERA in 2007. If Rivera stays on the field and pitches reasonably well next year, he has just as good of a chance to have 39 next year as he did this year.

    Yes, he had good luck last year, but he has had LOB% very close to what he had last year before, and he has posted extremely low BABIPS before. And he was still just as good the year after, even though people on this site were probably predicting decline.

    And you say Trevor Hoffman is the only guy to ever record 39 saves at age 39 or above, but that’s a pretty weak argument considering Mariano Rivera is concensus the greatest closer of all time. There’s nobody to compare him to.

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  7. Brian Joura says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    Jim, I think he faces long odds to record 39 saves again because it is extremely unlikely that he will have a 98% save percentage like he did last year. Yes, saves are certainly dependent on opportunities and the last three years Rivera has had 40, 34 and 37 save chances.

    In his career, Rivera has an 89% save percentage. If he hits that mark (he had an 88% rate in 2007), he’ll need 44 save opportunities to reach 39 again. He’s had that many chances just six times in his career.

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  8. Brian S says:

    This is a pretty weak argument. You’re saying ‘Don’t take Mariano’ and then working backwards from that.

    He’s probably not going to repeat ’08 because it’s one of the greatest relief pitching performances to date. What are his periphs going to be next season and what kind of fantasy stats will that translate into?

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    • Steve says:

      I think the decreased babip can be explained by his drop in LD% from 18.5% in 2007 to 14.5% in 2008. He also increased his IF/F from 10.5% in 2007 to 24.5% in 2008. These improved contact rates show up in his tRA* which was 3.38 in 2007(15th among RPs) and 2.10 in 2008(1st among RPs).

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  9. Evan3457 says:


    It’s true that Mariano’s save rate is likely to decline, but given the Yanks’ probable offensive performance being somewhat soft compared to recent years, especially with Rodriguez on the shelf for the first 30 games or so, and given the fact that the rotation is much better (at least on paper) than it was at this time last season, I see fewer blowouts (in both directions) for the Yankees this year, so I expect his save chances to rise by a decent amount.

    So, what’s 89% of 45? 40 saves sounds reasonable to me (insert injury disclaimer here).

    It seems reasonable to me that he could have a “worse” year, and still save as many games or perhaps a few more. Now, if he misses a month or so with an injury, then 40 saves would be nearly impossible.

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    • Brian Joura says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      It certainly sounds logical that the Yankees would have more save opportunities given their expected decrease in offense and increase in pitching but I don’t think you can just assume this will be true.

      Sabathia pitched great in Milwaukee last year but his 17 starts, which resulted in 14 wins, produced just three saves for the Brewers.

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    • Brian S says:

      Not so sure there is much credence to saying the Yankee lineup will be worse. Rodriguez will probably miss the same amount of time he did last season. Plus there will be increased production with Teixeira over Giambi and with Posada back in the lineup. Not that I think there is necessary causation there.

      Again, I think this is a case of working backwards. If the goal here is to figure out what allows for the most save opportunities then we should figure that out. Do low offensive numbers and better starters create more save opps? Who had the most save opps each season and why? Is it just luck?

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  10. Rob in CT says:

    If you want to argue that Mo isn’t a good bet in 2009, I think you have to start with the fact that he had shoulder surgery in the off-season and that he’s 39 to boot.

    He’s looked fine so far this spring, thankfully.

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  11. Jim says:

    Also Brian, you say he has had 44 save opportunities only 6 times in his career, but that’s out of 12 seasons as closer. So there’s a 50% chance that he will have 44 save opportunities. That’s a pretty good chance.

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  12. ian says:

    That you state K-Rod as the most valuable reliever in 2008 nearly negates the rest of the article. :P

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    • Kevin says:

      This column has a fantasy perspective. From that angle, K-Rod’s 62 saves made him the most valuable, even if he really wasn’t.

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  13. bryan says:

    This is the worst article I’ve read on FanGraphs. How did this get published?

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