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.

We hoped you liked reading Mariano Rivera and Age: Which Side Is Losing? by Steve Slowinski!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

newest oldest most voted
TheGrandslamwich
Member
TheGrandslamwich

Yep, it’s just the New York media over-reacting to a small sample size. I’m willing to bet that Rivera will still be Rivera before the season ends.

siggian
Member
siggian

As Blue Jay fan, I agree, unfortunately.

ServiteLegend
Guest
ServiteLegend

Ha ha..

The difference in the standings between the Blue Jays and the Yankees is greater than 10 games. Mariano doesn’t provide 10+ WAR for the Yankees, so even without him, the Blue Jays would still not be viable contenders for the AL East or AL Wild Card.

And the Blue Jays traded Marc Rzepczynski: he went to my high school!! But the team I hate the most is the Phiilles because of their treatment of Ben Francisco. Play him more!!

DavidB
Guest
DavidB

Servite,

Mo is a quality player on a stacked team in a stacked division. It would be more fun to be a blue jay fan if age caught up with him sooner or later. Don’t be an ass.

j6takish
Guest
j6takish

What promoted you to explode on that guy and make fun of his team like that? You are the reason everyone hate Yankee fans

ServiteLegend
Guest
ServiteLegend

The point was that the Yankees were so talented that they would likely be ahead of the Blue Jays, even if Rivera was replaced by a mediocre middle-reliever. Rivera might be a reason why they are in a close race for the AL East with the Red Sox, but the Yankees will make the post-season without him.

ServiteLegend
Guest
ServiteLegend

Long Live Ben Francisco, Dan Klein, Marc Rzepczynski!!

JohnnyComeLately
Guest
JohnnyComeLately

Your point has nothing to do with either siggian’s comment or the article. Unlike your Marc Rzepczynski comment. Totally relevant. Thanks for that.

BenFrancisco's butt on the Phillies Bench
Guest
BenFrancisco's butt on the Phillies Bench

46 thumbs down? Wow, even that guy who made inane comments about non-baseball gambling in the A-Rod poker post had fewer thumbs down!

Long Live Servite!!!

BenFrancisco's butt on the Phillies Bench
Guest
BenFrancisco's butt on the Phillies Bench

Thanks guys for the 55 thumbs down!! :)

I’m proud of myself!