Why Mariano Rivera > Derek Jeter

2011 September 22

According to the media, Mariano Rivera “officially” became the greatest closer ever a few days ago when he broke the all-time saves record. The assumption that Rivera needed to save one more game than Trevor Hoffman to be considered the greatest one-inning pitcher in history is laughable, but here we are. But the more heated discussion has been about whether Rivera or Derek Jeter has been more indispensible over the Yankees’ reign of dominance.

Rivera’s 602 saves (wait, the number is already up to 603) have all occurred during the regular season, which might as well be warm-up games for the modern New York Yankees. Since the 1994 strike, they have missed the playoffs just once. The 2008 season notwithstanding, has there really ever been any doubt of the Yankees making the postseason? Their payroll is consistently enormous, and if there’s a chance they might not make the playoffs, Brian Cashman makes sure to reload at the trade deadline. Making the playoffs is as routine for the Yankees as sub-.500 seasons are for the Pirates.*

*This reminds me of when I lashed out against a Yankee fan who said “preseason football > regular season baseball” on Twitter. This is because he prefers football and also because regular season baseball translates to preseason baseball in Yankeeland.

I don’t think it’s disingenuous, then, to focus on postseason performance. But I want to be clear here: there’s a difference between claiming a player has been a brilliant playoff performer and claiming he has been innately clutch (or, in contrast, a choke artist). Does Mariano Rivera’s superhuman performance in the postseason mean he’s going to continue having an ERA under 1? Almost definitely not, but his entire body of work as a closer does make him better suited for the role than anyone else. On the other side of the spectrum, Alex Rodriguez did kinda suck in a few postseasons with the Yankees, but that didn’t make him a “choker,” and he didn’t magically become “clutch” in 2009. This is the distinction between the actual value of past performance and the predictive value of said performance.

Mariano Rivera’s career postseason stats are absolutely disgusting: A 0.77 ERA and 0.766 WHIP, with 42 saves and 5 blown saves.* The number of blown saves might be shocking, but it shouldn’t be surprising that two of them occurred during the most famous collapse in baseball postseason history – the 2004 ALCS.** In fact, the only time the Yankees won a series where Rivera blew only one save was the preceding series against the Twins. The Yankees ended up winning that game anyway, though, because the Twins are fucking worthless against the Yankees in the playoffs. In October, as Rivera goes, so go the Yankees.

*I wish Fangraphs’ postseason shutdown and meltdown stats went back further than 2002. Since then, Rivera has had 19 shutdowns and 2 meltdowns. By comparison: Brad Lidge, 18-4; Jonathan Papelbon, 11-1 (wow); Joe Nathan, 2-5 (lol); Brian Wilson, 6-1.

**One of the blown saves was extremely unfair, as Rivera entered with runners at 1st and 3rd with no out and managed to allow only one run; he actually increased the Yankees’ chance of winning in that outing.

I’m a big proponent of FIP and xFIP, especially when it comes to closers, but the disparity between Rivera’s 0.77 ERA and 2.24 FIP and 3.21 xFIP over 139.2 IP definitely tests my faith in the metrics. Such a large disparity cannot be seen with some of the best individual seasons by other closers, who pitched in only half as many innings. For example, Dennis Eckersley’s 0.61 ERA in 1990 was backed up by a 1.34 FIP. I’m sure you could probably find seasons that disprove my general notion (Eric O’Flaherty this year is a candidate), but I think Rivera’s postseason tERA of 1.86 is probably closer to telling the true story of broken bat grounders, since it incorporates batted-ball data. He has managed to keep his career BABIP at .262, after all. The .216 mark in the postseason is definitely indicative of some luck, but it’s impossible to say how much. I think any way you slice it, it’s tough to envision a closer doing better over 16 seasons of postseason play.
In contrast to Rivera, Jeter’s postseason performance has been unremarkable when compared to his career. His postseason batting line of .309/.377/.472 is nearly identical to his regular season line of .313/.383/.449. It should be noted that these stats are still pretty great for a shortstop. And we’ve all seen the crazy plays he’s made in the field, and his clutch November home runs. He’s basically a great player in every situation. Yet Win Probability Added (WPA) tells me the craziest thing: Derek Jeter has hurt the Yankees overall chances when he’s been at the plate in the postseason (-0.58 WPA). Go ahead, look it up. Look at that clutch rating (-1.14)! Derek Jeter is a “choke artist”! But if you want to take leverage out of the equation with WPA/LI, Jeter manages to get into positive territory (0.56). I guess he’s ok.

I think you know where I’m going with this. Mariano Rivera’s postseason WPA is a whopping 4.86. Even if we strip out leverage (in the form of LI), which is going to heavily favor a closer, his WPA/LI is still 2.73. That’s over five times higher than Jeter’s. But there is an important point here, as WPA and WPA/LI do not factor in defense at all. Jeter playing shortstop is worth something — quite a bit actually. This is evident when you look at both players’ regular season Wins Above Replacement (WAR) total and see how far ahead Jeter is, despite Rivera being slightly ahead in WPA/LI. This is why for any other team I would emphatically say that Jeter is the more important and valuable player. But Rivera has been the perfect man for the perfect time and place in baseball history. He has arguably been better at his position than anyone other player, for the team that needed it most. Rivera has been used basically twice as much in the postseason as in meaningless April-September games.

I’m going to play fast and loose with some metrics here, but looking at the value of Rivera’s ~2.00 FIP seasons, he has probably been worth around 6 WAR in the postseason; Jeter, depending on defensive metrics, has been worth anywhere from 5-6 WAR. But WAR is context-neutral, and, as I’ve tried to show, Rivera has, in the aggregate, outperformed Jeter at the crucial moments. This is not to say that in an alternate universe, Jeter wouldn’t have performed better and Rivera would have seemed more human. Given a choice in 1995, knowing both of their true talent levels going forward and their career regular season performances, you would take Jeter. But looking back, Rivera has been more integral to the Yankees’ postseason success, and for them that’s literally all that matters.

Now watch Rivera blow up this October against the Red Sox.

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