Mariano Rivera’s Shadow

The recent announcement of the new relief pitcher awards named after Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman will give more recognition to the bullpen and the vital role they play. It has also led me to further examine the career of the top two closers of all-time. Clearly Rivera is the greatest closer of all-time statistically, and Hoffman was no slouch with his 601 career saves. However, should the debate be so easily resolved as to anoint Rivera as the gold standard with Hoffman merely leading the charge behind him in the record books? I believe Hoffman should at least garner the same level of accolades as Rivera. These two pitchers defined the position, yet only one has properly been given his due.

Announcing he would retire after the 2013 season led the media to examine where Mariano Rivera’s career lies in baseball and New York Yankee history. Much of the media, especially in New York, felt it was a forgone conclusion that Rivera is the greatest closer of all-time. The question of whether he belongs on the Mount Rushmore of the Yankees history was also debated. It seems the popular opinion was he is close but with only four spots who do you take down between Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, or Mickey Mantle? Is he ahead of Yogi Berra? I would say no. He is also behind Derek Jeter as the face of the Yankees from this generation. His record 652 saves and 42 post season saves brought the respect and honors he deserved. However, for all the discussion about Rivera and his greatest there seems to be a sense that he stands alone at the top among closers. The media steadfastly insisted there is an enormous gap between him and the next greatest closer in baseball history. This is where I strongly disagree. I am not disputing Rivera’s greatness, what I am disputing is that he is that much greater than the guy right behind him, Trevor Hoffman.

Mariano Rivera throwing the cutter.

Mariano Rivera throwing the cutter.

Comparing the career numbers of these two great pitchers shows how close they are at face value. Mariano pitched 19 seasons in Major League Baseball, all with the New York Yankees. He collected 652 saves, with a 2.21 ERA, 1.000 WHIP, and 4.10 strikeout/walks. He had nine seasons with over 40 saves. Rivera was a starter for the Yankees in 1995. He was the setup man for John Wetteland and saved only 5 games in 1996. In 2012, he only saved 5 games before tearing his ACL in Kansas City early in the season.

Trevor Hoffman pitched for 18 seasons with the Florida Marlins, San Diego Padres, and Milwaukee Brewers. He amassed 601 saves, with a 2.87 ERA, 1.058 WHIP, and 3.69 strikeout/walk. He had nine seasons with over 40 saves. Hoffman saved only five games in 1993 during his time with the Marlins and the Padres. He only pitched nine innings, recording no saves in 2003 after having major shoulder surgery.

Mariano Rivera*

Trevor Hoffman

19

Seasons

18

652

Saves

601

592

Games Finished

856

2.21

ERA

2.87

4.10

SO/BB

3.69

1.000

WHIP

1.058

0.594

Team Winning %

0.481

96

Avg Team W’s/ Year

78

The careers of Rivera and Hoffman have been similar; both had tremendous seasons, both had a season where they were not the primary closer, and both lost a season due to injury. Statistically Rivera has a slight advantage in most categories. It can be, and probably should be, argued that individually Rivera is the better pitcher, but it never hurts to have a better team behind you. During Rivera’s career with the Yankees, the team has a .594 winning percentage, an average of 96 wins per season. Hoffman spent a part of a season with the expansion Marlins, 15 and a half seasons with the Padres, and two seasons with the Brewers. These teams had a combined .481 winning percentage, an average of 76 wins per season. Hoffman had roughly 20 fewer opportunities to record a save every season.

Trevor Hoffman throwing a circle change.

Trevor Hoffman throwing a circle change.

Baseball can sometimes hide some of the great players because of the teams they play on. Trevor Hoffman should be in the same conversation as Mariano Rivera for greatest closer in baseball history. Unfortunately, Hoffman played for worse teams and in smaller markets where the media spotlight is not as bright. New York City is the media capital of the United States, arguably the world. San Diego on the other hand is more laid back. New Yorkers and their media are concerned with being the best and expect nothing less. If they do not win the World Series, the entire season was a failure. San Diego seeks to build on their previous season and work towards the playoffs and making a deep run. They can have successful seasons without winning a World Series. Rivera and Hoffman in some ways reflect the cities and the teams they played for. Rivera was dominant and continually marching towards winning a championship. However, he was also quiet and the last person to tout his own accomplishments, unlike his city and the Yankee fans. Hoffman went about his business in a no nonsense manner and sought to intimidate the opposing team. While San Diego is not the in your face town that New York is, the city and Hoffman are comfortable with doing their job and enjoying life without all the media attention. Rivera and Hoffman were reflections of both what their cities and teams were and what they were not.

The Padres will never draw the same level of attention as the Yankees, and because of this Trevor Hoffman was not as visible or as popular as Mariano Rivera across the baseball landscape. The Yankees and their players are known across the country, the Padres are known locally and to die-hard baseball people. Ultimately I would give a slight advantage to Rivera over Hoffman, primarily due to his mastery of a single pitch, the cutter. However, when you look at the numbers and the teams they pitched for these two great closers are closer to one another than many people are willing to admit.

Enter Sandman

Enter Sandman

Rivera benefited from playing for the Yankees for his entire career, especially during one of the great eras of the franchise. During his 19 year career, the Yankees never had a losing record; the worst season being in 1995 with the Yankees going 79-65 in the shortened season due to the 1994 strike. Hoffman on the other hand routinely played for teams which were fighting through losing seasons. He was a member of six teams with winning records; only two of these teams won more than 90 games. Closers are among the most dependent players on a baseball team, as their jobs are almost exclusively to finish games in which their team in winning. This shows the brilliance of Hoffman as he was able to reach 601 career saves with a less than ideal situation.

The 51 saves which separate Rivera from Hoffman could be bridged with a single elite 19th season by Trevor Hoffman. However with both pitchers being retired, the only way to bridge the gap between would be to examine the realities of their careers. Rivera, through his being on the perennial winner with the Yankees, was able to gain the potential for an additional 20 wins per season. While I recognize the 20 additional wins by Rivera and the Yankees over Hoffman and predominantly the Padres will not result in 20 additional save opportunities. Rivera saved 36% of the Yankees’ victories during his career and Hoffman saved 44% of his teams’ victories during his career. Suggesting Hoffman conservatively would have saved 30% of the additional 20 victories each year could have meant an extra six saves a season for an extra 108 saves for Hoffman during his 18 season career, bringing his career saves total to 709. If you take away the additional 20 wins from the Yankees every season, using the same 30% of games saved or six fewer games saved, Mariano Rivera would have ended his career with 544 saves. This would put him 57 saves behind Hoffman’s 601 career saves.

Hoffman coming straight at you.

Hell’s Bells coming straight at you.

There is no denying Mariano Rivera’s greatness. He threw one pitch, the cutter. Every pitch he knew what he would throw, so did the catcher, the batter, and everyone else in the stadium. His ability to continuously finish games speaks to the remarkable ability he possessed with a baseball. Trevor Hoffman did not possess the same skills with a single pitch in the way Rivera did. He came up with the Marlins throwing a ferocious fastball, but had to develop a change-up once he lost velocity on his fastball due to a shoulder injury. Rivera was blessed with the cutter, Hoffman had to reinvent himself and grind out saves throughout his career.

Replacing Trevor Hoffman or Mariano Rivera is no small task. Heath Bell replaced Hoffman in San Diego in 2009. he began the season with 2 career saves. Bell successfully saved 42 games in 2009 and 132 over the next three years before he signed a three year deal with the Miami Marlins as a free agent prior to the 2012 season. David Robertson came into the 2014 season with 8 career saves. Only time will tell if he is a worthy successor to Mariano Rivera. The two greatest closers in Major League history combined for 1,253 career saves, or nearly eight full seasons. Both should be clear cut Hall of Famers, as they are the best at what they did and they were able to maintain their success over 19 seasons for Rivera and 18 seasons for Hoffman. While the media focused on Mariano Rivera last season and his farewell tour around baseball, the sustained brilliance of Hoffman without the constant media spotlight should not be lost. Rivera and Hoffman are in a class by themselves. The Yankees and Padres have played an important role in where there two great pitchers fall in baseball history. If Rivera were a Padre and Hoffman a Yankee the roles could easily be reversed, with Hoffman holding the record for most career saves and Rivera following close behind. Regardless of the order, both men were great to watch and brought out the best for themselves, their teams, and for baseball.

D

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