By the Numbers: Rivera may be game's greatest closer, for what that's worth

Greg Jayne: By the Numbers

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

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Sure, the numbers are remarkable.

You could spend a week or three viewing Mariano Rivera's statistics on baseball-reference.com and marveling at his dominance.

You know, like the 2.20 career ERA, which is the best among anybody since Walter Johnson. Or the 638 saves (and counting), which means that a pitcher could average 40 saves for 16 years and just barely pass Rivera's current total.

And while Rivera received a fitting and poignant send off at this week's All-Star Game, my favorite story about him came to light earlier this year.

While making his final trip around the league, Rivera has been spending time meeting with workers at each ballpark. No, not opposing players and executives, but real people. He has been meeting with ushers and ticket-takers and custodial crews, thanking them for their efforts over the years.

Great pitcher. Classy guy.

Which probably makes him an imperfect subject for examining this question, but we'll ask it anyway: How valuable are closers?

The San Francisco Giants won the World Series last year despite having nobody with more than 25 saves during the regular season. The Cardinals won it the year before despite having nobody with more than 24 saves. The Nationals had the best record in baseball last season despite a "closer" who went 2-6 with a 3.72 ERA.

Rivera is the best at his craft, and he has saved well over 600 games, but how many of those could have been saved by an average closer over the years?

We'll start by looking at save percentages.

Through the All-Star break, Rivera had blown 75 saves in his career, giving him a conversion rate of 89.5 percent in the regular season. As a reference point, over the past 2 1/2 seasons, since the start of 2011, the major-league conversion rate is 68.9 percent.

That's a pretty big difference, but it's not groundbreaking. Joe Nathan, who ranks second among active pitchers with 328 saves, has a conversion rate of 90.1 percent; Jose Valverde has 286 saves and a rate of 88.3 percent.

Of course, Rivera has more saves than Nathan and Valverde combined, so that's a bit like comparing knuckleballs to cut fastballs.

But in 2012, when Rivera was injured for most of the season, Rafael Soriano converted 42 of 46 save opportunities and had a 2.26 ERA as his replacement.

It just seems as though elite relievers tend to receive too much credit for their team's success, while the Bobby Ayalas of the world (Mariner fans are gouging their eyes out at the mere mention of his name) receive too much blame. Ayala's 17.47 postseason ERA might have something to do with that.

Since becoming the Yankees' closer, Rivera has never pitched more than 80 2/3 innings in a season, and it's difficult to make the argument that he can be more valuable than a good starter who puts up 200 innings a season.

That makes it difficult to accurately assess Rivera's standing among history's greatest pitchers. He has pitched about 1,250 innings in the regular season, which, for example, is about one-quarter as many as Greg Maddux pitched. Yet he has pitched them in high-pressure situations and has pitched them about as well as can be imagined.

Add in Rivera's unparalleled postseason record with an absurd 0.70 ERA, and I think he ranks among the 15 greatest pitchers in the history of the game. But you can find very knowledgeable people who would have him much lower.

Is Rivera a better pitcher than Bob Gibson? Has he been more valuable than Bob Feller or Jim Palmer or even Andy Pettitte? I don't know.

But I do know that Rivera has set a standard for relief pitching that likely never will be matched.

Question or comment for By the Numbers? You can reach Greg Jayne, Sports editor emeritus of The Columbian, at 360-735-4531, or by email at greg.jayne@columbian.com. Follow him on Twitter: @col_gjayne