Understanding the booming, illogical relief pitcher economy through an appraisal of Mariano Rivera
Mariano Rivera, Bronx Dreams, Pinstripe Legends,
and the Future of the New York Yankees
By Charley Rosen
Harper; 384 pp; $25.99
The aphorism "You manage what you measure" can explain a great deal of the world's foolish behavior. The corporate chief executive who tries to kowtow to Wall Street rather than attend to business is, after all, simply enhancing his company's stock price—which is what we measure. While reading Charley Rosen's Bullpen Diaries, it occurred to me that the adage might even explain baseball. In what sounds like a dream job, Rosen watched every pitch of the New York Yankees' 2010 season, but his focus is the bullpen. And within that, his prime subject is the Yankees' incomparable closer, Mariano Rivera.
Rivera, the son of a Panamanian fisherman, was already 20 years old when he signed with the Yankees for a paltry $3,500 in 1990. He did not reach the majors until he was 25; the next year, 1996, his career turned with the almost accidental development of an unhittable pitch. Rivera's fastball, it turned out, would not stay level; after trying to correct the "problem" by changing his delivery, he started throwing a so-called cut fastball that ferociously "cut" in on a batter's hands. Hitters knew it was coming but still missed. Many who made contact shattered their bats.
Watching Rivera remains one of the unspoiled pleasures left in big-time sports. He resembles an Egyptian deity, still and sphinx-like on the mound, his expression an enigmatic blank until, of a flash, he uncorks that cutter. Over the past 17 seasons the pitch has allowed him to rack up 570-plus saves and counting, fast closing in on Trevor Hoffman's record of 601. Rivera's virtuosity for collecting saves has earned him more than $130 million during the course of his career, not including his $15 million salary this season. It's an astonishing testimony to baseball's fetish for specialization. And therein lies a problem.
Rivera enters the game almost exclusively to record three outs in the ninth inning. And not just in any old ninth inning: He generally pitches only in a close game, to save a lead and nail down the win. Last year he pitched 60 innings and made more than $83,000 for each out he recorded. He racked up a quarter-million dollars per inning.
Whether the Yankee ownership is getting its money's worth is not among life's great philosophical questions, but the optimal use of relief pitchers assuredly is. Today, bullpen aces are handled like hothouse flowers, but it was not always thus. As Rosen notes, Goose Gossage, the mustachioed fireman of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, racked up 53 saves in which he retired at least seven batters. Rivera, on the other hand, has accomplished that feat just once. What's changed? Two things. First, the sport has developed a slavish devotion to saves—a textbook case of (mis)managing what you measure. The save statistic wasn't even created until 1969, and as economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein have written, "Most thoughtful observers realized long ago that this is a really dumb statistic."
The problem is that the definition of a save is arbitrary. A pitcher entering the game at the beginning of the ninth when the score is tied is ineligible, whereas one who enters with a three-run lead will qualify. Such a stat does a poor job of measuring what it ought to—who contributes most to winning. And, according to Thaler and Sunstein, teams with a three-run lead in the ninth win 97 percent of the time anyway. An ace is not necessarily required for the job.
Second, besides giving agents a benchmark for negotiation, the measurement of saves has influenced managerial decisions for the worse. In theory, managers should use their best reliever whenever the game is on the line. Yet they do not. Thus, Rosen writes repeatedly (and uncritically) of how the Yankees' $15 million arm is reserved for a "save situation." To fully understand the illogic of designating the closer exclusively for ninth-inning work—and other so-called specialists for the seventh and eighth innings—one must remember that runs are equally valuable no matter the inning in which they are scored. This extreme specialization is motivated less by strategy than by managerial insecurity. A game lost in the eighth inning provokes the question of who was pitching and why the manager didn't yank him. A game lost in the fourth is simply a loss.
Rosen bows to the baseball cliché that only pitchers with icy veins can handle the ninth. And while Rivera might seem to prove the point, the pitcher's own take is more humble. Closing, he says, is simply a matter of being able to turn the page after a bad outing. Then again, starting pitchers have to do that, too. One is left to conclude that closers, as an asset, are systemically—and expensively—misused. But Yankees Manager Joe Girardi, like those other bosses in pinstripes, has also figured out that his $3 million per year job will be safer if he adheres to a conventional measuring stick—even if it doesn't actually maximize his chances of winning.