Two Quick Thoughts on Leyland’s Decision to Use Mariano Rivera in the Eighth Inning

During last night’s All-Star game, American League manager Jim Leyland called upon Mariano Rivera, the undisputed greatest closer of all time, to pitch the eighth inning.  It was an incredible scene as fans and players (at the game and at home) paid tribute to a truly great baseball player making his last All-Star appearance.  Unfortunately, some people have questioned Leyland’s decision to use Rivera in the eighth inning as opposed to the ninth, which deprived Rivera of the chance to earn the “save.”

However, I had no problem with Leyland’s decision (and it does not appear that Rivera did either).  In fact, Leyland’s decision to use Rivera in the eighth inning made me think of the following somewhat related points:

1.       Honoring Rivera’s Season as a “Set Up” Man in 1996

After failing as a starter in 1995, the 26 year-old Mariano Rivera was utilized exclusively in middle relief in 1996, and, arguably, he produced his finest season of his career.  Rivera logged career highs in innings pitched (107.2), strike outs (130), and strike outs per nine innings (10.9).  Incredibly, Rivera gave up only one homerun the entire season, which – discounting his 2012 season where he pitched only 8.1 innings due to injury – is the lowest per-season total of his career.  This is a pretty incredible feat considering Rivera faced 425 batters that season – over 100 more batters than Rivera’s second highest season total.  Rivera also led the major leagues in holds (27).  Ultimately, Rivera finished third in the American League Cy Young voting, behind a pair of 20-game winners (Cy Young winner Pat Hentgen and Andy Pettitte).  With increased statistical analysis and deemphasizing of the “win,” it is clear that Rivera would have presented more of a challenge to Hentgen if the vote were held today.  (Pettite had 21 wins with a 3.87 ERA, 1.36 WHIP.)

In fact, in the 1996 postseason, Rivera (along with Jeff Nelson and Graeme Lloyd) was the foundation to the bullpen.  Although John Wetteland eventually won the World Series MVP for saving four games, the reality is that Rivera did the yeoman’s work throughout the postseason run.  Rivera pitched 14.1 innings (mostly in the seventh and eighth innings) in 8 separate games, compiling a 0.63 ERA and holding opposing batters to a .196 batting average.

Bringing Rivera in for the eighth inning – and having him ultimately win the All-Star MVP award for his work – feels like Rivera’s career has come full circle and perhaps makes up for the lack of recognition Rivera received for his outstanding work in 1996.  The Yankees would not have won the World Series that year without his performance.  Perhaps more importantly, Rivera’s appearance last night allows everyone to see that Rivera’s greatness is not defined by the number of saves he has recorded.

2.       The Devaluing of the “Save” Statistic

Despite not recording the “win” or the “save,” Rivera was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.  This award was most likely received as a tribute to a simply incredible career, but it is still noteworthy that the “set up man” won the MVP.  Leyland received a lot of flak for naming Chris Tillman to the All-Star team (over players such as James Shields and Hiroki Kuroda) because Leyland was favoring “wins” over other statistics that may be more representative of the level of a pitcher’s success.  But, perhaps Leyland’s decision to use the greatest closer of all time in the eighth inning last night sent a message regarding the value of the “save.”

The closer role in baseball has become extremely specialized.  Most managers will only use the anointed closers in “save situations,” and closers normally enter the game with no runners on base and for only the ninth inning.  This specialization of the closer role has caused other “rules” to take hold, such as never using a closer in a tie game on the road.

Often, however, baseball games are won and lost long before the ninth inning.  Some of the best pitchers in the game are the unheralded middle relievers who pitch in high-leverage situations in the middle innings.   These pitchers often enter the game in the sixth and seventh innings with runners on base or are asked to pitch multiple innings to “bridge the gap” to the closer.  The utilization of these middle relievers (when compared to the protection of closers) begs the question:  who is really more valuable?  The closer who only comes in for one inning with no runners on base or the pitcher who enters the game with two runners on base in the seventh inning?

Nothing irks me more than when a bullpen coughs up a lead late and the team’s closer never gets in the game because the manager was holding him back for the ninth inning.  Theoretically, the team’s closer is the best pitcher in the bullpen, so shouldn’t he be utilized during the most important moments of the game?  However, every fan can recall instances where the team’s closer was not even warming up yet while lesser members of the bullpen blow a lead.

Using Rivera in the eighth inning last night was a reminder that the “save” statistic is not necessarily a great barometer for measuring the success of a reliever and that managers should really re-think their utilization of the bullpen.  Instead of making sure the team’s “closer” earns a save, I would love to see a manager who uses his best relief pitchers during the biggest moments of the game.

I am sure that Leyland’s use of Rivera in the eighth inning last night was probably not meant to point out the illogicality of the “save” statistic or to provide a statement on the way major league bullpens are utilized, but seeing the greatest closer of all-time pitching before the ninth inning brought these issues to mind.