Goose Gossage vs. Mariano Rivera

March, 12, 2013
Goose Gossage is 61, which I guess is old enough to turn the Hall of Fame relief pitcher into a grumpy old man, or at least a grumpy middle-aged man. Over the weekend, Gossage told Newsday that Mariano Rivera is certainly great, BUT ...
"I think that these guys are so dominant in that one-inning role that they've forgotten what we used to do," the former Yankees closer said. "It takes three guys to do what we used to do."
[+] EnlargeGoose Gossage
AP PhotoComparing relief pitchers, such as Goose Gossage and Mariano Rivera, across generations is a hard task to do.
Joe Posnanski followed up with a blog post that, well, ripped the Goose a pretty good one. I do agree with what Joe wrote here:
The obvious reason is that it diminishes Goose Gossage to talk this way. Goose Gossage was a great pitcher. A truly great pitcher. Gossage is in the Hall of Fame, he's widely remembered, he does not need to go around telling people how great he was or how he wasn't used the way pitchers today are used. I think it cheapens him to do so, especially when he uses the beloved Mariano Rivera for effect. Rivera has been gracious and classy and respectful. Gossage shouldn't use him as a prop.

Posnanski then goes into a lengthy discussion of the careers of the two relievers and why Rivera is the greatest relief pitcher ever:
OK, do you see? Rivera was better. A lot better. He was better in cold numbers, and he was a lot better when you take into consideration the eras when they pitched. For Rivera to match Gossage in the basic numbers, he would have had to pitch 278 more innings -- all those multiple innings that Gossage pitched -- and he would have to allow 201 more (a tidy 6.51 ERA). He would have had to walk 350 or so batters in those innings, while allowing 42 home runs. And he would have had to do all that in a much lower scoring run environment. I'm guessing here, of course, but I think he could have managed it.

What I'm wondering, however, is whether that's a fair approach. Tack on a lot of bad innings so you can see how much better Rivera was than Gossage. I don't think it's that simple, for several reasons.

First off, it is easier to pitch one inning at a time than the multiple innings Gossage did, especially early in his career when he had years of 141.2, 133 and 134.1 innings in relief. I don't think anybody really disputes that. One reason we see so many dominant relief seasons now is because it's easier to get three outs than five or six or nine. Rivera isn't the only reliever over the past two decades to post huge numbers; he's just done it longer than everybody else.

Now, as Posnanski points out, Gossage certainly remembers those three big seasons of his -- but Goose had just one other 100-inning season in his career. Posnanski also points out that Gossage's ERA in one-inning relief appearances in his career wasn't that great (3.75), although I'm guessing many of those came in the last several years of his career, when he wasn't the same dominant reliever he had been from 1975 to 1985. Let alone that some came after he may have pitched three innings the day before.

I think Joe is short-changing Gossage's workload just a bit, even if he did only have those three super seasons (with one mediocre season as a starter thrown in). If we rank the most relief innings each pitcher had in a season, it would go like this:


Those are all their seasons with at least 80 innings (not counting Gossage's year as a starter). Rivera had two; Gossage had eight, including six of at least 90 innings, something Rivera did just once, as a setup guy in 1996.

What we don't know is how dominant Gossage would have been if he'd had Rivera's workload. He had a career 2.77 ERA as a reliever (Rivera's is 2.05 in, as Posnanski also points out, a higher-scoring era). But isn't it likely Gossage would have been more dominant pitching in one-inning stints? That maybe he would have remained great into his late 30s instead of declining in his mid-30s if he hadn't had such a heavy workload early in his career?

And likewise, we don't know what would have happened to Rivera if had come up in 1975 instead of 1995. Maybe he burns out after a few years, unable to handle those 130-inning seasons. Maybe he's great for a decade and then, like Gossage, slowly peters out. Ultimately, it's a question that can't be answered, just like we don't know what would have happened had Rivera been moved back as a starter at some point.

Look, is Rivera the greatest relief pitcher of all time? I do believe he is. He's been so good for so long -- not to mention his postseason record (0.70 ERA in 141 innings) -- that it's hard to make any other argument. But comparing relief pitchers across generations is even more difficult than other positions.

I don't think Gossage is entirely off base, however. Even if he is a cranky middle-aged guy who played in an era where one of the major issues was complaining about beer being removed from the clubhouse after games.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger



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