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Monday, September 19, 2011
Updated: September 20, 3:15 AM ET
Mariano Rivera a true model of greatness

If you really needed to see Mariano Rivera break the "all-time" saves record to anoint him as The Greatest Closer ever, we need to ask you this question immediately:

What the heck have you been watching for the past decade and a half?

This man would have been The Greatest Closer Ever if he'd retired a week ago, or a year ago, or even five years ago.

He's a special man, with a special gift and a special pitch. And he's been riding that pitch and that gift to a level of dominance we shouldn't need a record -- any record -- to pay notice.

But sometimes these historic moments cause us to take a step back and admire men like this, and their unparalleled feats, in a whole new light. So let's do that now, as Three Strikes salutes the brilliance of Mariano Rivera:

Strike One -- Beyond Compare Dept.

There's no better way to measure any player than to compare him to his peers. Except in The Great Mariano's case, does he even have any peers?

He now has saved 602 regular-season baseball games. Not a single other active pitcher is within 100 of him. Or 200 of him. Or even 250 of him. Seriously.

The No. 2 active reliever in career saves is Francisco Cordero -- who is 279 saves behind, with 323.

So what does this mean? It means that Rivera has an incomprehensible 86.4 percent more saves than the CLOSEST active reliever. That's 86.4 percent.

And if your first thought is, "Has any other record-breaker in this sport towered over his "peers" quite like that?" We now have an answer:

No way.

We swapped a bunch of emails last week with loyal reader Chris Isidore on this topic -- and he got so fascinated, he went looking for somebody, anybody, who had a greater margin at the time he broke any other prestigious career record. And nobody turned up. Nobody.

• Babe Ruth? Nope. Back in 1921, when he set the career home-run record with his 139th, that was only 63.5 percent more homers than Home Run Baker (85), who ranked No. 2 at the time.

• Rickey Henderson? Sorry. When he swiped his 939th base in 1991, that was only 47.4 percent more at the time than Tim Raines (637). In fact, Lou Brock had a greater margin (50 percent) over Bert Campaneris 16 years earlier when he set the record Rickey eventually broke.

• Pete Rose? 'Fraid not. When he set the all-time hits record with his 4,190th in 1985, Rod Carew was at 3,030 (a 38.3-percent gap).

• Cy Young? Not even on the same radar screen. The all-time wins record was only 366 when Young broke it in 1903. So he was only 11 percent ahead of Kid Nichols, who was at 329.

In fact, Isidore found only one other gap that was higher than 38 percent. That was Walter Johnson's pad of 57.5 percent over Grover Cleveland Alexander when Johnson set the all-time strikeouts record in 1921.

Now we recognize it's almost laughable to use the term "all-time" to describe this saves record when, in fact, the save rule has only existed for about four decades. But all of Rivera's "peers" have been doing their thing in this same, save-crazed era he's been pitching in. And of the seven other active relievers with 200 saves or more, six are in their 30s and five are age 33 or older.

So it's hard to look at ANY other active pitcher in the game and think he has a realistic chance to break this record. And that, friends, is saying something.

Strike Two -- To The Whip

You know the biggest problem with this record? It's that it's causing us to celebrate a guy for compiling one of the most overrated stats in the history of Stat Land.

Not that saves are not particularly misleading in Mariano Rivera's case, but they can sure be dubious in general. So let's look elsewhere in our quest to define this man's greatness:

At WHIP, for instance.

Rivera has been pitching in the big leagues for 17 seasons now. And he's done something that ought to be impossible in this day and age. Check this out:

Innings pitched: 1,209
Baserunners (via hits and walks): 1,207

So what's his career WHIP? You can round it off to 1.00, but if you head far enough right of the decimal points, it's actually 0.9983. Loyal reader Aaron Heider has been tracking this for us for more than a year. And the more we think about it, the more we realize it's the most underappreciated stat on Rivera's whole encyclopedia page.

Try to comprehend this. Try to digest what it means to make more than 1,000 appearances, face more than 4,000 hitters and still somehow allow fewer baserunners than innings pitched.

Among all the pitchers who ever worked more than 1,000 innings in the big leagues -- and there have been more than 1,100 of them -- you know how many other men have had a lifetime WHIP of 1.00 or lower? Exactly two.

One was Addie Joss (0.97). He threw his last pitch in 1910.

The other was Big Ed Walsh (0.9996). He packed it in back in 1917.

In other words, this was achieved once by two guys who pitched, like, a century ago. And then NOBODY else did it -- until Mariano Rivera came along.

Only two pitchers from Rivera's approximate era have even come close -- Trevor Hoffman (1.06) and Pedro Martinez (1.05). Might as well start chiseling their Hall of Fame plaques right now.

Even if we lower the bar to 500 innings, we can find only one other modern reliever with a WHIP in Rivera's area code -- the underrated Billy Wagner 0.998 -- in 903 innings.

Next lowest by any active reliever: 1.108, by Joe Nathan (in 726 2/3 innings).

Next lowest by an active reliever with 1,000 innings or more: 1.304, by Arthur Rhodes.

Are we all in agreement that WHIP tells us infinitely more about any pitcher's level of dominance than his saves total? Of course, we are (meaning all those who disagree are now free to leave us and get back to work on their fantasy synchronized-swimming roster).

And if we are, isn't this debate officially over? Correct answer: Yessir.

Strike Three -- Useless Domination Dept.

In other news …

• In 10 of Rivera's 17 seasons, he's had an ERA under 2.00. Next most by any relief pitcher in history (in seasons of 50 innings or more) is six, by Wagner and Hoyt Wilhelm. The only pitcher in any role with more seasons with a sub-2.00 ERA: Walter Johnson (11).

• Rivera is headed for his eighth season with a WHIP lower than 1.00. The only other relief pitcher ever to do that: Wagner (also eight). The only starting pitcher in history with more seasons under 1.00: Johnson (nine).

• In all these years, Rivera has blown only 72 saves -- in 674 opportunities. That's two fewer blown saves than our old amigo Dan Plesac had in his entire career -- in 242 opportunities.

• In 15 trips to the postseason, Rivera has held the best hitters on the best teams on earth, in the most important games of his career, to this remarkable slash line: .176/.213/.229. When we went searching for any active hitter who hits like that, you know who we came up with? Zach Duke (.176/.205/.217). Yeah, he's a pitcher. When we confined that search only to active position players, we got Drew Butera (.172/.209/.252). In other words, when the Yankees have sent this man to the mound in October, he's turned EVERY hitter he's faced into the equivalent of a good-fielding, light-hitting back-up catcher, or a pitcher with a half-decent clue about what that piece of ash is used for. Unreal.

• Finally, there's one more modern stat that speaks volumes about any pitcher, and that's Adjusted ERA-Plus. And what's Rivera's Adjusted ERA-Plus for his career? How about 205 -- meaning he's pitched more than 50 percent better than your average pitcher. Just to put that in perspective, the only active starting pitcher who has ever had an Adjusted ERA-Plus that good just for one SEASON is Zack Greinke, who hit 205 on the nose in his 2009 Cy Young season. And the only active closers who have had more than TWO seasons with an Adjusted ERA-Plus that good are Nathan (with five) and Jonathan Papelbon (with three). Rivera? He's had 12. But if we head back to the career list, as Chris Isidore points out, the next best Adjusted ERA-Plus by any pitcher in history is 154 -- by Pedro Martinez. There are 575 pitchers within 50 points of Pedro -- but NOBODY within 50 points of Mariano Rivera.

So what most people are saluting at this historic moment is this man's save total. But what we prefer to salute is the astonishing career that produced all those saves. And friends, there has never been another career like it.

That's a case that should have been closed a long, long time ago -- long before this man collected Save No. 602, anyway.