King of the Hill, in a manner of speaking

July 6, 2013

MARIANO RIVERA

MARIANO RIVERA

The Times, perhaps because it realizes that the window of opportunity is rapidly closing, published a story on June 30, in which Joshua Prager makes the case that by “just about every metric, simple or complex, (Mariano) Rivera is the greatest relief pitcher ever.”

I love Mariano Rivera, and baseball metrics, as much as the next fellow, but I have a problem with words like “ever” in comparisons like this one.

In the recent Times account, the marquee statistic among those used to make this case is the so-called WHIP, which is the average of walks plus hits per innings pitched. When the story was written, Rivera’s average was 1.0035, meaning that in the 1086 innings that Rivera has pitched in his career as of this moment, he has allowed about one hit or walk per inning. A WHIP average approaching this has been rare over the history of baseball. That statistic wasn’t kept until relatively recently, but it has been calculated retroactively and, as The Times points out, Rivera’s average is the third lowest among pitchers who have thrown 1000 or more innings.

ADDIE JOSS

ADDIE JOSS

The lowest WHIP average, 0.9678, belongs to Addie Joss, who pitched for the American League Cleveland franchise from 1902 to 1910 and also was a very popular sports writer in Toledo and Cleveland. Joss pitched a one-hitter in his major league debut, pitched the second perfect game in major league history, and pitched another no-hitter. He was ill throughout most of his career and died at 32 after contracting malaria. Because he pitched only nine seasons, he was not eligible for election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but he was admitted under a special rule.

Second place on the WHIP list, with an average of 0.9996, is Ed Walsh,  who pitched from 1904 to 1917, virtually all of it with the Chicago White Sox. He also holds the record for lowest career earned-run average: 1.82. His finest individual season came in 1908 when he went 40–15 with 269 strikeouts, 6 saves and a 1.42 ERA.

ED WALSH

ED WALSH

Inasmuch as The Times called attention to these two players, I will cite their records in order to make my own point. As The Times story mentions, most of Rivera’s relief appearances consist of one inning. Addie Joss and Ed Walsh were starters, not relievers. But the relief specialist as we now know him — the middle reliever, the set-up man, the closer — didn’t exist in that era or for many decades afterward. Ed Rommel’s 17-inning relief appearance in 1932 was an anomaly, to be sure, but relievers for most of baseball history could not count on pitching one inning per appearance.

In compiling his WHIP average, Joss appeared in 286 games and pitched 2327 innings, an average of 8.14 innings per game. Walsh appeared in 430 games and pitched 2964 innings, an average of 6.89 innings per game. To cite a later example, Hoyt Wilhelm, who pitched mostly relief for many teams from 1952 to 1972, appeared in 1070 games and pitched 2254 innings, an average of 2.10 innings per game.

At this writing, Rivera had appeared in 1086 games and pitched only 1251 innings, an average of 1.15 innings per game. His performance has been astounding. It is unheard of for a pitcher to achieve his level of success, to be virtually unhittable, while throwing only one pitch. But pitching one inning per game is a modern, one might say post-modern, phenomenon in baseball. It’s pointless to speculate about how Rivera would have fared if he had been a starter or a long reliever or the jack-of-all-trades that was common in the earlier history of the game. We can certainly appreciate him for the unique player he has been, but “the greatest relief pitcher ever”  — EVER?  In a game like baseball, that has been played by so many men and that has evolved over so many years, that kind of statement is impossible to defend.

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2 Responses to “King of the Hill, in a manner of speaking”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    Even someone as mathematically challenged and lacking in baseball knowledge as me can follow your argument on this one. Of all the baseball discussions I’ve heard – not that many, but more each year – at least half or more are concerned with the role of the relief pitcher today, and the ways that stats are used to prove that this is the greatest era, ever.

    Of course, we’re perhaps one of the most self-congratulatory societies ever, so it makes a certain sense.

    In any event, I brought you a little baseball present. An older woman whose blog I read is quite an accomplished artist. Just today she posted a wonderful watercolor titled “Balk” . I know you’ll enjoy seeing it, and reading of her own love of the game.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I do love that water color. A confrontation between an umpire and either a player or manager provides such a wonderful dramatic or comedic sidelight to a game. And when the umpire gets to make that grand gesture in which he throws someone out of a game — well, I want to get to do that, just once!

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