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.

WARREN SPAHN

Since it was our 47th wedding anniversary, Pat and I went to dinner Monday night at that great Italian place in Clinton. We ate on the patio. In the opposite corner was a family of four — parents and a teenager of each gender. Before we got there, some guy who was riding a bike along the sidewalk recognized the family and stopped to talk. In fact, he parked the bike and sat down on the brick wall and made himself comfortable. The father in the family act, pretty much ignoring everyone else at the table, spend the time shooting baseball trivia questions at the visitor. I found this a little off-putting, both because he was talking loud enough for us to hear and because of the quality of the questions. What left-handed pitcher won the most games lifetime? Puh-leez! Give me something I can work with, will ya? (By the way, that was Warren Spahn with 363, which is also the greatest number of wins by any pitcher who spent his entire career in the live-ball era.)

Now, me? I would have asked him about Allen Travers, capisce? I was thinking about Travers the other night when the announcers on the Yankee broadcast were obsessing over the fact that Phil Hughes had thrown 106 pitches in a game for the first time this season.

EDDIE ROMMEL

Besides making me worry that Hughes might have to spend the rest of his life with a prosthetic arm, that conversation got me to thinking about all the great performances that would never have taken place if the pitch count had been a part of baseball from the beginning.

I was thinking, for example, about Eddie Rommel — later an American League umpire — who spent 12 years pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics and supposedly invented the knuckle ball as we now know it. In 1932, Rommel came in in relief against the Indians in the second inning, behind 3-2. He pitched 17 innings, gave up 29 hits and 15 runs, and won the game 18-17. The 29 hits allowed is still the single-game record.

Travers was a different matter. He was a student at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia in 1912 when Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers went into the stands at Hilltop Park in New York to pummel a New York Highlanders fan who had been verbally abusing him during a game. It turned out that the fan had lost one hand and several fingers from the other hand in an industrial accident. Ban Johnson, president of the American League, suspended Cobb indefinitely. When the Tigers were supposed to play the Athletics in Philly a couple of days later the team announced that they wouldn’t take the field until Cobb was re-instated.

Fr ALOYSIUS TRAVERS

The League told the Tigers they faced a $5,000 fine and would forfeit every game until there were players. To avoid the penalties, the Tigers enlisted Allen Travers — non-playing manager of the St. Joseph baseball squad — to round up a team off the streets and sandlots of Philadelphia. The nine guys were signed by the Cardinals. Travers was on the mound, and no one counted his pitches. He pitched eight innings and gave up 24 runs, which is still the major league record. The Athletics won the game, 24-2.

Travers later became a Jesuit and taught in college and high school in New York and Philadelphia. The 24 runs allowed wasn’t his only record. He was also the only major league player to become a Catholic priest.

But who’s counting?

You can read a fuller account of Father Travers’ experience by clicking HERE.