In the days that followed Mariano Rivera’s season ending knee injury there was a lot of speculation that he’d played his last game. We’ve learned that he plans on playing next year, which is good for all baseball fans, not just Yankees fan, but it also brought to the forefront, at least in my family, Rivera’s Hall of Fame candidacy. My Uncle Bob sent me some angry facebook messages last Friday saying that if Edgar Martinez isn’t in the hall, then Rivera should be left out also:
(This is what you get for sending me crazy messages in the middle of the day Uncle Bob)
Uncle Bob: If the HOF lets Rivera in, they better let Edgar in!
Me: Edgar doesn’t hold any hitting records to my knowledge!
Uncle Bob: Would Rivera if he wasn’t just a closer? I hate closers! Lol. He’s only thrown over 100 innings a year once since being in the bigs!
Me: Ya, but Ozzie Smith had only 28 career homeruns. Different benchmarks for different positions
Uncle Bob: I know that. But a “closer” is no more of a position than a DH is. And besides that, there’s not an award named for Rivera like there is for Edgar!
Me: Sure it is, it’s more of a position because it is allowed for all 30 teams
Uncle Bob: BULL! I looked up baseball positions, “closer” is NOT listed, same as DH.
See, I’m not a rabid “Edgar for the Hall” guy. I’m a “He’s a really good player, and one of the best Mariners ever, but a border line hall of famer” guy. I feel that in order for Edgar to get in the hall he’s got to be amongst the very best hitters of his era as it relates to hall of fame criteria. The whole “he’s the best DH ever” argument is tired and annoying. That’s undoubtedly true, but I am not among those that think being a DH is a unique skill that normal position players don’t possess.
The way that Fangraphs evaluates WAR puts the DH in a -17.5 run hole without actually stepping to the plate if the player were to play his whole season there, because the physical skills needed to play the position defensively are less unique. In fact they are not unique, not at all. The assumption is that replacement level DH should be worth about 10 runs more at the plate than a replacement level corner outfielder, 20 runs more than a center fielder, 25 runs more than a shortstop and 30 more runs than a catcher.
This is why guys like Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. were so amazing. They played two of the hardest defensive positions in baseball, places that are hard to find quality players at defensively, let alone their bats, and played them well on both sides of the ball for long stretches of their careers.
It’s also the reason why Jim Rice, a left fielder, took 15 years to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Rice was very good. Was he his generation’s best? You’d be hard pressed to find even the most stubborn Red Sox fan that thinks that. Rice was a very good player who played at a pretty high level for a very long time.
And that’s the rub. Jim Rice had about 400 PAs more than Edgar did over his career, and Edgar had more WAR, no doubt. But the run value of the uniqueness of the skillset doesn’t being to account for the years that Edgar added to his career that some of his National League peers weren’t able to. Rice played the field. Edgar didn’t.
So the big argument for Edgar has to be whether or not his bat transcends his generation. It’s not like there are a half-dozen third baseman, or a handful of first baseman from every generation that get it. It’s for the best of the best. Over the course of his career for qualifying hitters Edgar has the eighth highest wRC+ of all players. He’s tied with Lance Berkman. Is Lance Berkman automatically in the hall? Is Frank Thomas? A good argument could be made for either of those guys, but neither is a lock.
So how the hell does this relate to Mariano Rivera?
Rivera is great. He’s an amazing pitcher. He’s the saves leader, he’s a postseason master, the guy’s incredible. He’s got perhaps the single best pitch in the history of baseball. But he’s closer. Anyone who knows me, or has read this website for any extended period of time knows I hate closers. They’re usually failed starters (Rivera was too) and they can usually be cultivated by any dickhead that throws hard and has a single acceptable off speed pitch (Brandon League, David Aardsma, J.J. Putz, etc.). And they’re usually overvalued and overpaid. So what makes Rivera special?
He is one of the best pitchers of his generation. No qualification necessary. He’s not the best, but he’s one of the best.
Oh but he only pitched one inning per game? He pitched more than 1200 innings in his career. Remember how great Jose Rijo was? Rivera has almost a full win above replacement more than Rijo in almost 700 less innings.
Since 1990 no pitcher with more than 1000 innings has a lower FIP than Rivera. He’s tied with Trevor Hoffman for the lowest opponent’s batting average. He has the third highest K/BB ratio. He’s given up less homeruns per nine innings than any pitcher. The guy’s phenomenal. He’s not just another closer.
And there is no doubt that postseason success plays a role in the way the Hall is voted for. There may be no player in Rivera’s generation with a more polished postseason resume. He made 12 All Star games, won the ALCS MVP in 2003, the World Series MVP in 1999, and won five World Series.
Mariano Rivera doesn’t belong in the fame because he’s the all-time saves leader, or even because he’s the best closer of all time. If that were the case then Lee Smith would have been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago. He was put in a position that decreased his value. There’s no question
But Mariano Rivera is one of the best pitchers of all time.
Edgar Martinez was a very good player, and may very well be deserving of the Hall of Fame, but Mariano Rivera and Edgar are really no comparison.