26 March 2004

'Mo Money, 'Mo Money...

Lee Sinins led off his Around the Majors report on Wednesday with this:

The Yankees re-signed P Mariano Rivera to a 2 year, $21 million contract, covering 2005-06, with an option for 2007. The option will become guaranteed if Rivera finishes either 114 games over the 2 years or 60 in 2006.

After 2.34 ERA/19 RSAA and 2.74 ERA/8 RSAA seasons, Rivera had a 1.66 ERA/21 RSAA in 64 games. He has a 2.49 career ERA, compared to his league average of 4.72, and 153 RSAA in 512 games.

Rivera ranks 10th in the majors in RSAA since 1997--


1 Pedro Martinez 389
2 Randy Johnson 331
3 Greg Maddux 242
4 Curt Schilling 236
5 Kevin Brown 204
6 Roger Clemens 182
7 Mike Mussina 169
8 Tom Glavine 156
9 Tim Hudson 145
10 Mariano Rivera 123

Having gotten Lee's reports for over a year now, I can see that he typically isn't privy to any information that you and I couldn't find on our own, in terms of the stories and facts themselves. (This story was out on Monday or Tuesday on the major websites and such.) But Lee comes in handy in two areas. First, his amusing commentary and sense of humor make many of these reports of otherwise mundane transactions more interesting. And second, and more importantly, his analysis of the significance of the players signed/released/traded sheds light on the subject that would otherwise elude those who typically write about these things, i.e traditional baseball beatwriters. And this ability to analyze what's going on beneath the surface leads Lee to sometimes come to conclusions about a transaction that differ greatly from what your local newscaster of newspaper writer would tell you.

In this case, as you can see, there's not a lot of commentary here, but despite that, I think there's a message. The first thing I noticed is that the rest of this list consiste entirely of starting pitchers. Look at this list:


Pedro Martinez 1408 201 2.20 389 0.276 56
Randy Johnson 1601.1 222 2.70 331 0.207 47
Greg Maddux 1603 239 2.93 242 0.151 35
Curt Schilling 1597.2 218 3.23 236 0.148 34
Kevin Brown 1367 206 2.72 204 0.149 29
Roger Clemens 1502.2 224 3.44 182 0.121 26
Mike Mussina 1531 225 3.51 169 0.110 24
Tom Glavine 1571.2 239 3.40 156 0.099 22
Tim Hudson 1052 156 3.26 145 0.138 29
Mariano Rivera 475 432 2.16 123 0.259 18

Tim Hudson, it should be noted, has only been pitching in the majors since 1999, so everyone else has got a 2-year head-start on him. Mariano Rivera, despite pitching less than a third of the innings of most of the pitchers on this list, is ranked right up there among them in RSAA (Runs Saved Above Average, Lee's own metric for measuring pitcher effectiveness) over this seven-year span. Now, I'm not saying that Mariano is as good as these guys overall, but still, he's on the list. Even if he's at the bottom of it, he's still there. Without a copy of Lee's Baseball Encyclopedia of my own, I couldn't check to see who else is on this list (say, ranked #11-25, or something), but I would guess that there aren't many relief pitchers on it.

As you can see in the RSAA/Inning column, Riviera's been almost as effective, inning-by-inning, as Pedro, which is saying something. I just don't know what yet. You can also see that, averaging 18 RSAA per year, Rivera's not quite as good as the others on this list.

However, his total of 123 RSAA over seven years means that he's better than Andy Pettitte, better than John Smoltz, Robb Nen, Troy Percival, Armando Benitez, Trevor Hoffman, or Billy Wagner, better than Bartolo Colon, Jason Schmidt, Kerry Wood, Jamie Moyer, Matt Morris, Russ Ortiz, Al Leiter, Kevin Millwood, David Wells, Derek Lowe, Jarrod Washburn, and yes, even Cory Lidle. (Incidentally, has anyone who had the worst qualifying ERA in the majors ever been asked to start on Opening Day the following year? Because Cory has.)

Anyway, a lot of guys who are considered to be among the better pitchers in the majors, both starters and relievers, aren't on this list either. So my question is:

Is Mariano Rivera, making about $11 million in 2004 and $10.5 million/year for each of the following two seasons, underpaid? Brown is getting $15M. Pedro gets over $17M in 2004. Clemens got about $20 mil last season, when you factor in what the Yankees paid him to pitch in 2003 and what his previous contract with the Yankees paid him whether he pitched or not in 2003. Randy Johnson will get $16M this year. Schilling just signed an extension for about $13M/year, I think. Glavine gets paid as much as Rivera and he's not even any good anymore.

Typically, I'll be among the first to point out that looking at Saves as any kind of indicator of quality is a bad idea. They are a self-fulfilling prophecy, an event-driven statistic that the manager can control as he sees fit, and that too many pitchers have parlayed into an inappropriately large contract. But, at least in this one way, you can see that Mariano Rivera is at least measurably comparable to the best starting pitchers in the majors, over the last seven years. I wanted to compare him to the other relief pitchers who have been pretty good since 1997, but there hardly are any. Anyone who was among the best in '97 is either now retired or was injured in 2003, or is no longer with the same team. Only Wagner and Percival pitched in each of those seven seasons AND stayed with one team, besides Rivera. Mo has had the good fortune to be both good and (mostly) healthy over those seven years (as well as 1996), a stake to which no other relief pitcher can lay claim. Billy Wagner had an injury- and suck-prone 2000 season, to knock him off the list, and Trevor Hoffman and Robb Nenn have both missed at least a year with injuries. Troy Percival is kinda brittle (only averages about 50-55 innings/year) and typically puts up ERAs in the mid 3.00s, so he's not in the rankings.

So clearly Mariano Rivera is the best "closer" of his generation, no newsflash there. But who woulda thunk that he was nearly as effective a pitcher, in some ways, as Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens, and better than a lot of others, since he became the full-time closer for the Yankees in 1997? Not me. Not til Wednesday, when this showed up in my Inbox.

The Yanks will have to retire Rivera's #42 when he retires anyway. He's the last player in the majors wearing that number, grandfathered becasue he had it before El Bud decided to make everybody retire it in a publicity stunt to honor Jackie Robinson. But even if they didn't have to do this, they should probably retire it, since it will probably be a long time before we see a guy spend 7 or 8 years with one team and consistently put up numbers like his, RSAA or otherwise. And if he manages to pitch three more years with similar results? Finishes his career with ~350 saves, an ERA around ~2.50? Continues the success in the postseason that may be, according to Rob Neyer, one of the primary reasons that the Yankees have four World Series wins in nine postseasons, while the Braves have only one in twelve shots at the trophy?

Well, after they retire his number, he ought to get a plaque in Cooperstown, too.

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