Friday, April 08, 2005

Rivera on eBay?

Yes, I know, Mariano Rivera has blown two straight saves against the Red Sox this year, and four straight including last year’s ALCS. Now, Red Sox fans think they have the best closer in baseball figured out, and some Yankees fans are panicking. But Yankees fans need to relax, it isn't as bad as it seems.

I think we can ignore the two blown saves from last year’s ALCS. Rivera was being overused throughout the season. There was a good case to be made for Rivera to win the AL MVP award last year because the Yankees stole so many close games thanks to his 53 saves in 74 chances. And late in the season, manager Joe Torre was forced to use him for two or even three innings because Tom Gordon was proving to be unreliable down the stretch.

But there is more to the story. Some of the Red Sox players have been adjusting well to Rivera’s style. This is partly a product of the fact that they have faced him so many times. A closer is used late in close games – and the Red Sox and Yankees have played many close games over the years. Jason Varitek’s home run in Tuesday’s game is a good example of this (thanks to Harold Reynolds from ESPN – he is one of the only journalists providing technical analysis of these two blown saves – not just rhetoric and scare tactics). Varitek has been using a much more open stance, hoping to pull Rivera’s cut fastball. The first two pitches were the cut fastball and came inside, and Varitek could only foul them off. The next pitch was low and away, but wild. So Varitek guessed right that Rivera would go back to the cut fastball and managed to pull it to left field for a game-tying home run. Looking at this at bat, two things are apparent – Rivera is struggling a little with his control, and his cut fastball isn’t breaking as much or as late as it used to (at least for now). Because the cut fastball isn’t as dominating, batters are getting a good swing at it if they guess right.

Despite how scary the stats look, Wednesday’s game is less alarming. Rivera had one out in the ninth with the bases loaded (after one hit and two walks) and he did what he needed to do – two straight ground balls. The first one to Alex Rodriguez, if fielded cleanly could have resulted in a game ending double-play, but he should have at least gotten the out at home. If Rodriguez could have gotten even one out, the game would have ended with the next at-bat which was a dribbler down the first base line.

The bottom line is that Rivera is still the best closer in the game. He may not be invincible anymore, especially against the Red Sox, but I would take him over anyone else. And because of that, the boos Rivera received when walking off the mound Wednesday night were appalling (but trying to sell him on eBay is funny). No closer has been as successful for so long and in so many high-pressure games as Rivera. Yankee fans are tough and they expect perfection – but they should be a lot more patient with someone who has been so instrumental in the success of the Yankees over the past nine years.