In 2011, Mariano Rivera has 600 saves after recording that milestone Tuesday night in Seattle, and he's still one of the best closers in the game. He might still be the best closer in the game.
Everything about Rivera is extraordinary. Have you ever heard the crazy rumor that he throws only one pitch? Turns out that's sort of true!!!!
You read it here first. Unless you saw that video first, actually. In which case, you read it here second and saw it there first. Or maybe you read one of the 13,035 articles on Mariano Rivera's magical cutter first, in which case, you read it here 13,036th. And don't you forget it.
Even if he were a crafty, six-pitch illusionist, though, his career would still be remarkable. His postseason career is unparalleled; he's the career leader in ERA+ for any pitcher in any role in any era; he's just as good at 41 as he was at 31; he's been on the disabled list only once in his 17-year career; he's a Yankee whose name doesn't make you wrinkle your face in jealousy-tinged annoyance. All of these things are amazing.
But I keep coming back to how his career started relatively late. It's not like 25 is retirement age for a pitcher, but it's usually a point when you can tell who should be in the majors. It's certainly around the age when you can tell who might have Hall-of-Fame potential, or who could, if everything breaks just right, be one of the best pitchers ever. It's usually not the age when Hall of Famers are being shuttled between AAA and the majors.
Rivera was shuttled back and forth, though, making spot starts as needed. His main competition for a major-league spot was Brian Boehringer, who was a similarly heralded prospect for the Yankees. And by similarly heralded, they weren't exactly Strasburg A and Strasburg B. They were just twenty-something pitchers with talents of varying interest -- two of many going through the minors-to-majors yo-yoing at any given time in professional baseball. Rivera had a superlative minor-league career, to be sure:
I think my favorite part of that line is the lone save. He had three times as many complete-game shutouts in the minors as he did saves.
If Rivera was a prospect, he was a prospect in the Yusmeiro Petit mold, where gaudy control, strikeout, and/or run-prevention numbers seemed slightly at odds with the scouting. Does that comparison seem hyperbolic? Here's a note from the game story after the best start of Rivera's career:
"The scouting report we had said that he throws about 85 or 86," White Sox outfielder Dave Martinez said. "He was throwing a lot harder than that."
Maybe the White Sox had an agoraphobic scout who made up all of his scouting reports so he didn't have to leave his house, but if that's not true, it looks like Rivera was a soft-tossing control specialist for at least part of his young career. And he was 25, still jostling for a major-league slot.
That's the pitcher who became the greatest reliever of all-time, who has 600 saves, who is just two away from breaking the all-time saves record. It's an amazing footnote to an amazing career -- the prologue to the novel about the greatest pitch in baseball history. Mariano Rivera wasn't exactly a non-prospect, but he certainly wasn't expected to be here.
If there's one other way to explain it well, it might be through the power of analogy. There's a 25-year-old rookie today with a career minor-league ERA of 2.16, which is comparable to Rivera's 2.35 minor-league ERA. This rookie never made a Baseball America top-100 prospects list, nor has he ever blown away scouts, but his K/BB ratio has been around 4.00 for his minor-league career, just like Rivera's.
The analogy breaks down when you realize that Louis Coleman is actually pitching well as a 25-year-old rookie, whereas Rivera didn't. But imagine Louis Coleman closing out the 2028 All-Star Game, striking out Prince Fielder's son with his last pitch. It seems ridiculous to look that far ahead.
And that's the point. Rivera's career has been ridiculous on several levels, but the most ridiculous part might be just how unexpected it was. It's impressive that Rivera has 600 saves, but let's not forget just how ridiculous it is.