CHICAGO — Yankees great Mariano Rivera retired with 652 saves, the most in major-league history. His late-game heroics helped to shape one of the game’s iconic dynasties.
Yet it is easy to wonder: What could have been? What if Rivera had come along at a different time? What if he had been thrown into the bullpen in 2016 rather than in 1996?
Perhaps Rivera would have been a supercharged Andrew Miller, whose novel usage by Indians manager Terry Francona this postseason has prompted the game (at least temporarily) to re-examine when it is best to deploy the best relievers.
“Probably fitting that we’re doing this at the World Series,” commissioner Rob Manfred said before presenting reliever of the year awards to the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen and the Orioles’ Zach Britton, “since it’s been the postseason of the reliever.”
But count Rivera among the skeptics when it comes to seeing the aggressive use of bullpens bleed into the regular season, when the grind of the schedule proves to be a bigger challenge.
“During the season, it’s impossible to do that, as a closer throwing two or three innings and being ready for the next day,” Rivera said before Game 4 of the World Series on Saturday night, when he joined Trevor Hoffman for the presentation. “It would be a little bit harder.”
Hoffman, second on the all-time saves list with 601, said using elite relievers in high-leverage situations and for multiple innings might make sense in the playoffs, but he doubts that managers would be willing to do the same in the regular season.
“You’d find people probably getting hurt in the middle of May,” Hoffman said.
In the postseason, it wasn’t unusual for Rivera to work multiple innings and enter earlier in the game. “Playoffs are totally different,” he said.
Certainly, that has been the case for Miller, who has entered as early as the fifth inning and worked as long as 2 2⁄3 innings. (Miller worked two innings in Saturday night’s 7-2 victory over the Cubs and was nicked for Dexter Fowler’s solo home run in the eighth, the first postseason run he allowed in 17 innings this year and 25 1⁄3 innings in his career.) It is a luxury granted to Francona because the Indians also have a steady closer in Cody Allen.
In 1996, with John Wettleland closing out games, Yankees manager Joe Torre used Rivera in myriad situations, not unlike what Francona has done with Miller.
In 61 appearances, Rivera posted a 2.09 ERA in 107 2⁄3 innings, a career high. According to pitcher wins above replacement, Rivera’s performance was worth five wins, also the highest of his career because he was used for longer stretches.
It arguably was Rivera’s best season, even though he had only five saves. But, as is typical, he graduated and became the Yankees’ closer, confined mostly to one-inning stints in which he came on in the ninth with the bases empty.
In a way, it was a waste of Rivera’s talent. Big-league pitchers typically strand inherited runners at a rate of about 70 percent. For Rivera, that number was closer to 80 percent throughout his career. It remained in that range in the postseason starting in 1996, when Rivera was converted to a full-time reliever.
Ah, yes, what could have been.