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Mariano Rivera poised to become all-time saves leader

New York Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera laughs

New York Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera laughs with teammates before an interleague baseball game against the New York Mets at Citi Field. (May 21, 2010) Credit: AP

Trevor Hoffman is the king of all saves, but not for long. Hoffman officially retires today and Mariano Rivera could be just a season away from overtaking Hoffman as the all-time leader.

Hoffman leaves the game with 601 saves in 18 seasons. Rivera has 559 in 16 years and his two-year,  $30 million contract suggests that his reign as a premier closer will continue.

Hoffman pitched 1,089.1 innings in 1,035 games, struck out 1,133 and had a 2.87 earned run average. He averaged 39 saves a season.

Rivera has pitched 1,150 innings in 978 games, has 1,051 strikeouts and a 2.23 ERA. He has averaged 38 saves. More remarkably, Rivera has 42 postseason saves with a 0.71 ERA.

Baseball has had plenty of good relief pitchers, not so many great ones. To think that 300 saves used to be the standard. Sparky Lyle (238), Tug McGraw (180) and Jesse Orosco (144) were terrific at times but were not all-timers.

Goose Gossage had 310 saves, yet it took years and, finally, perspective for him to make the Hall of Fame. He joined  four other relief pitchers: Dennis Eckersley (390), Rollie Fingers (341), Bruce Sutter (300) and Hoyt Wilhelm (227).

Wilhelm, a knuckleballer, got in more for his victories as a reliever (123). Wilhelm and Eckersley were also accomplished starters before going to the bullpen.

Before they were highly paid specialists, relief pitchers were either untested young players, over-the-hill veterans or ineffective hurlers. Modern closers can essentially be traced back to Rollie Fingers of the 1970s Oakland A’s, who was used almost exclusively for one or two innings to close out a victory.

Some have said the high number of saves is merely a manifestation of the game changing to more reliance on relief pitching and, especially, the ninth-inning specialist. But Hoffman and Rivera essentially perfected the craft by excelling year after year. Consistency over the long haul has always been rewarded by the game.

That is why Hoffman will enter the Hall of Fame. And a great argument can be made for Rivera, considering his postseason success, to be the first player to receive unanimous election to Cooperstown.

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