Should Mariano Rivera Have Been a Starter?

In a recent live chat at the Pinstriped Bible, Jay Jaffe, Steven Goldman and Cliff Corcoran briefly touched on a fascinating topic: should Mariano Rivera have remained a starter for his entire career?

Rivera came up through the minor leagues as a starting pitcher, and started ten games for the 1995 Yankees before permanently transitioning to relief work.


At first glance, the answer seems obvious. Rivera is far and away the greatest relief pitcher of all time. No matter what happens from this point forward, Rivera is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer with insanely good numbers to go with his post-season glory.

But…

But…

But…starting pitchers are so much more valuable than closers.

Great starting pitchers throw 200+ innings a season. As a closer, Rivera has averaged 79 IP per season. That means that a good starting pitcher is worth more to a team than a lights-out closer, because those innings getting eaten up are innings that don’t have to be given to inferior or replacement-level pitchers.

In 2010, Rivera put up these ridiculous numbers: 1.80 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 2.38 ERA+, 4.09 K/BB ratio and 33 saves. But because he only pitched 60 innings, he compiled just 2.9 wins above replacement. Meanwhile, decent but not great starters like Carl Pavano, C.J. Wilson and John Danks easily bested that total. It may seem counterintuitive to say you’d rather have 2010 Carl Pavano than 2010 Mariano Rivera on your team, but most of the time a B or B+ starter is more valuable than an A closer.

Admittedly, the wins above replacement stat is probably a little biased against relievers, and closers in particular, because of how it handles (or more accurately, doesn’t handle) high-leverage situations — see the comments discussion on this post for a good debate on the subject. However, there’s no doubt that if, for example, Neftali Feliz could pitch 80 percent as well as a started as he did last year as a closer, the Rangers should make him a starter.

In relation to Rivera then, the question is twofold: 1) Would he have been effective enough as a starter to counterbalance his dominance as a closer? and 2) Was he just so fucking dominant as a closer that it’s silly to consider what might have been?

Rivera mostly struggled in his partial season as a major-league starter, despite being fantastic at AAA. He did have one brief moment of brilliance: a July 4 game against the White Sox in which he put up this line: 8 IP, 2 H, 4 BB, 0 ER, 11 K (and 129 pitches out of a 25-year-old arm that had already undergone Tommy John surgery — yikes!).

It’s easy to forget now, but Rivera wasn’t always just a cutter-throwing machine. He had an overpowering four-seam fastball that was his primary strikeout pitch early on. It’s also not difficult to imagine Rivera developing one of the breaking pitches he’s toyed with from time to time into an effective out pitch, had he needed to do so. Rivera has become a one-pitch pitcher because one pitch is all he needs as a closer. Had he remained a starter, he likely would have adapted to the more diverse demands of that role.

It’s easier to pitch effectively out of the bullpen than it is to pitch well as a starter. Relievers don’t have to face the same hitter three times a game and find different ways to get them out. That’s why mediocre pitchers are sent to the bullpen. But that’s also why it’s silly to take young pitchers with great stuff and relegate them to one-inning-at-a-time work. Neftali Feliz, Joba Chamberlain — if these guys have even a chance to be successful starters, teams must take that chance. And the same theoretically held true for the young Rivera. He could have been worth more to the Yankees over the years as a starter, hard as though that may be to believe.

There’s also a broader organizational argument to be made regarding Rivera as a starter. Relief pitchers, even stud closers, are easier to acquire, easier to develop, and easier to pay for than effective starters. The Yankees, as good as they’ve been for the last decade and a half, have had significant trouble developing starting pitching from within. Other than Andy Pettitte, the system has failed. That’s led to paying big bucks for stars like Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina. And even a team with pockets as deep as the Yankees has payroll limits — every dollar spent on free agents like that is a dollar that can’t be spent in another area of need.

Even more to the point, the organization’s lack of starting pitching depth has led to crippling mistakes that have cost the team money, prospects and wins: Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Pavano, Jaret Wright, A.J. Burnett, Javy Vazquez, Hideki Irabu, Kei Igawa, Javy Vazquez again, and the beat goes on. If the team could have established Rivera as a long-term solution at starter, it would have eased the burden on filling out the rotation with such mediocrities and outright disasters.

I have very little doubt that Rivera would have been a good-to-great starting pitcher. I do have some doubt, however, that he could have remained healthy for long enough to have a lasting career as a starter. Rivera is small and skinny for a big-league pitcher. He’s held up remarkably well given that he’s been pitching in the majors since 1995, but he’s achieved that health one inning at a time in 20-pitch chunks. Could his body have held up for this long while logging 180-220 innings a season? Doubtful. The Yankees have been careful to protect Rivera’s arm, especially since he hit his mid-30s. They wouldn’t have been able to shelter him from abuse as a starter.

Moreover, Rivera’s unparalleled success in the postseason makes a compelling argument that closer was the right role for him. He’s the greatest playoff pitcher of all time, starter or reliever. Career postseason ERA: 0.71. Career postseason WHIP: 0.77. Those are Sidd Finch numbers.

Perhaps more importantly, he’s provided stability while other teams have watched those closers implode at the worst possible times in October. You can’t argue with the five championships, particularly since Rivera played an integral role in each.

At the end of the day, you have to take the results over what could have been, simply because the results have been so consistent and impressive. It would be disingenuous and greedy to argue that the Yankees did the wrong thing in converting Rivera to a reliever. Bird in the hand and all that.

But the argument is much closer than most people think.

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