Passing Judgment: Mariano Rivera’s Impact on Fantasy Baseball

Texas Rangers v New York Yankees, Game 5Much has been made about Mariano Rivera’s retirement from baseball, and rightfully so.  This man has proven over and over again that he is indisputably the greatest closer in the history of the game.  I strongly dislike the Yankees, but I certainly respect and admire Rivera’s longevity, consistency, and dominance.  It really is incredible that Rivera pitched 19 seasons in the major leagues and dominated for most of that time with essentially one pitch that all batters knew was coming.  Yet, for some reason, no one could hit Rivera’s cut fastball.

In five years, Rivera should be unanimously voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame.  His record for most career saves will likely never be broken because, quite frankly, no one else will ever be able to match the length of Rivera’s career coupled with that level of excellence.  Granted, he did have the fortune of playing on some pretty good teams.  But Rivera shined when it counted the most, especially in the postseason.  His record-setting statistics in the playoffs prove why I think he has been the most important player to any team over the past 20 years.

With Rivera retiring, fantasy baseball players should take a moment to let that sink in.  Most people play in roto leagues where saves, WHIP, ERA and strikeouts are included in the pitching categories.  Saves are always the hardest category to chase because the closer’s position is so volatile from year to year, and even from month to month.  But since 1997, is there anyone more trustworthy or reliable than Mariano Rivera?  Not only did he provide saves, but his dominance also provided a benefit in the other peripheral pitching categories.  But, I am willing to bet that Rivera was hardly ever the first closer taken off the board.

It is hard to believe that Rivera only led the league in saves three times in his illustrious career (1999, 2001 and 2004).  The number of saves he had was not an indictment of his performance, but likely a result of not having enough save opportunities due to his team’s dominance in those years.  But after accumulating 652 saves in his career, it is still surprising that he led the league in just three seasons. 

Even though Rivera excelled in the biggest market in baseball, it still seems like he was underrated in terms of fantasy baseball.  I would argue that he was not the first closer drafted in almost any year.  There have been other closers during the past 17 years (Rivera was not the closer during his first two seasons) that have had more saves or strikeouts in a particular season.  And because fantasy baseball players are drawn to sexy statistics, it is not surprising that Rivera would get passed over for the likes of Eric Gagne, Trevor Hoffman and Craig Kimbrel.

But as I said before, closers are volatile and generally have short life spans.  There is frequently little room for error as teams are impatient when a closer fails to shut the door.  That is part of what makes Rivera so remarkable.  Even when he did blow games (and some of epic proportion), there was never any doubt that he would be given the ball the next day.  He had the uncanny ability to forget about past failures and move on.  His job security was never in doubt.  He was the ONLY sure thing at a position premised on short-term thinking.

With the exception of 2002 and 2012, Rivera also remained healthy his entire career.  In fantasy baseball terms, who else could provide such consistency?  His absence from the game will leave a void for GM’s who have grown accustomed to the statistics that could be counted on from him.  As good as Craig Kimbrel is now, ask yourself if you feel as confident about him going forward as you would Rivera.  If you are honest with yourself, the answer should be “no.” 

Mariano Rivera arguably meant more to the Yankees’ run of success over the past 20 years than anyone else.  And if you play fantasy baseball and wanted to dominate the saves category and be competitive in ERA and WHIP, then Rivera was essentially a lock to get you there.  Now that he is retired, the Yankees will be like every other team in the league having to rely on a closer who is not immortal.  Along with that, your fantasy baseball team’s mortality will be tested as you try and replace those statistics going forward.

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