Commentary

Most valuable pitcher of the 2000s

Throwing his signature cut fastball, Mariano Rivera dominated like no other pitcher

Originally Published: December 16, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

It's only fitting, as we honor the Most Valuable Pitcher of the Decade, that the last man standing is the guy who is so adept at recording the final out.

Enter Mariano Rivera. The Sandman.

Right off the top, we'll acknowledge the sizable faction that believes saves are overrated and any pitcher who performs in 20-pitch bursts does not belong atop this list. Rivera ranked 155th in the majors for the decade with 713 1/3 innings pitched -- fewer than Steve Sparks, Tanyon Sturtze, Claudio Vargas and Josh Towers, among others.

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera
AP Photo/Kathy WillensMariano Rivera is second all-time with 526 saves, and he also has a 2.25 career ERA.

Of course, that limited workload is going to mute his statistical contribution in the overall scheme. When ESPN.com's Rob Neyer assembled his list of the 100 greatest players of the decade, Rivera ranked sixth among pitchers and 24th overall -- two spots behind outfielder J.D. Drew.

But consider what took place during the decade. In 1990, major league pitchers threw a combined 429 complete games. By 2000, that total had dipped to 234. And this season, it was down to 152. The recent selection of 16-game winner Zack Greinke and 15-game winner Tim Lincecum as Cy Young Award winners was all the evidence you need that starters place their fate in the hands of set-up men and closers these days.

Teams have tried to buck the system, only to relent and embrace the inevitable. In Boston, those progressive, forward-looking Red Sox tried to de-emphasize the role of closer, only to realize the chaos that an unsettled bullpen situation could bring. In response, they converted promising young starter Jonathan Papelbon to the closer's role, in which he's thrived.

In hindsight, no single starting pitcher stood above the crowd during the 2000s. Andy Pettitte, who spent much of the decade as Roger Clemens' sidekick, led the majors with 148 wins. Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez were dominant at the outset, but faded at the end because of injuries and age.

Moments of brilliance abounded -- during and after the steroids era. Curt Schilling pitched through October fatigue in Arizona and a bum ankle in Boston, and Mark Buehrle threw a no-hitter and a perfect game for the White Sox. Johnson won three Cy Young Awards, while Johan Santana, Clemens and Lincecum snagged two each.

Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Johnson joined the 300-win club, while Mike Mussina walked away gracefully with a 20-win season and 270 victories. Eric Gagne converted 84 consecutive save opportunities, and Trevor Hoffman became the first closer to 500 saves.

In the end, Roy Halladay, Santana and CC Sabathia were Rivera's strongest competitors. But Santana didn't emerge as an elite starter until 2004, and Sabathia posted an ERA above 4.00 in four of his first five seasons in Cleveland. Halladay's growth process necessitated a refresher course in the minors in 2001, and he missed time with shoulder problems and a broken leg (from a Kevin Mench line drive) in the middle of the decade.

Rivera, in contrast, was a rock for 10 years running. He received at least one MVP vote six times in the decade. Over the past three seasons -- at age 37, 38 and 39 -- he struck out 223 batters and walked 30. He posted a sub-2.00 ERA six times and a sub-3.00 ERA nine times. The lone exception came in 2007, when his ERA ballooned to 3.15.

Derek Jeter He's special. That's the only way you can say it. Nobody does it better, and nobody's done what he's done.

-- Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter on teammate Mariano Rivera

Yes, Rivera failed a couple of times on the national stage. He surrendered Luis Gonzalez's climactic hit in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, and he was on the mound for Dave Roberts' stolen base and the start of Boston's history-making comeback in 2004.

But in the end, Rivera recorded a 0.94 ERA in 86 postseason innings this decade. And when the stakes got higher and the pressure mounted, he was a set-up man and a closer rolled into one.

Rivera made 57 postseason appearances in the decade, and recorded four or more outs 35 times. He pitched two or more innings 23 times. Think that didn't provide comfort for Yankees fans and his teammates and make life a heck of a lot easier for managers Joe Torre and Joe Girardi?

Of course, the amazing thing is that Rivera continues to dominate hitters when they know what's coming. His cut fastball has the same demoralizing, bat-busting impact now that it did when he was 25 or even 35 years old.

"He's special," Derek Jeter said after Game 2 of the World Series. "That's the only way you can say it. Nobody does it better, and nobody's done what he's done."

That's good enough for us.

Also considered: Randy Johnson, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, Johan Santana.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer