Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Mariano Rivera is great. Amazing. Wonderful. A sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer. If time-traveling martians came to Earth and challenged the human race to a baseball game with world domination on the line, and we could choose any human being in the history of the universe to be the closer for the human team, it would undoubtedly be Mariano Rivera.
What I'm saying is Rivera is incredible. Get it? Got it? Good.
But, let's not get too carried away with the "all-time saves record." First of all, the save has only been a statistic since 1969. So it's not so much an "all-time" record as a "past 42 years" record. There were 69 years of modern baseball when there was no such thing as a "save."
More importantly, what's so great about a save? It's better than a blown save, I'll give you that. But, in this era, closers like Rivera often only pitch one inning to get that save. In fact, of those 602 regular season saves, Rivera only pitched two innings in 11 of them!
We've talked about this before, and I'll say it again: Being a great closer is nice, but being a great starter is much better. A guy who pitches effectively for seven innings every fifth day is far more valuable than a guy who pitches one inning every two or three days.
And that brings us to this: 3-3, 5.94 ERA. Whose stats are those? Why, Mariano Rivera's of course, when he was a starting pitcher as a rookie. Rivera, like so many closers, failed as a starting pitcher before becoming a reliever. Because every team would prefer that their top young pitchers develop into starters.
I'd say Rivera's greatest season was his first full year in the bullpen, 1996. He pitched 107.2 innings, by far his career-high, and posted a 2.09 ERA while striking out 130 batters. And how many saves did he have that year? Five.
He was the set-up man for closer John Wetteland, and he often was asked to get more than three outs against the toughest opposing hitters. And who wouldn't say more than three outs is better than three?