Was Mariano replaceable?

Yesterday an article of mine appeared on Pinstripe Alley, in which I wondered aloud if individual relief pitchers – even very good ones – are replaceable.

Of course, I knew the answer was “yes” before I wrote the article because I’ve looked into this before. Bullpen performance as a whole is an important factor in team wins and losses, but individual relief pitchers are very replaceable. Even the best ones are only on the field for about 3% of the season – hardly enough time to have a huge impact on team success over that span.

Simply put, relief pitchers are the least important players on the field, and it’s not even close.

Of course, since I’m communicating with Yankee fans predominantly, I received a lot of pushback with many references to some guy named “Mo”. If you were one of those folks, or if you agreed with the sentiment that Mariano Rivera was irreplaceable, I have bad news for you:

He was.

If you don’ think so, I have a little quiz for you. Look at the full season performances of these three relief pitchers:

SavesSave %IPHK/9WAR
Pitcher A4490%61478.82.9
Pitcher B4291%67559.22.6
Pitcher C4486%64587.62.4

(Yes, I know saves and save percentage are imperfect stats, but for today’s purposes they’ll do fine.)

Of those three pitching seasons, one of them is Rivera in 2011, one is Rivera in 2013, and the other is Rafael Soriano in 2012, who filled in for Rivera when Rivera was out for the season.

Question: Which one is which?

Of course you can’t tell. They’re all very good, and they’re all…here’s the important part…interchangeable.

Over the course of 162 games, even the best reliever in history was not missed. Think about that when a very good, good, or average relief pitcher is out with an injury. Also think about it when your GM gives a multi-year $13 million per contract to a relief pitcher.

Before you start typing your hate filled, snarky response, let me remind you that I’m not criticizing Rivera. Rivera’s prodigiousness was that he was a known commodity for the better part of two decades, combined with a very high level of performance. Add that to an otherworldly postseason resume, and you get the best relief pitcher of all time. If we’re talking about whether or not a reliever’s career could be replaced, the answer is “no”, Rivera’s career could not be replicated or replaced.

But for a 162 game season, virtually all relief pitchers are replaceable – even the very best.

Did I miss something? Let me know.

Oh, and if you missed my article on Pinstripe Alley, you can see it HERE.

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