Enter the Sandman…Again
By JR Lebert aka jrlebert
Alex Rodriguez said it all, as he watched 42-year-old Mariano Rivera crumple on the warning track after shagging a fly ball off the bat of freshly minted Yankee Jayson Nix: “Oh my God. Oh my God.” This was probably the same sentiment heard aloud in every bar, barbershop, and deli in New York as the replay made its way through the airwaves and the web. Would the last image of the great Mariano be that of him hoisted onto the back of a John Deere by former battery mate and current manager Joe Girardi?
According to Rivera, the answer is an emphatic NO. “I’m not going out like that,” said Rivera, just a day after the injury. The injury has helped shift Mariano from otherworldly deity, untouchable not only by major league hitters, but seemingly also by Father Time, to an athlete that wants to prove to everyone, including himself, that he can come back from this, at the age of 43, and dominate as if nothing happened.
Mariano has always prided himself on staying in fantastic physical shape. Part of his regimen is what led to his injury, shagging fly balls before games. He’s done it every day since he joined the Yankees in 1995. He is still as wiry and trim as he was almost two decades ago. He may have the birth date of a forty-two-and-a-half year old, but he doesn’t have the body or the will of someone ready to call it quits.
The career of Kerry Wood, which came to an end this week, tells us just as much about Rivera and his legacy as it does Wood’s. Kerry missed parts of more than a few seasons because of arm trouble, and although he throws much harder than Rivera, he demonstrates how hard it is to for a quality major league pitcher, which Kerry certainly was, to toe the rubber night in and night out at that level. Mariano has done it consistently, at the highest level the game has known, for 18 seasons. According to #42, there will indeed be a 19th, but how can we know for sure that he will come back and be his normal, dominating, intimidating self? Let’s look no further at his limited body of work this season, before the injury. He had his occasional hiccup right off the bat (no pun intended), blowing a save and giving up 2 runs on 3 hits and 2 IBB’s on Opening Day.
Those would turn out to be the only runs and walks registered against him this season, and equal to the amount of hits that Mariano would give up in his other 8 appearances, combined. Over the course of his other 8 appearances, Mariano recorded 24 outs, 7 by strikeout, while giving up 3 hits and absolutely nothing else. His ERA was a not-so-surprising 0.00 in those appearances, and his WHIP, H/9, and K/9 were all better than his career averages at the time of his injury. Simply put, Rivera was just being Rivera.
Of course, the X factor that nobody can predict is how a knee can recover from ACL surgery. But we are not talking about your knee, or my knee. We are talking about the knee of the Great One, the Untouchable One, Super Mariano Rivera. Granted, Mariano doesn’t throw innings like a Roy Halladay, or throw gas like teammate David Robertson (also injured at this time), or throw every other game like a Fernando Rodney. Ask any pitching coach, however, and they will tell you that the key to pitching is your core and legs. Most arm trouble stems from something wrong mechanically, whether it’s opening your front shoulder, bending your knee too soon, or some other core/leg related issue. This is where Mo’s recovery and rehabilitation is key. Undoubtedly, Mariano’s knee will stiffen a bit more, get sore a bit faster, and be fatigued more often than before the surgery. All that may have been true without the injury, as he turns 43 at the end of the year. The knee injury will just accelerate the process.
After turning 40, one would also expect a pitcher’s numbers to take a hit. After 40, Greg Maddux was one game below .500 (37-38), with an ERA more than one full run higher (4.19) than his career average (3.16). His ERA+, a stat measuring a pitcher’s performance versus the league average, was exactly at league average, 100. John Smoltz had just 20 wins after his 40th, and although he did achieve his 3,000th strikeout, none of his 53 CG’s, 16 shutouts, or 153 saves came after 39. Fellow all-time great closer Trevor Hoffman did notch 77 saves after 40, though he had just a 67% save percentage in his final season, and had been replaced mid-way through the year.
My momma, however, didn’t raise no dummy. You will not count me as one of the doubters of Mo’s ability to bounce back. Just looking at Mariano’s body of work as a member of the 40-and-over club tells me all I need to know. Since turning 40, Rivera’s ERA is 0.34 LOWER than his career total (1.87 to 2.21). His ERA+, the best all-time at 206, is better since his 40th, 233. His WHIP, H/9, and K/BB are all better than his career numbers. Simply put, Mariano Rivera has actually been BETTER since turning 40! Despite the injury, I expect Big Mo to come back just as dominant as before the injury, and look forward to hearing “Enter Sandman” fill Yankee Stadium again in 2013.
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