Earlier today, I mentioned in a post on this weekend’s sweep of Toronto that I would address the Yankees’ sterling pitching thus far this season. In truth, though, the Yankee pitchers should be grouped into three categories: starters, relief pitchers, and Mariano. Starting today, I’ll take each group in turn, working backwards from the ninth inning. That means we begin with closer Mariano Rivera, and his historically good month.
Roughly 360 days ago, Mariano tore the ACL and meniscus in his right leg (the leg he pushes off of on every pitch). The typical recovery time for that injury is 9-12 months for a healthy athlete in his prime. Mo turned 43 in November, a year older than Trevor Hoffman was when his command and velocity failed him — and Hoffman didn’t rip up his knee. But there was Mariano in spring training mowing down hitters, and deep down I knew, like in-my-bones knew, that he was still himself.
A month later, Mariano has his all-time record for saves in a calendar month (nine), a 10:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a 1.80 ERA and the beginnings of a legendary goodbye tour. Unbelievably — or in Mo’s case, believably — he has been as inexorable at 43 as he was at 33, if not more so. Check out the log of his 10 appearances this year. Each time he’s thrown exactly one inning. He’s thrown more than 20 pitches only three times. He has allowed two meaningless runs in games he ended up saving. He’s allowed three extra-base hits — two doubles and an Evan Longoria home run. Of his 145 pitches so far this season, 99 have been strikes. I could go on, but do I really need to?
If anything, Mo has gotten better as the month has gone on. His cutter velocity in his first couple appearances was topping out at 89-90 mph, but in his save over Toronto on Sunday he was regularly hitting 91-92 mph with the cutter. A difference of just two miles per hour on a pitch may seem negligible, but for Mo it’s the difference between solid contact and a broken bat, or between a broken bat and a strikeout.
Oh, and I may have buried the lede here, but Mariano this month has displayed the most pinpoint accuracy of any pitcher I’ve ever seen. Better than Maddux. Better than Glavine. Better than everybody. The simple fact that his deadeye backdoor cutters are considered rote proves my point. For his career, Mariano has a roughly 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, with a career high of 12.83:1 in 2008. This season currently ranks second behind ’08, and that’s with umpires squeezing Mariano at every turn (at least through my pinstripe-tinted glasses). Between the velocity and the accuracy, Mo has been thriving with his cutter-fastball repertoire, and there’s no reason to think that will change.
Mo has said repeatedly that this will be his final season, and in typically classy fashion he has been meeting with a select group of fans/volunteers during every road series. Get a good look, baseball diehards of America. You’ll never see anyone like Mariano Rivera again.
Coming Wednesday: I break down the Yankees’ other relievers, including (gulp) Joba.