Archive for March 7th, 2011

(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)

One of baseball’s most enduring modern myths revolves around the notion that Mariano Rivera has dominated as a closer by using only one pitch. Although Rivera does rely heavily on his much heralded cutter, he also judiciously uses a pinpoint fastball to keep the hitters honest. According to fangraphs.com, Rivera has thrown his fastball as much as 56.6% of the time (2006) and as infrequently as 7.1% (2009). Because the accuracy of pitch identification becomes more questionable the further back you go, some of the figures presented in the chart below need to be taken with a grain of salt, but even if you rely on only the more recent data, the point holds. Rivera isn’t a one-trick pony.

Mariano Rivera’s Fastball/Cutter Ratio

Season Fastball Cutter
2004 48.4% (93.5) 47.5% (93.0)
2005 44.1% (93.4) 54.8% (93.0)
2006 56.6% (93.8) 43.4% (93.2)
2007 26.7% (93.6) 73.2% (93.2)
2008 18.0% (93.1) 82.0% (92.8)
2009 7.1% (91.7) 92.9% (91.3)
2010 15.1% (92.2) 84.9% (91.1)

Source: fangraphs.com

Quite frankly, it really doesn’t matter how many pitches Rivera throws because his dominance speaks for itself. Still, it is nice to have a better understanding of his wizardry, and a recent video analysis done by ESPN’s Sport Science does an excellent job providing an explanation.

According to former major league pitcher and pitching coach Tom House, Rivera really throws four or five different pitches (including variations on his fastball), but what makes him very unique is every single one emanates from almost exactly the same arm slot. Because Rivera doesn’t vary his arm angle, it appears as if he is throwing one pitch, but, as major league hitters have found out the hard way over the past 16 years, looks can be deceiving. About the only difference between Rivera’s fastball and cutter is the spin he puts on them, but this change only manifests itself in the last 10 feet of the ball’s flight. In other words, swinging a bat against Rivera is nothing more than a guessing game.

Mariano Rivera’s Consisent Arm Slot

Source: ESPN Sport Science

Although many have labeled Rivera’s approach as simple, in reality, it is quite literarily a very complex slight of hand. Like any good magician, the Yankees’ closer makes the batters see what they want, and then when they least expect it, he pulls the rabbit out of his hat. That’s why it’s important to note that Rivera doesn’t rely on power or changes of speed. Instead, his amazing career has been built on the last 10 feet his pitches travel. And, as long as he can maintain that level of deception, there’s every reason to believe he can continue be an extremely effective reliever.

Rivera’s success can’t really be defined by one concept or another. In fact, the earthly bounds of science are probably much too limited to capture his true greatness. Instead, it makes more sense to suspend belief and enjoy his sustainable excellence before we are all forced to suffer through the trials of a mortal closer.

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