- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
One should never root for rain at a parade or for a speaker to flub a speech, but the fact is these things do occasionally happen. Good stories take turns in the other direction, whether we want them to or not. And so it is that we must deal with a beloved player who seemingly has no enemies, no haters, the rarest of players, really. It’s possible to give New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera all the credit for working hard to come back from last season’s knee injury, pitching well at 43, handling himself with class, finishing his Hall of Fame career strong, but the fact is if someone else -- any other closer, really -- had allowed two or more hits in five of his past nine outings, 14 hits in his past 6 2/3 innings and was sporting a season WHIP that ranked 23rd out of the 26 pitchers with 10 or more saves, it would raise eyebrows and be worthy of discussion.
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
Entering Friday's action, Mariano Rivera's WHIP was a lofty 1.31.
This isn’t to say that Rivera is struggling to such a level that his closer job is in any danger, because it’s not. He’s striking people out, his ERA is low and he has probably got more job security when healthy than anyone else in his role. This is just to be the voice of reason and point out that there’s a 43-year-old closer coming off a torn ACL and giving up a whole lot of baserunners lately. He also has walked a batter in four of his past five appearances! Remove the name value and check the numbers, and while I’m not rushing out there to grab setup man David Robertson, it’s not like he’s struggling. Rivera is tied for second in the majors in saves, but because of the hits allowed hurting his WHIP, and to some degree the fact he doesn’t have any wins, Rivera enters the weekend 10th among closers on the Player Rater. Add all of this up and you’ve got a sell-high player, beloved or not.
Let’s face it, Rivera is being handled carefully by the Yankees, and for good reason. With 25 saves in 29 appearances covering 26 innings, he’s certainly not being overworked in relation to other closers. His job is generally to pitch only the ninth inning with a lead, and he’s doing his job, even with recent hiccups. But putting men on base tends to lead to them scoring, and while Rivera has had stretches like this in recent seasons and overcome them, and a healthy portion of the hits he has been giving up lately have been well-placed bloopers and broken-bat ducks finding holes, it all counts. If this was Greg Holland, Grant Balfour or Huston Street giving up this rate of hits, you bet we’d be talking about it. We can’t ignore it because it’s the best closer of all time. Of the 49 pitchers with two or more saves this season, Rivera is one of only six to have permitted more hits than innings pitched, and you don’t want to be in the same class as Brandon League, Heath Bell, Joel Hanrahan, Mitchell Boggs and the legendary Hector Ambriz. Rivera hasn’t finished a season with a WHIP higher than 1 since 2007.
So what happens next? Well, I assume Rivera is healthy, because if he wasn’t, the cautious Yankees, who have had a MASH unit all year, wouldn’t be using him. Rivera looked fine striking out two of the three Los Angeles Dodgers he faced in closing out Wednesday’s win, including future Hall of Famer Yasiel Puig (that’s the general opinion, I’ll still wait a few years), but it was his first clean outing in two weeks. Rivera’s lone blown save came against the beleaguered New York Mets, an outing in which he didn’t retire anyone. He had another outing like that last week at Oakland, entering in the 18th inning with the winning run on base, allowing two hits (and an intentional walk) and allowing that run to score. Rivera is getting the whiffs and his ridiculous cutter still works, but lefties are hitting .300 off him (albeit with a .395 BABIP). I’m not particularly worried about this turning into a bigger issue, as I concur with colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft that Rivera is a top-five closer the rest of the way (he has him third, me fifth), but with his age one must be reasonable and keep an eye on a situation you probably never thought you’d need to keep an eye on.
Duane Burleson/Getty Images
Andrew Bailey's third blown save in five appearances has him out of the closer's role.
• In other news, the Yankees' chief rivals, the Boston Red Sox, certainly do have a problem with closer Andrew Bailey. He was given a 3-2 lead Thursday in Detroit and after a Victor Martinez walk, the strangely rejuvenated Jhonny Peralta homered to win the game. Bailey has blown three saves in 10 days, and allowed runs in four of five appearances, and manager John Farrell certainly noticed, removing him from the role pretty much right after the loss. He didn’t name a replacement, but I have to assume right-hander Junichi Tazawa gets first shot, because he was the man when Bailey was on the DL a month ago. Tazawa has been hittable lately -- nine hits in his past seven innings -- but Koji Uehara rarely pitches on consecutive days, and I find it hard to believe lefty Andrew Miller is a serious candidate with his walk rate and modest issues retiring lefty hitters. I once viewed Bailey in the class of pitchers who either were hurt or would pitch great, like Josh Johnson for example, but no longer. Add Tazawa or if it changes this weekend whoever gets the chance, because Bailey’s time seems to have passed.
• Right-handers Rafael Betancourt (groin) and J.J. Putz (elbow) are each close to returning from DL stints, and I think in each case they’ll be closing right away. The Colorado Rockies can’t complain about how lefty Rex Brothers has fared, and perhaps he’s their guy in 2014, but the team hasn’t wavered on the hierarchy. As for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Heath Bell has actually permitted a home run in each of his past four appearances. He’s just not good. Putz gets his job back right away, and if he doesn’t do so or has a setback on rehab then look for David Hernandez, not exactly thriving himself, to leapfrog into the role soon.
• Cleveland Indians closer Chris Perez (shoulder) has been on the shelf a few weeks, but fill-in Vinnie Pestano didn’t get saves until his past two appearances. As with Betancourt and Putz, all signs point to a healthy Perez getting his job back without much of a fight; veteran managers love experienced closers, even if they’re not good pitchers. However, Perez’s first Double-A rehab outing went so poorly this week -- three home runs in an inning -- that chances are he’s not healthy.
• And finally we close with the Detroit Tigers. Manager Jim Leyland certainly gave Jose Valverde chances to close, and perhaps he does again, but at this point it’s wise to grab Joaquin Benoit and expect he keeps the job for a bit. Valverde has permitted six home runs in 19 1/3 innings. Benoit tends to have this problem as well, as he gave up 14 home runs last season, second only to Livan Hernandez among relievers. I realize this is a minority opinion, but I’m keeping my eye on Triple-A Toledo closer Bruce Rondon still (yep, I stubbornly won’t give up on this guy). Rondon has a 1.01 ERA and major K rate for the Mud Hens. It shouldn’t be long before he’s promoted and matters. Lefty Drew Smyly is also in play, but I think Leyland views him as a multi-inning option, and far be it for any manager to disrupt conventional thinking -- even if it’s wrong -- and use a closer that way.
Have a great weekend!