...“I wasn’t a closer, I was a relief pitcher,” Gossage said. He made a great point that he was not just the closer, but the seventh and eighth inning man. He pointed out that he came on with inherited runners in the seventh or eighth inning many times. Some of those situations required that he keep the ball out of play.From Baseball Think Factory, quoting an article by Mike Silva.
Gossage went on to say that “Mariano doesn’t come in with inherited runners. He gets to start out the ninth with nobody on… Easy? It is a piece of cake compared to what we use to do.”
Yes, relievers were used differently in Gossage's time. From 1977-1985, one of the time periods I will look at for Gossage, most of the top 50 seasons in both saves and games finished were by pitchers who pitched over 100 innings (with only a couple of cases of even 1 game started). From 1997-2005, the period I will look at for Rivera, there were no 100+ IP seasons and even 90+ IP was rare (less than 5 for both stats).
So I want to compare both Gossage and Rivera to the average relievers of their times. I picked Gossage's 1977-1985 years since that seems to be his prime years and he was very good throughout the period. It does leave out his great 1975 season as a reliever (he was a starter in 1976). So for Rivera, I look at his first 9 years as a closer, 1997-2005 (which leaves out a very good 1996 seaon). The fact that Rivera has continued to pitch great since then is a plus in his favor. Gossage supporters might say that Rivera's relatively low IP totals have helped his longevity. Gossage was just average after 1985.
The average relief pitcher from 1977-1985 had an ERA of 3.68 while Gossage had 2.10. If we turn that into a winning pct. using the Pythagorean formula created by Bill James to estimate team winning pct. using runs and runs allowed, we get .754. From 1997-2005, Rivera's years, he had an ERA of 2.04 while the league average was 4.31. That gets us a pct of .817. So Rivera edges Gossage .817-.754. (I checked park factors for each pitcher and the simple average of their teams pitching park factors was the same, 97.56, meaning that they each got a little help from their parks, which were about 2.5% lower than average in scoring). All the data I use here is from Baseball Reference or The Lee Sinins Complete Baseball Encyclopedia.
I also found the top 10 pitchers in saves in each era and then calculated the combined ERA of the other 9 (taking out Gossage and Rivera). The best 9 in Gossage's years had 2.87. That gets a .651 pct. The best 9 in Rivera's years had 3.07, getting us a pct of .694. Again, edge to Rivera.
So far, when being compared to contemporaries with a similar role, Rivera is ahead. But ERA can be misleading, since the fielders play a role here (and ERA may not be the best way to judge relievers who are supposed to come in and put out fires).
To avoid this problem, I am going to look at how each guy comapared to his peers in the fielding independent stats (HRs, BBs, SOs). Then I will convert that into a run value using the values below
Those are the values used in what is called "Fielding Independent ERA" formulas. The table below shows how each guy compared to the average reliever of his time in these stats per 9 IP. For example, Gossage allowed .508 HRs per 9 IP while the average reliever allowed .724. So he was .216 better. Multiplying that by 1.4 we get .3024 (it is negative in the table, meaning how much below average Gossage was). Then this is done for the other stats and for Rivera. The last line shows the combined run value each guy was below average using all three sats.
So Rivera is farther below average than Gossage. If I use the average reliever ERAs from each period, then Gossage gets 2.49 (3.68 - 1.19). Rivera gets 2.76 (4.31 - 1.55). The Pythagorean winning pct for Gossage is then .686 and for Rivera it is .709. The next table does the same thing but only for the other 9 pitchers in the top 10 in saves in each period.
Going right to the bottom line, we can see that they are almost even. Gossage would get a Pythagorean pct of .620 and Rivera would get .611. Very close. Now Gossage may have been better than Rivera, but I think the evidence shows that he should not belittle his greatness. Rivera seems to be at least close to Gossage as measured by how good they were relative to their peers.
One weakness of looking at the others in the top 9 is that park effects and fielders might play a big role since they don't represent the entire league. It is possible that the other 9 guys Rivera gets comapred to pitched in great hitters parks so they look weak in comparison to him. Or maybe Rivera had much better fielders behind him. I have not checked that. And when I did the top 10, it included both leagues whereas when I used the league average, it was just the league they pitched in (for Gossage it was the NL from 1977 and 1984-5 and the AL from 1978-83).