“The exception that proves the rule” is almost always a nonsensical thing to say, but New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, the first unanimous selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame, was the exception that proved a rule. The rule is that closers are worthless, and it’s stupid for teams to value them.
Rivera, himself, was almost indescribably valuable to the Yankees. He dominated the regular season like no one else, and he was even better—almost untouchable—in the postseason, when the pressure was highest and the opposing batters were the toughest. With him, the Yankees had a lethal, demoralizing advantage over whomever they faced: the Yankees hitters would get nine innings to try to score runs, and the other team’s hitters knew they would only, realistically speaking, get eight. Rivera’s presence at the end of the game made good teams great and great teams unstoppable.
But the question for everyone else was, what could they possibly do about it? Other closers might rack up fancy save totals for a year or two or three, only to come unglued in the playoffs, or to wear out and become overpriced and unplayable. Nobody could buy the next Mariano Rivera, or make him. There was only one.
How did Rivera become the Yankees closer? The Yankees had an elite, name-brand closer, John Wetteland, who led the leagues in saves in 1996 and closed out all four victories as they won their first World Series in 18 years. And they let him walk away. The Texas Rangers gave Wetteland a pay raise and got two great years and two decent years from him.
The Yankees, meanwhile, gave Rivera the job and won four more titles. He didn’t get the job because he was a certifiably great closer; he got the job because he was a failed starting pitcher the team had around, and when they tried him as Wetteland’s setup man, he’d dominated the league.
Closers are not indispensable pitchers. Indispensable pitchers are starting pitchers, because it’s more valuable to have someone pitch 300 innings than to have them pitch 75 innings. The last three outs of a game are important—it’s true, you can’t win unless you get them—but they’re only three outs, and most days, the game has already been decided by then. Even for Rivera, whose finishing ability truly changed games and made other teams panic early, Baseball Reference lists his most valuable year, by Wins Above Replacement, as that 1996 season, when he threw more than 100 innings and faced 425 batters.
A closer is a job, not a person. It’s foolish to spend free-agent rates to hire an established one, and it’s criminal to waste a young prospect’s potential by specially training him to be one. Most teams have a pitcher somewhere—hanging on the fringe of the rotation, working in the herd of the bullpen, aging down in Triple A—who can get three batters out at the end of a game more often than not. Some of them will even be good pitchers. Only one of them in history ever became Mariano Rivera, but that’s one more Mariano Rivera than anyone else ever came up with.