Grand Cards: If Mariano Rivera Was A Tiger, Would He Still Be Mariano Rivera?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

If Mariano Rivera Was A Tiger, Would He Still Be Mariano Rivera?

Note: Because of formatting on the blog, some of these tables look blindingly small, if you click on them, you can make them big. Sorry!

Craig Calcaterra, of Shysterball fame blogs daily for NBC as well. In today's series of posts one article caught my eye. Apparently, Mariano Rivera was considered in a trade to the Tigers, once upon a time.

This comes from the original NY Daily News article that Calcaterra references:
[Then-GM Gene] Michael had his own 'What if?' moment a few years later, in 1995, when he considered trading Rivera to the Tigers for David Wells. At the time Rivera was still trying to make it as a starter, still throwing in the low 90s, and when Michael asked the Tigers what they would want in a deal for Wells, Rivera was one of the names they put on a list.

Of course the next paragraph talks about how those talks coincided with a jump in Rivera's velocity in the minors to the mid- to upper-90's and that how "At that point there was no way I was trading him." Still, it makes a body wonder what could have been.

Well? Let's say that trade goes through and Rivera becomes a Tiger in 1995. Other than altering the course of NY Yankees history, what does it do for the Tigers? For Rivera?

I started to jump to conclusions i.e., no way Rivera reaches 500 saves, it makes no difference to the Tigers who suffered from poor pitching, hitting and defense in addition to closer issues (although Todd Jones was more than serviceable in his better years), they would have screwed it up and traded Rivera in 1999 for Sterling Hitchcock, so why bother etc.

However, I thought that I would pull a few numbers to see what I could make of it. All of the data that follow comes from the incredible

First of all, the Tigers, as a team, had 789 Save Opportunities from 1995 through 2009. For comparison, the Yankees had 937 save opportunities over the same period. Rivera was obviously given more of an opportunity to earn saves with the Yankees, although he was stuck behind John Wetteland in 1995 and 1996, something that wouldn't have happened in Detroit. Still, for reasons of fatigue, strategy or any other number of things, it is important to note that the closer does not have all of those save opportunities. Of the Yankees 937 SVOPs, Rivera had 562. For simplicity sake (instead of going year-by-year) let's assume that Rivera would handle 60% of the save opportunities for the Tigers, just as he did for the Yankees.

That allows us to break it down year-by-year:

From Grand Cards

To calculate the Win Difference (W +/-) I assumed that 60% of the win opportunities were taken by Rivera at his prevailing save percentage and 40% were taken by the Tigers at their team percentage. Given that the Tigers closers during that time were probably better suited to set-up duty, this assumption is not too erroneous.

Clearly, the Tigers are unambiguously better off with Rivera than without--they have more wins in each year as their hypothetical closer. But, how much better are they really? Do they make the playoffs when they wouldn't have before? How about a .500 season?

From Grand Cards

They certainly would have been more respectable over the last 15 years though. With Rivera, the Tigers would have enjoyed .500 seasons in 1997, 2000, 2004 and 2008 in addition to the actual .500 seasons that they had in 2006 and 2007. Respectability, woo! Also, that disappointing 2008 season? Yeah, the Tigers would have won the AL Central with 90 wins, thanks to the +16 wins attributed to having a solid closer.

And how does Rivera turn out? 60% of the Tigers' 789 Save Opportunities from 1995-2009 is 473. Meaning he would have pitched in fewer save situations than he currently has saves for the Yankees. With his 89% career save percentage, that would have left him with 420 saves, putting him 5th on the All Time Saves list between John Franco and Dennis Eckersley.

But wait, there's more! You may have been thinking: "But with so many fewer save opportunities for the Tigers, he would have been able to pitch in a higher percentage of them!" Fine. For him to have had the same number of Save Opps with the Tigers as he has had with the Yankees, he would have needed to pitch in 71% of the Tigers save situations. What difference does that make?

From Grand Cards

From Grand Cards

Eh, not so much. An additional .500 season in 2005 and enough wins to win the AL Central in 1997--except that the Tigers were in the AL East that year. [UPDATE: It appears as though the Tigers may have been in a playoff against the Yankees for the Wildcard spot in 2007 as well]

So there you have it, the tale of Mariano Rivera: The Tiger. It sure would have made for some more interesting summers in the doldrums of the 90's and early 2000's, if nothing else.


  1. Except he was still a starter with the Yanks prior to the '95 season. Would the Tigers have had the foresight to move him to the pen? How long would it have taken them to have faith in him as the closer? I suppose that can never be answered, but these numbers would be the best case scenario.

  2. As a Tiger fan from the days of Fidrych to the 2008 meltdown, I can tell you the Tigers of 1994-2005 were as unwatchable as any team in baseball. After being fleeced for a still-valuable Cecil Fielder for Ruben Sierra, I agree the Tigers would have foolishly traded Rivera for some vagabond arm and the proverbial player that never shows up sooner or later.

    It should be noted the Tigers indeed foolishly agreed to a move to the AL Central, thus giving up 30 home dates with the Red Sox, Yankees (their two longest-standing rivals) and rival hockey city Toronto. This would have allowed the Tigers a greater average gate and residual licensing and ad revenue streams, which may have lent itself to protecting the team from making foolish trades that became a 10-year staple until Dave Dombrowski assumed control of the team.


  3. for competitive purposes, the Tigers would be crazy to regret the move to the central. competing annually with the yankees, bosox and now rays for the playoffs? I say "no thank you", rivalries or not

  4. I noticed that you kept all other teams with the same number of wins. The extra Wrivera wins would have had to come from somewhere, so maybe the Tigers would have fared even better. For example in 2004 you kept the Twins with 92 wins while the Wrivera team managed 89 (in the second chart). If just two of the extra save opportunity wins came against the Twins, the Tigers win the Central.

  5. You're absolutely right. In the interest of simplifying the model (I am an economist at heart, after all) I went with a "all other things being equal" approach. Ideally, I would have looked at who each save opportunity was against and then randomize additional wins against those teams. The thought of altering the standings to predict the results of individual games gave me shudders, however. It seems clear though that the team would have been in contention in a number of seasons and would have been able to make a run at a playoff birth. Of course, if this were the case they may never have fired Trammell, Juan Gonzalez would have signed to a long term deal, they wouldn't have had the slot to draft Verlander, etc. Keeping things the same just makes it easier to wrap your head around.

  6. 2 things to consider (but no way to really measure):

    1. In those years when the Tigers would theoretically have been more competitive and somewhat close to making the playoffs (2000, 2004, 2007), perhaps the team would have been more active at the trade deadline?

    2. Presumably Rivera would still make an awful lot of money even with the Tigers. In those years when they stunk regardless of who their closer would be (so, so many years), Rivera could be a good bargaining chip. Imagine in 2005 that the Yankees (without Rivera, and because of it maybe with no World Series titles since 1978) are struggling to win the division against the hated Red Sox, who have just won a title. Who knows what they'd be willing to give up for someone like Rivera?

  7. Since the Tigers still sucked for many years, Rivera probably would have left as a free agent somewhere along the line.