Mariano Rivera is without a doubt the most fascinating player in baseball. He’s 43 years young and he’s arguably as good as he’s ever been. Mo enters Tuesday’s action with a 2.28 ERA, 50 strikeouts, and just six unintentional walks over 55 1/3 innings. More importantly, he still repeats his delivery and his cutter still cuts at pretty much the last millisecond to the exact spot he wants it to cut to.
For as special as the Sand Man is on the field, he might be equally awesome off the field. When he was injured in the midst of the 2012 season, we learned that Rivera had been shagging fly balls during batting practice for years. His efforts in his community are almost unparalleled, and if such a thing as closer mentality exists, Mariano Rivera has it.
Rivera presents a unique issue to me. Whenever I see a player succeed at the Major League level, I think about finding the next player who could succeed in the same way. For most players, this task is pretty simple. You can typically look at a big leaguer’s combination of skills and tools and find amateurs and minor leaguers that project to match those skills and tools. For Mariano, this pattern doesn’t exist. Never before has a pitcher used one pitch so effectively, and in my brief time scouting, there have only been a handful of pitches that I could see getting Major League hitters out on with just one elite pitch.
For the sake of brevity, let’s code this. When I use the term “MOney pitch”, I’m talking about a pitch that can, on its own, retire Major League hitters with some level of consistency. So far in this discussion, there’s just one MOney pitch, and that’s Mo’s cutter.
As I develop as a scout, I become more and more comfortable throwing 70s and 80s on tools. I have yet to project an 80 hit tool, but I’ve put 70s on Indians 2013 first-round pick Clint Frazier and Oakland sleeper second base prospect Chris Bostick, who might as well just change his last name to “Stick”, but I digress. Baseball Prospectus’s Jason Parks, who helped me a ton as I became interested in scouting, uses a slightly vulgar term to define going out on a limb with an extreme grade. I’ll spare you the specifics, but Parks says that you cannot be afraid to put your opinion out there and take whatever flack you might get for that opinion. If you aren’t confident in your evaluations, then why should anyone else have confidence in your evaluations?
Last winter, in between semesters, I found myself watching many of Deduno’s starts from 2012. His fastball velocity sits in the above-average to plus range, but his fastball movement creates a world of potential. Deduno’s second pitch is his curveball, which came and went in 2012. He’ll mix in a fringy changeup. The fastball movement is an easy 70, and might just be the rare 80. The problem has always been Deduno’s inability to control the offering, much less command it. In a relief role, where Deduno might say sayonara to his cambio and scale back his usage of his curveball, he could hypothetically further develop his fastball command. The potential for a MOney pitch exists, but it’s becoming increasingly unlikely as Deduno finds more and more success as a starter. His fastball command has undoubtedly taken major steps, which is good news, but news that will likely prevent a move to the bullpen. Still, Deduno is just 30 years old, and could be a reliever as he loses fastball velocity later in his career.
McCullers and Giolito are very different candidates. Both of them are 2012 draftees and there was an argument for each one of them being the top prep arm in the class. Since draft day, they have taken very different paths, but they more or less find themselves on the same career trajectory.
McCullers owns perhaps the filthiest breaking ball in the minor leagues. The pitch features silly two-plane break and extreme tightness. It sits in the low 80s and flashes plus to plus-plus depth. He still needs to develop a little more command of the pitch, but it has serious MOney potential. It’s unlikely that McCullers will ever need to use just one pitch, given that his fastball can climb up to 97.
Giolito also has a pretty gnarly breaking ball. His is a more traditional 12-to-6 snapper, but it will touch 85 and flash plus-plus bite as enters with plus depth. Like McCullers, Giolito has upper-90s gas in the tank. The fastball, coupled with his potentially plus changeup, won’t (and shouldn’t) encourage Giolito to rely more on his curveball. So, while this pitch has MOney potential, it’s also unlikely to actualize.
Mariano’s MOney pitch is fastball variant, which isn’t what we’re talking about with McCullers and Giolito. Their MOney candidates are breaking balls. In my brief time scouting, I’ve never seen a breaking ball as the main ingredient of a very successful arsenal, much less the only ingredient in such an arsenal. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, just that it’s unlikely. This would mean that Deduno is the most likely to fall into the Mariano mold.
I’m not addressing knuckleballers because of the difficulty for a pitcher to truly command a knuckleball. R.A. Dickey has done so in spurts, but sustained knuckleball command is incredibly rare.
I won’t claim to know of every potential MOney pitch that’s around, and the point of this exercise is not to list all of the candidates. The point is to place Mariano in a scouting box, to distinguish exactly what it is that he’s done for as long as he’s done it. Projecting players to the Mariano profile might not be possible, but this is more about the nature of Mariano’s greatness than it is about some kind of deficiency in the rest of the game. We haven’t even discussed the Sand Man’s makeup, which would disqualify so many pitchers with MOney pitch potential.
Watching Mariano Rivera pitch is a healthy practice for aspiring scouts. It provides a special understanding of how one pitch can work so well and produce so many outs. Scouting pitchers is all about finding players that can get outs, and it’s extremely important that scouts don’t write off players that can get outs in peculiar ways.
Soon, Mariano will not longer trot from the bullpen to the ninth inning of a close game. Time is running out. See the money pitch while you can.
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