Regular Articles
Each league features unlikely saves leader
By Jim Mancari

If you said Mariano Rivera and Jason Grilli would be leading their respective league in saves in mid June before the season started, many people would have thought you were crazy.

In any other year, Rivera wouldn’t at all be a stretch, but coming off a torn ACL at the age of 43, it was difficult to predict how he would come back.
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The Pirates' Jason Grilli
Photo by Sports Crazy, used under creative commons license.

But Grilli, who had never been a team’s primary closer in his prior 10 seasons, was not even supposed to be close to National League lead in saves at any point this season, especially with talented closers Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Papelbon all in the same league.

Despite the unlikely circumstances, these two closers are leading their league in saves with 23 apiece. Rivera is tied at the top with last season’s AL saves leader Jim Johnson, but Johnson has blown four saves this season to Rivera’s one.

Meanwhile, Grilli is perfect in his save chances. He’s sporting a miniscule 0.98 ERA and has been dominant late in games for the surging Pittsburgh Pirates.

It’s extremely rare for a reliever to take over as a team’s closer for the first time at the age of 36 like Grilli. He had been a typical middling reliever over his career, with some good years and some bad years. Relief pitching is such a volatile position, and Grilli fit this mold.

However, he’s been able to reinvent himself in Pittsburgh. Once All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan was traded to the Boston Red Sox, Grilli assumed the closer’s role.

He used to be a four-pitch pitcher, but instead he’s ditched his curveball and change-up and has really focused on his power slider. That pitch has been extremely effective this season, which has led to Grilli’s success.

As for Rivera, the guy continues to amaze, even though he announced that he would retire at the end of this season.

The amazing thing with Rivera is that the opposing batter knows that he will be getting a steady diet of cutters. Yet, Rivera is so crafty and his ball moves so much that he still makes professional hitters look like Little Leaguers.

Based on how he’s returned from his injury, Rivera could probably pitch at least a few more seasons. But it appears he’s finally finished, especially since all the teams are honoring him during his last visit to a particular stadium.

Rivera has already cemented his legacy as the greatest closer in baseball history, so whatever he does this year really won’t affect that legacy. But Grilli has resurrected an otherwise mediocre career.

Let’s see how long these veterans can hold onto their league lead in saves, but either way, they’ve provided some first-half excitement in the ninth inning.