Mariano Rivera and why the Naismith Hall of Fame is a sham.


Mariano Rivera has been elected to Cooperstown (the baseball hall of fame). For those that don’t know, Rivera is probably the greatest relief pitcher in MLB history. I certainly don’t have a problem with Rivera making the Hall of Fame or being a unanimous decision. But he now holds the honor of being the first unanimous first-ballot Hall of Famer in baseball history, and that brings up two problems.

What the hell Baseball?

Mike Greenberg at ESPN actually summed up my issue amazingly well. Namely, how the hell did no one else in the history of baseball get a unanimous vote? Ken Griffey Jr. missed a 100% score by three votes. Babe effing Ruth missed by nine. In a revelation that will shock no one, voters of accolades for professional sports aren’t always the best. And with that, lets get back to basketball.

Here’s the clip from Mike Greenberg.

Baseball vs. Basketball

Mixing the two has bizarre results.

This is a subject I’ve talked about before. It’s no secret I’m jealous of how the baseball mainstream, relative to basketball, embraced much better analytical thinking. And Rivera is a great example why. A standard baseball player is quite similar to an NBA player. A standard hitter in baseball plays both offense and defense. The only major difference relative to basketball is their offensive contribution is governed. In basketball, a player like James Harden can essentially take all the shots. In baseball the most a batter is able to do is take one-ninth of the outs. But baseball gets interesting with pitchers.

Pitchers don’t play every game. And Rivera was a reliever, which means he only came in for the last inning or two when games were close. Here’s a decent set of comparisons. Rivera played 19 seasons with the Yankees, in that he played in 1,115 games for a total of 1,283.2 innings pitched.

Derek Jeter, another Yankees great played 20 seasons with the Yankees. He suited up for 2,747 games! Andy Pettitte was a starting pitcher for the Yankees that overlapped a lot of the time with Rivera. In a total of fifteen seasons with the Yankees, Pettite pitched 2,796.1 innings.

Yankees Dynasty

My point here is that in the language of the NBA, Rivera would be called a “role player.” He didn’t play as many games as standard starter (of course, most pitchers don’t). As a reliever he didn’t pitch as many innings as a standard pitcher. But Rivera had a very specific role — throw an unhittable pitch so well that the Yankees were always in it at the end. And, of course, this helped the Yankees win games. And as a unanimous decision shows, baseball fans recognize Rivera’s contributions too. Back to basketball.

The Naismith Hall of Fame is a sham!

“Role Player”

Rivera could rightly be called the greatest role player in baseball history. Let’s talk a similar player in the NBA. Dennis Rodman is perhaps the best “role player” in NBA history. After his second season in the NBA, Dennis Rodman never averaged more than 6.5 shots a game in his career. But what he did do was rebound and defend. Despite only being 6-7, which is quite undersized for a Power Forward/Center, Dennis Rodman led the league in rebounding seven straight seasons from 1992 to 1998. He also won back to back Defensive Player of the Year Awards in 1990 and 1991. He made eight straight All-Defense squads and was a member of five title squads.

Like Rivera, Dennis Rodman did a very important job better than anyone in the league. And Dennis Rodman did make the Hall of Fame … in his second year of eligibility. In baseball, Rivera became the first unanimous first ballot member. Dennis Rodman had to take two tries to get in, despite dominating an apsect of the sport like no one has since. 538 writer Ben Morris gained notoriety in NBA analytics circles for his large treatise on just how amazing Dennis Rodman was, and it took many many words to explain!

Sadly, Dennis Rodman is not even the most egregious aspect of the Naismith Hall of Fame. No, that honor goes to Ben Wallace. Ben Wallace is one of only two four-time Defensive Player of the Year winners in NBA history. He also made six straight All-Defensive squads, as well as five All-NBA teams. And, of yeah, he also made it to four straight All-Star games, getting the second most votes of a starter in 2006. Ben Wallace was part of a Pistons squad that made four straight Eastern Conference Finals, back to back Finals, and won a title so hard it broke up Shaq and Kobe (he lead all players in rebounds that Finals too)

Unlike baseball, Rodman and Wallace aren’t questions for how close to unanimously their accolades are celebrated. Instead, they’re questions of if they belong at all. Rodman made the Hall of Fame in 2011, four years after the first Sloan Analytics conference. Ben Wallace has been eligible for three years now and is still not in the Hall.

One is in, one isn’t.

In NBA history there have been nine players that have won the Defensive Player of the Year multiple times. Seven have been eligible for the Hall of Fame (Dwight Howard(3) and Kawhi Leonard(2) are both locks for first-ballot) Only three names made first ballot (Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo), Dennis Rodman made secondballot, and three aren’t in (Sidney Moncrief, Mark Eaton, and Ben Wallace)

The fact that the first Defensive Player of the Year in NBA history (well, first back to back Defensive Player of the Year, in fact) isn’t in the Naismith Hall of Fame is a travesty. In fact, for a sport trying to embrace the “Analytics Movement”, I argue the Hall’s blind spot for recognized defensive greats is an embarrassment. I’m biased but I think basketball is an infinitely better sport than baseball. That said, I’m ashamed at how much baseball is lapping the NBA in regards to recognizing its greats. Do better basketball voters, do better.