Dodgers outfielder Carl Crawford uses just any old bat when he faces Mariano Rivera. The more rickety and age-worn, the better.
He knows there’s a good chance his bat — and his at-bat — will be doomed by what many consider the most devastating pitch in baseball.
Rivera’s cut fastball, or cutter, is often the only pitch hitters see when facing the New York Yankees closer. It’s a pitch that he throws almost exclusively, its late movement as it approaches the plate shattering bats and hitters’ hearts alike.
Why waste good wood on that?
“I don’t use the same bat that I’ve been playing good with because chances are real high” it’s going to get broken, Crawford said with a chuckle. “So I just take an old, cheap bat that I don’t really care about and try to stay as short as possible” with the swing.
Dodgers hitters will face long odds if Rivera pitches in a two-game interleague series starting Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, which could mark the last of his handful of appearances at the storied ballpark. Even in the final season of a 19-year career in which his 641 saves are a record, Rivera, 43, has been as unhittable as he was more than a decade ago when he helped the Yankees win four World Series titles in a span of five years.
His 1.64 earned-run average is his lowest in five years, and his 33 saves rank second in the American League behind Baltimore closer Jim Johnson’s 35.
Rivera can largely thank the pitch that has sustained his dominance as the game’s top reliever since he became a full-time closer in 1997. His cutter, which travels in the low 90-mph range, generally breaks inside on left-handed hitters and outside to right-handed ones, though he can vary the movement depending on how much pressure he uses when he grips the ball.
“Definitely it’s unusual,” Rivera said of his success with the cutter. “Hitters know what’s coming and still they can’t put a good [swing] on the ball. Thank God for that.”
All 16 pitches Rivera threw in the All-Star game earlier this month were cutters. No surprise there. Rivera rarely uses the four-seam fastball and sinker that complete his repertoire.
Eighty-nine percent of the pitches Rivera has thrown since the start of the 2007 season have been cutters, according to the website brooksbaseball.net. Of the 2,614 pitches Rivera has thrown to left-handed hitters in that span, 2,582 — or 98.8% — have been cutters.
“He throws his cutter more than [Tim] Wakefield used to throw his knuckleball,” Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau said. “I mean, that’s crazy to think about, a pitcher who’s been this successful mastering one pitch. You know it’s going to break and I think it always seems like it breaks more and later than you anticipate.
“You can get frustrated because you go up there saying, ‘I’m not going to swing at anything in,’ and you end up breaking a bat. It’s one of those tough at-bats that you come back shaking your head and then you remind yourself that the guy’s going to be in the Hall of Fame for a reason.”
Rivera’s cutter closely resembles his four-seam fastball until the pitch veers sharply in the final moments before reaching the plate.
“Even when you’re swinging,” Angels utlityman Brad Hawpe said, “you still have no clue” which pitch it is.
Rivera has been particularly tough on left-handed hitters such as Hawpe, holding them to a .209 batting average in his career. Not that right-handers have fared much better, hitting only .215.
“With me or [other] left-handed hitters, the cutter is going away from your barrel into your body,” Hawpe said. “It’s going into your hands, where you have less of a chance of getting the barrel to it. So I don’t really know what the approach is to do it, other than just swing and pray it goes where nobody’s standing.”
That tactic actually worked for Hawpe in June, when he blooped a single to left field off Rivera as part of a ninth-inning rally at Angel Stadium. The next batter, Peter Bourjos, stepped to the plate with runners on first and third and two out, the Angels trailing, 6-4.
“He threw the first pitch and I took it and it felt like it started at me and I thought it was a ball outside but it caught the corner, so I’m like, ‘Oh, God, this is nasty,’” Bourjos recalled. “So I got up on top of the plate and just tried to battle.”
Bourjos fouled off two cutters before hitting a run-scoring blooper into left-center field on the fourth cutter of the at-bat. After walking Mike Trout to load the bases, the unflappable Rivera struck out Albert Pujols on three pitches to end the game.
Allowing multiple baserunners is a rarity for a pitcher whose career ratio of 1.003 walks and hits per inning ranks third in baseball history. The only pitchers with a lower WHIP, Addie Joss (0.9678) and Ed Walsh (0.9996), played in the early 1900s during the so-called dead-ball era.
Rivera’s ability to pitch suspense-free innings is a big reason he has blown back-to-back save opportunities only 10 times in his career, including a scant six occasions in the last 15 seasons. His postseason success is even more stunning: He’s converted 42 of 47 save opportunities while compiling an 0.70 ERA on the way to five World Series championships.
Everything about Rivera is singular, including the back story on his favorite pitch.
He was struggling in his initial season as the Yankees’ closer, having blown three of his first six save opportunities, when he went to play catch with teammate Ramiro Mendoza, a fellow Panamanian pitcher.
Rivera threw his four-seam fastball and watched the ball dip and dart into Mendoza’s glove with natural action. The legend of his cutter was born.
He has lost velocity on the pitch over the years but not movement, making it a timeless classic. Many pitchers have tried to emulate the cutter but none has mastered it to the extent Rivera has, in part because he was blessed with a pliant arm and long fingers that help him generate the spin that cloaks his pitch in anonymity — the rotation is similar to a fastball — until it’s too late for hitters to adjust.
“I know it’s one pitch and it sounds like you know it’s coming, you should be able to hit it,” Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer said, “but he’s been able to use that one pitch and give you different looks and different breaks and take a little bit off here and there, so he’s been able to do a lot with just that one pitch.”
Rivera has remained humble despite his unparalleled success, calling his signature pitch a gift from God. His opponents would probably argue they’re the ones who could use some divine intervention.
Crawford is among a handful of players who have had success against Rivera, batting .364 with one home run and two runs batted in in 22 at-bats. More typical is the .091 average held by Dodgers infielder Jerry Hairston Jr.
“One for 11,” Hairston said. “That’s not too successful.”
Nobody seems to hold it against him.
Rivera has been cheered everywhere he goes on a season-long farewell tour, even in archenemy territory at Boston’s Fenway Park. Among the gifts he has received is a rocking chair made of broken bats presented by the Minnesota Twins.
It made sense. The New York Times reported that Rivera broke 44 bats during the 2001 season alone.
The Dodgers will give Rivera another present during a pregame ceremony Wednesday. He will also meet with longtime stadium employees, a tradition he has enjoyed all season at ballparks across the country.
“It’s a privilege and an honor,” Rivera said. “I love all these things that are going on.”
Maybe Crawford could give Rivera one of his favorite bats. That would be one way to ensure it stays intact.
Times staff writer Kevin Baxter contributed to this story.