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Can K-Rod catch Mariano Rivera as the all time saves leader?

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Milwaukee's controversial reliever is well ahead of the Sandman's pace after his age-33 season

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

So here's something interesting:

That would be Brewers' closer (not a real thing) Francisco Rodriguez, holding a 100 save (also not a real thing) lead over all time career saves leader Mariano Rivera, formerly of the New York Yankees, near the end of his age-33 season. Having the all-time saves leader in a Brewers uniform wouldn't be anything new for the Brewers, but does K-Rod have a shot to break Rivera's record? Rodriguez is already sitting at seventh all time on the career saves list, and he has a legitimate chance to finish 2016 as high as fourth: he needs just five to pass Dennis Eckersley, and 37 and 39 to eclipse Billy Wagner and John Franco, respectively.

Of course, fourth place means nothing in terms of catching Rivera. There's a 54 save jump to get up to third place on the list, Lee Smith; another 123 save jump to get to Trevor Hoffman in second; and one more 51 save jump to find yourself level with the Sandman's 652 save record. Rodriguez, who notched three more saves last season after Joe Block's tweet, sits at 386 and trails Rivera by 266, so he's not even 60% of the way there yet.

The save statistic is a scourge upon the baseball world akin to the Borg, forcing managers to assimilate to sub-optimal bullpen management since it's adoption as an official statistic in 1969. Nice, big numbers and all time records are like crack to baseball fans, however, so I'll set aside my distaste to break down Rodriguez's chances to finish his career as the all time saves leader.

Age and Durability

The reason Rodriguez has such a hefty lead on Rivera after each pitcher's age-33 season is that he got an earlier start in the big leagues. K-Rod made his debut  with the Angels in 2002 at the tender age of 20, and was installed as the full time closer -- and leading the league in saves -- by the time he was 23. Rivera didn't get the call to the big leagues until he was 25, taking over the closer role for New York two seasons later.

Neither pitcher had much of an issue with staying on the field outside of freak, isolated incidents. Rivera missed most of the 2012 season when he tore his ACL while shagging a Jayson Nix ball that had warning track power. Rodriguez missed the season's final month and a half of the 2010 season when he tore a ligament in his thumb while punching his girlfriend's father, and also missed some time in the spring of 2014 when he stepped on a cactus, which in my opinion was a great move by that cactus, K-Rod is a jerk and deserves to step on cacti from time to time. Each maintained good health otherwise: apart from their debut years, when K-Rod was a September call-up and Mo was a part-time starter, and Rivera's injury-shortened 2012, each made at least 45 appearances in every year of their careers.

Rivera pitched through his age 43 season, and remained dominant until the end, recording 44 saves and a 2.11 ERA on his farewell tour. Rodriguez, armed with a new repertoire that we'll talk about presently, seems poised to remain effective into his 40s as well.

Pitch Selection

Rivera relied largely on his dominant cutter to get outs throughout his career. PITCH/fx, which has data going back to 2007, shows him throwing the cutter about 73% of the time over the final seven years of his career. The pitch continued to be extremely effective even as he lost velocity as he aged, although he was still throwing low-90s heat into his 40s. Rivera mixed in a four-seam fastball that usually had an extra MPH or so on it, and a two-seamer that he'd use against right handers to mirror the movement toward the hands that his cutter had against lefties.

Rodriguez, on the other hand, has had to completely reinvent himself as a pitcher in the second half of his career. When he burst onto the major league scene in 2005, it was with a mid-90s fastball and a nasty curve that hitters could do absolutely nothing about, even when they knew it was coming. However as he lost the velocity on the fastball, which pitchers literally always do, K-Rod's effectiveness dropped precipitously. Barely hitting 90 on the gun anymore, K-Rod just went for a stroll one day and found a stray changeup on the ground, picked it up and brought it with him to the ballpark. In 2007, he threw the changup about 10% of the time. Last year, he threw it nearly as often as he did his fastballs, and it was basically unhittable -- opposing batters swung at it outside of the strike zone over 55% of the time and it had an overall swing and miss rate of 25.1% with an OPS against of .272, which is basically Scooter Gennett against lefties.

Job Security and Opportunities

Rivera was a fan favorite and Yankee legend who would have had a lot of leeway in the event he hit a road bump and struggled for an extended period, not that he ever needed it. Barring an injury -- like the one that cost him most of his 2012 season -- or a catastrophic and extended drop in production, he never would have been in danger of losing his job. So, he had a solid gig on a team that with a long tradition of winning that provided him with plenty of save opportunities: New York won 90 or more games in 15 of Rivera's 18 seasons with the club.

Rodriguez is whatever the opposite of a fan favorite is. He's generally disliked by a wide swath of Brewers fans, some of whom dislike him because is an extremely bad human person, some because he is a truly terrifying pitcher to watch at times, and many for both reasons. Given that, his leash isn't nearly so long as Rivera's might have been, since there wouldn't be much of a negative fan reaction were he to be removed from the role. In fact, he's already lost the closer role once, having recorded just 36 saves over a three year span from 2011-13 while playing for the Mets, Brewers and Orioles, mostly in a set-up role.

Additionally, K-Rod currently plays (and seems destined to stay forever) in Milwaukee, a team that has just six seasons with at least 90 wins in their 46 years of existence. K-Rod is under contract with the Brewers through the end of next season (with a club option for $6 million in 2017), and while there's always a possibility he could be moved, it feels like Milwaukee would have dealt him in July if a market had existed for him. Scott Boras hasn't been able to generate any interest in K-Rod from anyone other than Milwaukee since 2011, likely a function of his advancing age and the PR nightmare attached to signing someone with a history of domestic violence in a post-Ray Rice world. That opportunity with the Brewers may not present itself the next time K-Rod is a free agent: Milwaukee has a new regime in place now and also has a couple of younger relievers -- Corey Knebel in particular has been with the identified with the Future Closer tag-- that the club would probably like to get a look at in that role. This might be the biggest issue for K-Rod in his quest for everlasting meaningless stat glory: if he wants to be the all time saves leader, he'll need to keep finding himself on a team that will give him save opportunities.

Verdict

Well. yeah, K-Rod can catch Rivera. His reinvention as a finesse pitcher with a quality changeup is something that can keep him effective into his 40s even as his velocity continues to drop. If K-Rod remained in a closer role through his age 40 season, he'd need to average 38 saves per year to tie Rivera, which is what he had last year despite limited opportunities on a bad team. That's certainly within the realm of possibility.

But will he? That's a more difficult question that I'll answer with, "Well, I hope not." Assuming David Stearns isn't as hellbent as his predecessor on ensuring K-Rod's perpetual employment, 2017 at the latest will mercifully be Rodriguez's last in Milwaukee, and Boras will need to find a new home for his client. But if he catches on somewhere where he'll get the opportunity to finish games, he'll have a chance to put the Sandman's reign as MLB's saves king to bed.