5 Lessons from Mariano Rivera

Even if you’re not an ardent baseball fan, you have to be impressed with Mariano Rivera, the incomparable relief pitcher for the New York Yankees, who two days ago set the record for most saves, at 602.  Sports writers long ago ran out of superlatives for describing Rivera’s talent and durability, and the crucial role he has played in the Yankees’ success over the past sixteen years.

But what can Rivera’s remarkable career teach us, the mere mortals of the earth?  I believe there are five lessons.

1.  The numbers tell only part of the story.   Rivera’s stats are, in a word, astounding.  Rivera has a lifetime ERA of 2.22, the second lowest in history for a pitcher with more than 1,000 innings.  He’s even more dominant in postseason play, where he has an ERA of 0.71 and a towering 42 saves.  But what makes him truly special isn’t in the numbers.   Statistics don’t capture Rivera’s presence on the mound, his defensive skill, his leadership in the clubhouse and his ability to throw the right pitch at the right time, in game after game.  The lesson: don’t overlook the intangible factors for success that escape the metrics – whether in your people, products or strategy.

2.  He started out doing something else.  When Rivera joined the Yankees in 1995 he was an average starting pitcher who struggled to throw a curveball.   Two years later, his coolness under pressure established him as a relief pitcher, and the rest is history.  In organizations, a lot of people are in the right ballpark but not in the right position.  Finding the spot where they can thrive makes all the difference.

3.  Consistency works.   We see Mariano Rivera work his magic for an inning, in a dozen or so pitches.   What we don’t see is the intensive preparation that precedes it.  Rivera is known for his focus and his work ethic, which have allowed him to perform consistently at a high level.  Jason Varitek, the veteran catcher for the Boston Red Sox, spoke insightfully about this in a New York Times article last year:

Varitek described Rivera’s success with a catcher’s dispassionate appreciation. “You see guys with sometimes even better stuff unable to make quality pitches when the game is on the line,” he said. Rivera, with his easy delivery and simplicity of moving parts, had the gift of execution. “The ability to repeat,” Varitek said, “is both mental and mechanical.”

The practice, drills and routines that have enabled Rivera to execute successfully can also found in top musicians, artists and writers, or just about anyone at the peak of their profession.  Few can stay there without them.

4.  Innovation matters.  You’d think a game as old as baseball had seen pretty much everything.  But nobody, at least in our generation, has seen a pitch like Mariano Rivera’s cut fastball.  The New York Times profile describes it thus:

Plenty of other pitchers throw a cutter, including Phil Hughes, a Yankees starter. Hughes says, however, that though he grips the cutter the same way Rivera does, “it does a lot less.” It’s true: Hughes’s cutter is a fastball with a little swivel at the end, while Rivera’s cutter is, as the Yankees’ puckish outfielder Nick Swisher puts it, “a heat-seeking missile, and the target is the handle of your bat.” Rivera’s cutter is faster and breaks more than just about anyone else’s and almost always ends up exactly where Rivera wants it to be. Though Rivera throws a single pitch 80 percent of the time, the velocity, break and pinpoint control still make him almost unhittable.

Just as the cut fastball propelled Rivera’s career, a great innovation in business can disrupt markets, extend the life of a brand and build fierce customer loyalty.   (See my related posts on Steve Jobs  and Keith Richards for other examples.)

5.  He learns from failure.   Mariano Rivera seldom fails, which is impressive.  But even more impressive is his ability to learn from failure.  In Game 4 of the 1997 American league Division Series, Rivera gave up a game-tying home run to Sandy Alomar Jr. of the Cleveland Indians, who reached Rivera’s fading cutter with just enough bat to clear the right-center-field fence.  Cleveland went on to win the game and the series.  In the off-season, Rivera adapted his cutter so it would move inside and down against right-handed hitters like Alomar.  Rivera was even more unhittable, and the Yankees captured the World Series for the next three years.



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