Friday, September 12, 2008

Somebody Save Me

MLB Rule 10.19:
A save is a statistic credited to a relief pitcher, as set forth in this Rule 10.19.

The official scorer shall credit a pitcher with a save when such pitcher meets all four
of the following conditions:

(a) He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team;
(b) He is not the winning pitcher;
(c) He is credited with at least 1/3 of an inning pitched; and
(d) He satisfies one of the following conditions:
(1) He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at
least one inning;
(2) He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either
on base, or at bat or on deck (that is, the potential tying run is either already on
base or is one of the first two batters he faces); or
(3) He pitches for at least three innings.

In 1969, a lobbying effort by Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter Jerome Holtzman succeeded in getting Major League Baseball to accept the save as a new baseball statistic for relief pitchers. The original save rule was somewhat different than the current rule shown above. The 1969 save rule said any reliever who entered the game with a lead and held that lead until the end of the game was credited with a save. This allowed relievers to come in at the start of an inning with a four or more run lead, finish the game, and pick up a save--something impossible today. For example, Ron Perranoski of the Twins picked up a save on May 16, 1970 in a game against the Brewers for throwing a scoreless ninth inning with an 11-7 lead. He would not have picked up a save for the same outing today.

So, when did the rule change? Why, only a few years after the save rule was first adopted. In 1973, the save rule was changed so that the official scorer of a game could only award saves to a reliever under one of two conditions:

(1) He had to enter the game with either the potential tying or winning run either on base or at the plate and preserve the lead; or
(2) He had to pitch at least three or more effective innings and preserve the lead.

(EDIT: This rule apparently took effect for only the 1974 season, not 1973 and 1974 as implied below. See here for more.)

As you might have noticed, neither condition specified a pitcher had to finish the game to pick up a save. If two or more pitchers qualified for a save, it was up to the official scorer to decide which reliever pitched most effectively and award the save to that pitcher. A good example of a save being issued at the official scorer's discretion to a pitcher who didn't finish the game is the September 29, 1974 game between the White Sox and A's. In that game, A's lefty Darold Knowles entered with one out in the sixth inning and a 2-1 lead. He went on finish the sixth, allowing the A's to score another run behind him, before throwing 2 1/3 more innings, giving way to Rollie Fingers in the ninth inning with a 3-2 lead and one out. Fingers retired the final two batters the game in order and would have picked up a save under today's rules. Unfortunately for him, however, both he and Knowles qualified for the save and the official scorer decided Knowles' one run and three hits allowed in three innings was more effective than Fingers' two batters faced. There were sixteen saves in 1973 and 1974 awarded to pitchers who didn't finish the game for their team (hey, that sounds like an idea for another post...).

I only looked at 1973 and 1974 for those types of saves because Major League Baseball once again changed the save rule for the 1975 season. Before that season, the save rule was changed to the version present in the rule book today except for one word. Currently, a reliever who enters a game with a lead (no matter how large) and pitches the final three (or more) innings automatically gets credited with a save. That's a recent change, because the save rule used to read that a pitcher had to pitch effectively for three innings. I recall a bit of a ruckus caused when Dodgers releiver Jae Seo was not given a save after allowing four runs in four innings of relief in a 10-4 Dodgers victory on June 23, 2006. I'm not sure when exactly baseball took "effectively" out of the rule, but I'd imagine it has something to do with that game. Now, if only they'd resolve some other ambiguities...but that's an issue for another day.

If you haven't already guessed, this post was prompted by Francisco Rodriguez notching his 57th save of the season last night in Anaheim. That ties Bobby Thigpen's 18-year-old record for saves in a single season. With that in mind, I want to look at the players who've held the single season saves record since 1969. There's obviously more to say about some of these guys then I've put here, but I'll let others supply the full biographies.
  • Ron Perranoski (31 saves for the 1969 Twins) - I know the Baseball-Reference saves leaderboard says Jack Aker held the record for most saves in a season at this point, but he did that in 1966 and his saves were awarded after the fact using today's rules. Perranoski, on the other hand, pitched under the original save rule. Granted, it allowed him to pick up saves he would not have been credited with today (a quick rundown of his 1969 gamelog made six such saves jump out at me), but when the save was brand new and people were figuring it out using only the original rule, it makes him the original saves king. A lefthanded reliever for the Dodgers and Twins for a decade before the save rule was implemented, Perranoski saved 65 games in 1969 and 1970 combined before losing his effectiveness and limping through three more seasons.

  • Wayne Granger (35 saves for the 1970 Reds) - The first right-handed saves king, Granger edged out Perranoski (who had 34) for the major league saves lead in 1970, establishing a new single-season record in the process. Relief roles back then weren't as specialized as they are today, or Granger might have had a lot more saves: teammate Clay Carroll picked up 16 saves during the 1970 season. Interestingly, after being the top saves-getter for the Reds, Granger was pushed into the background as Clay Carroll moved ahead of him in the bullpen. He was eventually sent to Minnesota and saved some games there, but never again had more than 19 in a season.

  • Clay Carroll (37 saves for the 1972 Reds) - After Granger was sent to the Twins, Carroll and Pedro Borbon became pretty much the guys in the Cincinnati bullpen. Borbon picked up his share of saves in '72 (11 to be exact), but Carroll was most often called upon to lock the game down. After a shaky start to the 1973 season, Carroll was moved to the starting rotation for a brief interval before heading back out to the bullpen, but he didn't pick up many saves from there on out. That isn't to say he wasn't a great reliever: he finished his career with a shiny 2.94 ERA in 1353 1/3 innings. Relievers were just used differently back then.

  • John Hiller (38 saves for the 1973 Tigers) - The save rule was changed before the 1973 season, making it a bit tougher for relievers to pick up saves. That didn't stop Hiller, however. The veteran lefty dominated the American League that season, putting up a 1.44 ERA with 124 strikeouts in 125 1/3 innings en route to his 38 saves. The next season, Hiller became a true relief ace, not being put in the game specifically to get saves, but just to hold the other team. Without starting a game in 1974, Hiller went 17-14 in 59 appearances for a team that went 72-90. Combined with his 13 saves, Hiller picked up a win, save, or loss in 44 of his 59 games pitched. There's a good example of an ace reliever used whenever the team needed outs! Like the other guys on the list, Hiller's top saves season was an aberration, as he never topped 15 in any other season.

  • Dan Quisenberry (45 saves for the 1983 Royals) - Hiller's mark stood for a decade, but relief roles were changing and certain pitchers were beginning to be used more for save situations than as catch-all, hold-the-other-team-in-whatever-inning guys. There were designated closers on teams and if a save situation came up, they'd be called upon. Baseball was still quite a way away from today's one inning closers, however. Case in point: submariner Quisenberry picked up his 45 saves in 1983 while averaging two innings per appearance. In one three-game series against the Twins, Quisenberry picked up three saves by pitching three innings the first night, two innings the second night, and one inning on the third. Plenty of people have argued about how much tougher closers twenty years ago were and I don't want to get into all of that, but it's tough imagining any reliever (much less a closer) throwing six innings over three days here in 2008. Quisenberry is the first saves king to have high totals for more than a couple seasons: he topped 30 saves in a year five times in his career.

  • Bruce Sutter (45 saves for the 1984 Cardinals) - Another of the top closers from the early 80's, Sutter tied Quisenberry's mark the year after it was set. One of the first (if not the first) pitchers to use the split-fingered fastball, Sutter was a dominant closer over the course of his career. His 300 career saves were an NL record when he retired and he's still the only pitcher to lead the NL in saves five times. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006.

  • Dave Righetti (46 saves for the 1986 Yankees) - The Yankees lefty toppled Quisenberry and Sutter from the saves throne after only a couple seasons. Righetti began his career as a starter, but was moved to the bullpen for the 1984 season. He quickly found a niche as the Yankees closer, recording 223 saves in the role over the next seven seasons. None topped 1986, when Righetti saved 46 of the Yankees' 90 wins. Interestingly, following a blown save on July 1, Righetti was 17 of 26 in converting save opportunities. He turned it on from that point forward, though, converting 29 of 30 down the stretch. After signing a free agent deal with the Giants before the 1991 season, Righetti had one good season in San Francisco before the deal backfired. An attempt to resurrect his career as a starter for the 1995 White Sox didn't work out and his career was over. He finished with 252 career saves.

  • Bobby Thigpen (57 saves for the 1990 White sox) - Maybe it's just me, but Bobby Thigpen doesn't usually come to mind when thinking of top closers. A relatively short career, the early part of which was spent on some bad White Sox teams, doomed him to be relatively forgotten in the top closers discussion. Instead, he's pretty much the answer to a saves trivia question, and one more save from Francisco Rodriguez will take that away from him. After saving 34 games in 1988 and 1989 for teams that won 71 and 69 games, respectively, Thigpen's save total exploded in 1990 when the White Sox starting winning again. Switching from a good reliever to an unhittable one, Thigpen racked up 57 saves with a 1.83 ERA in the 1990 season. At least he'll always have the fact he was the first to record 50 saves in a single season. He followed up the 1990 season by saving 30 games for the '91 White Sox and 22 for the '92 team. He wasn't as dominant, however, and by the end of 1992 he had lost the closer's role to first Scott Radinsky and then Roberto Hernandez. He was traded to the Phillies in 1993 and pitched in the postseason for the first time that year, but his MLB career was pretty much done. A disastrous start to the 1994 season in Seattle led to his release after a month and he finished his baseball playing days in Japan.

  • Francisco Rodriguez (57 saves and counting for the 2008 Angels) - Rodriguez burst onto the scene at the end of the 2002 season. A 20-year-old September call-up added to the postseason roster by virtue of an obscure roster loophole (now informally known as the K-Rod clause), he won five playoff games, helping lead the Angels to their first World Series championship. Following that dramatic performance, Rodriguez set up Angels' All-Star closer Troy Percival for two seasons before being handed the keys to the role. Since taking over as the Angels' closer, he's recorded at least forty saves each season and has already passed 200 career saves at the age of 26. With just one more save this season, he'll take sole possession of the single-season saves record and, as a free agent following the season, he just might set a record for the largest deal ever given to a relief pitcher as well.
EDIT (9/13): Francisco Rodriguez picked up his 58th save of the season, giving him sole possession of the single-season saves record.


Bopperland said...

Theron, you just know that the Bopper is going to look at those results and right away ask why the AL dominates the Saves record ("save" for the early 70's Reds blip). Any thoughts?

I know that over the past week, there was some press on a current reliever who extended his record for saves over 1 inning in length. I share your belief that the Save should actually be just that - the closer "saves" the tight game's win for his team. In fact, I'd propose that it does not have to necessarily be the last pitcher for the team, but that would open up a whiole new can of worms. It was hard enough for us in Canada to get MLB, let alone turn your pastimes rules upside down!

Theron Schultz said...

Sutter tied the record with the NL Cardinals ;-). I don't know why the AL would have had more guys setting records than the NL - it might just be that AL guys just happened to save a couple more games than their NL counterparts. It might be that back when saves were generally a multiple-inning affair, having to hit for pitchers messed it up for some NL teams. It's probably coincidental more than anything.

I know some people have wanted to link saves to leverage index or other sabermetric things, but I can't imagine MLB doing anything like that. It'd just be one more thing for an official scorer to keep track of during games, and they have enough trouble as it is. I guess if they really wanted to make saves possible in only close games, the rule could be changed to only make those pitchers who enter with the tying run on base, at bat, or on deck eligible for saves. That only really gets rid of the three run lead, one-inning saves. Meh.

Anonymous said...

Great little history lesson here.

So the current save stat rule states "He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning"?

Well, then why is K-Rod being given credit for a save in 6 games where he didn't pitch "at least one inning"?

Theron Schultz said...

Part (d) of the rule states that a pitcher must satisfy one of the conditions, not all them. In those six saves you mention, it's true he doesn't meet condition 1. But he does satisfy condition 2 because he entered each of those games with the tying run on base, at bat, or on deck.

That's how a guy can get a save for coming in with, say, a 7-2 lead with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth. Since the tying run is on deck in that situation, he would get a save for getting the final out.