In many ways, the save stat is a first draft at solving a problem. For years, relief pitchers had been marginalized as failed starters. Their value was unclear in terms of measuring their metrics.
Wins were coveted as starters and relievers often didn’t get wins. Many times they didn’t even pitch when their team had a lead.
Relievers tended to get wins when they let up the lead but then the team scored later. Those were “vulture wins.”
A few attempts were made to award saves but writer Jerome Holtzman came up with the first draft. Pitchers were awarded saves if they finished the game and protected a tight lead.
It became an official stat in 1969 and suddenly a measurement came about to compare relievers.
Pitchers had to protect either a 3 run lead with 3 outs to go, protect a lead where the tying run is on the on deck circle or protect a lead by pitching the final 3 innings of the game, regardless the score.
Not bad. A reliever didn’t have to worry about picking up wins to get anyone’s attention. At first it didn’t seem to affect how managers used their bullpen. They went with the best pitchers available, regardless of their save total.
Five different pitchers recorded saves in the 1973 World Series between the A’s and Mets.
The star relief pitcher emerged from this new stat. Rollie Fingers, Sparky Lyle and Bruce Sutter all earned Cy Young Awards between 1977 and 1981. So would Willie Hernandez, Steve Bedrosian and eventually Dennis Eckersley and Eric Gagne. Fingers, Hernandez and Eckersley would win the MVP as well, an unheard of possibility before the gaudy save totals impressed voters.
Between 1969 and 1988, a 20 or 30 save total was considered elite. Pitchers tended to go more than one inning for the save and they were considered to be “Firemen” more than “Closers.” They had to snuff out rallies instead of simply slam the door in the 9th.
Dave Righetti of the Yankees saved 46 games, averaging more than 4 outs per save, setting the single season record in 1986.
Then in 1988, manager Tony LaRussa figured something out. If he took his best relievers and gave them defined roles, he could get more games out of them, if not more innings. He would use Dennis Eckersley just for the 9th, Rick Honeycutt just for the 8th and Gene Nelson just for the 7th.
This made sense for the A’s, who turned their factory style bullpen into a well oiled machine.
What that also did was make the save a much less reliable metric. If a good solid pitcher pitches the 9th with a 3 run lead and DOESN’T let up 3 runs, then guess what? They get the save.
With the one inning and out save now the norm, all Save totals exploded. The top 20 All Time save leaders have some Hall of Famers like Eckersley and Fingers in there. There are also pitchers like Todd Jones, Jose Mesa, Troy Percival and Francisco Cordero on there. Nothing against them, but they basically compiled saves and would never be Hall of Fame candidates.
Top 20 all time in any positive category should at least get some consideration for the Hall. Will Francisco Rodriguez, who currently is 4th all time on the list, even get on a second ballot? His 62 saves in 2008 remain the highest all time mark. This impressed the Angels so much that they let him walk in the off season.
Of the 50 highest single season save totals, only Righetti’s 46 in 1986 took place before 1988.
Bobby Thigpen’s 57 saves was a classic save compiling from a fine pitcher who never came close to that total before or afterwards.
The Mississippi State grad would get his 30 some odd saves with a mid 3 ERA every year between 1988 and 1991 with the exception of 1990. That year he averaged roughly 3 outs per appearance and finished the game 73 of his 77 appearances. He kept his ERA down to 1.83 and piled up the 57 saves. He made the All Star team and the White Sox were surprise contenders for much of the season.
Despite the saves, Dennis Eckersley was still considered to be the best closer in the game. Thigpen finished 4th in the AL Cy Young vote.
After 1990, he went back to 30 save seasons with ERAs in the 3’s. By 1993, he was on the Phillies. When Mitch Williams, the save compiler for the team, was scuffling in the post season, the idea of calling on the single season saves champion to take over did not seem to even cross anyone’s mind.
His career was over by 1994.
The save rule needs to be altered to make it tougher to record one. Perhaps make it so the pitcher has to face the tying run. Or maybe some a sliding scale of difficulty in what a save is worth.
I don’t know. It is worth figuring out. The save was a good first draft. But it needs revisions.