April 1, 2009

The Evolution of the Closer and why Saves are Meaningless

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In 1959, reliever Elroy Face went 18-1 in 94 innings for the Pittsburgh Pirates. A year later, Hall-of-Fame Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman observed that 10 of Face’s victories had come after he had blown a lead and the Pirates offense rallied to win the game. Holtzman also noticed that Cubs relievers Bill Henry and Don Elston had preserved far more leads than their Pittsburgh counterpart, yet carried pedestrian win-loss records to show for their efforts. Thus, the save was born. Nine years after Holtzman introduced the term, it became an official statistic. Since then, the save has given notoriety to relievers and changed the entire landscape of late-inning baseball.
In its early days, when closers regularly registered multiple inning saves, the statistic served as a useful tool for identifying the best relievers. In 1974, the Dodgers’ Mike Marshall won the Cy Young Award by logging a whopping 208 innings and notching 21 saves out of the bullpen. Three years later, the Yankees’ Sparky Lyle earned the same honor by compiling a league-leading 26 saves in 137 innings. Save totals rose steadily in the mid-1980’s as managers began to use their closers less frequently and for shorter periods. Still, top relievers such as the Royals’ Dan Quisenberry routinely pitched over 100 innings per year.
All of that changed in 1988 when Oakland manager Tony La Russa began to use Dennis Eckersley for one-inning saves. Eckersley flourished as a starter with the Indians, Red Sox and Cubs from 1975 to 1985, but his struggles with alcoholism translated to the mound in 1986 where he endured the worst season of his career. Under the guidance of La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, he made a successful transition to the bullpen in 1987 and by the following year, he was a dominant closer for the pennant-winning Athletics. Eckersley accumulated his 45 saves in just 60 appearances and pitched just 73 innings that year. La Russa used a quartet of effective relievers to navigate the middle innings and saved his closer for the ninth. Oakland employed this strategy to the tune of three straight World Series appearances between 1988 and 1990 and other teams followed suit.
It is over the last 20 years that the save has become a completely misleading statistic. Lee Smith, who ranks third on the all-times save list, had more saves between his age-33 and age-35 seasons than he accumulated during any other three-year stretch in his career. In 1993, he needed just 58 innings to notch 46 saves, but Smith was not as valuable to the Cardinals as he was to the Cubs ten years earlier when, in 103 innings, his adjusted ERA (for ballpark factors) was more than twice as good as that of an average pitcher that year. The Angels’ Francisco Rodriguez earned a single-season record 62 saves last season, an amazing feat only because he had 69 save opportunities. Rodriguez, himself, didn’t even have the best season of relievers on his own team (Jose Arredondo outperformed him in every meaningful statistical category) and his reduced velocity and strikeout rate are signals that he is a declining player.
The save has limited the ways in which managers define roles for their relievers. It is unjustifiable for managers to use their closers in all save situations. Most saves are not difficult to earn, as evidenced by Wes Littleton’s 27-run save in Texas’ 30-3 drubbing of the Baltimore Orioles in 2007. The official scorer credited Littleton with a save because he pitched three innings and finished the game. On the score sheet, his save looks the same as a patented Mariano Rivera outing where the Rivera averts disaster in the eighth and then pitches a perfect ninth to preserve a slim lead. It is almost as egregious an offense for managers to confine their closers to the ninth inning duty. When the balance of a game hangs on a seventh-inning at-bat, it makes sense for teams to call upon their best relievers—usually their closers. If not for the vanity of closers, more teams would use a bullpen-by-committee. The Boston Red Sox rode a bevy of nondescript relievers to the playoffs in 2003 and the 2008 Rays employed the same tactic with considerable success after Troy Percival went on the disabled list in July. Tampa Bay did not have any star relievers, but rather a plethora of quality arms with different styles. Yet, as long as teams continue to pay for saves, closers aren’t going to relinquish save opportunities.
Analysts have yet to create or release to the public, a statistic that accurately quantifies the true value of a reliever. As for now, saves rein supreme and for that, today’s closers owe a cut of their paycheck to Mr. Holtzman.