Saturday, April 30, 2011
Blown saves are overblown
By Matt Philip
What's the deal with blown saves? Erstwhile St. Louis Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin recently blew up on the mound for the fourth time this season, then blew up at fans for booing him. In response, people flamed him on the radio and internet. All this over a few blown saves.
Don't get me wrong, I don't particularly like blown saves, either. But blown saves are, if you will, overblown. Don't believe me? The Cardinals, whose relievers shut out the Braves for four innings in their 5-3 win Friday night, lead the National League Central with a 15-11 record. They also lead the league in blown saves.
The reality is that blown saves don't really negatively correlate with winning percentage. That doesn't mean they're good, but it probably means that they're not an indication that the Mayan apocalypse is upon us. This makes the certain freak out over every last one of them a little tiring. The preoccupation also tends to crowd out other aspects of the game that matter as much or more.
Happily, St. Louis fans will be spared any headlines Saturday about which closer du jour coughed up the lead Friday night. But partisans in Atlanta (Craig Kimbrel), Minnesota (Alex Burnett) and Boston (Bobby Jenks) will be stark-raving mad about their relievers' blown saves after Friday night. And that doesn't even include Detroit's Joaquin Benoit, because in a non-save situation -- so he couldn't get a blown save -- he surrendered a walk-off grand slam to Carlos Santana.
AROUND THE SWEETSPOT NETWORK
Nick's Twins Blog
I feel sorry for Ron Gardenhire. In addition to having three key starters on the DL, he has seen multiple minor injuries pop up in recent days, depleting an already short-handed bench. Backups have failed to produce, and -- more significantly -- so have most of the starters who have managed to evade injury or illness.
Who knew that it would take a four-game losing streak for Nervous Ned to go into full meltdown mode? Maybe meltdown is a little harsh, but you have to question what's going through the manager's mind when he moves Alex Gordon from left field to first base for two games in a row. One game... OK, whatever. Two games... You start to wonder what's going on. Is this a move to jumpstart a lethargic lineup, or is this some sort of larger plan?
Disciples of Uecker
Corey Hart is back. Our long local nightmare is over. Mark Kotsay and Erick Almonte no longer roam right field on a daily basis, but what was the damage? Two players can't be that bad over just 20 games, right? Kotsay has come on strong of late, but his .368 on-base percentage belies just how bad he's been.
All of this is part of the problem. Like its ugly brother, the save, the blown save is a blunt object wielded to bash relievers into easily identified goats.
Consider these weird facts:
A pitcher who enters a tie game and gives up the lead can’t get a blown save.
A pitcher who enters with a four-run lead and gives up the lead can’t get a blown save.
A pitcher can get a blown save if the go-ahead run scores on fielding errors.
A pitcher who blows a save can also get the win.
A pitcher can be charged with a blown save even though a run may not even be charged to him.
A blown save is merely a half-inning sample of a ballgame. That means that a team has at least 17 other half-innings in which to win any particular game. What do you call it when the starting pitcher allows a run in the fourth inning with a 7-4 lead? Or a sixth-inning reliever who comes into the game down 3-2 but allows a run to increase his team’s deficit? We don’t call it anything, of course.
The upside-down world of the blown save was on display during the Cardinals’ mid-week series in Houston. The team’s most dominant reliever, Eduardo Sanchez, pitched notably worse than Mitchell Boggs, the pitcher expected to replace Franklin in the closer’s gig. Yet Boggs was saddled with the scarlet letters “BS,” while Sanchez wore an “S” like he was Superman. To top it off, Fernando Salas "earned" a save Thursday night by throwing a wild pitch (on which the inning ended with a runner tagged out trying to score), then pitching one inning with a four-run lead. "Hey, nice work, Fernando Salas," quipped broadcaster Dan McLaughlin, we hope mockingly.
It’s no surprise that Franklin, though successful in the past, has had a hard time closing games. It’s because he has had a hard time getting hitters out, relying as heavily as he does on defense and the vagaries of “luck” (with career rates of 4.9 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9, he has one of the highest rates of balls put into play). Regardless of the situation: He has allowed at least one baserunner in every game in which he has pitched this year.
Rather than focus on the non-qualitative blown save, let’s instead take a smarter look at relief pitchers. Until someone determines that saves are a special, repeatable skill -- rather than simply a function of opportunities and how good a reliever is in any context -- let’s just check out strikeout and walk rates, for starters.
For example, Sanchez entered Friday’s game with 14 strikeouts and one walk in eight innings, and in six minor-league seasons, the 22-year-old posted 9.9 K/9. With dominance like that, he’s going to succeed in relief, whether he enters with a four-run lead, in a tie game or down one run. Sure, he’ll blow a save every now and then, but so does Mariano Rivera
It’s a fact that the top two career leaders in blown saves are in the Hall of Fame. If you don't believe me, take a trip to Cooperstown, and you'll see that both Goose Gossage (112 blown saves) and Rollie Fingers (109) got elected. Almost always, more variables explain a team’s lost than a single hapless pitcher’s inability to obtain three outs on a particular night, so try not to attach too much significance to the Blown Save in isolation.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Catch me if you can: Tim Lincecum swipes the bag a few beats before Rick Ankiel.