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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.

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 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.

Tim Lincecum
Catch me if you can: Tim Lincecum swipes the bag a few beats before Rick Ankiel.
Matt Philip covers the Cardinals for the SweetSpot Network at Fungoes. You can follow him on Twitter.