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Friday, June 15, 2012
Save the save!

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

With apologies to Franklin P. Adams -- and the late great baseball writer/historian Jerome Holtzman -- these are the saddest of all possible words:

Credit a pitcher with a save when he meets all three of the following conditions:

(1) He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his club; and

(2) He is not the winning pitcher; and

(3) He qualifies under one of the following conditions:

(a) He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning; or

(b) 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 batsmen he faces); or

(c) He pitches effectively for at least three innings. No more than one save may be credited in each game

-- Rule 10.20 in the Official Baseball Rule Book

Once upon a time, shortly after Holtzman succeeded in making it an official part of baseball, the save was a reasonable enough statistic. This was back in the days when relievers were known as "firemen" because they could extinguish three- and four-alarm blazes (well, metaphorically) at any point in a game. Their bullpen carts might as well have had sirens and water hoses. They were such true firemen that I think women were buying pin-up calendars of Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage posing bare-chested with suspenders.

Jonathan Papelbon
Would Jonathan Papelbon get so pumped up about a save if he knew how much difference he really makes in a game?

Unfortunately, things have changed. The old firemen have evolved into "closers" who don't go to the bullpen until the middle innings, almost never pitch before the ninth and rarely take the mound if there is anyone actually on base. Yet they still "earn" saves, often when the lead is so safe that even the smoke detector wouldn't blare.

Not only has the save been cheapened, it has become a stat -- the only stat -- that affects managerial strategy.

"It really does," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels says. "Occasionally, the 'win' will [affect a manager] a little bit, but that also benefits the team a bit in some regard, if he can stay in a little longer. But the save definitely impacts how the game is managed."

Most managers vigorously deny this, but they're either lying or kidding themselves. They all use their closers depending strictly on whether it is or is not a save situation. Managers do so because they are trapped by the save rule. To manage otherwise puts their jobs at risk by upsetting the closer, the closer's agent, the closer's wife and those people most easily irritated -- the media.

Still, none of this would be a big deal except for one thing: The whole one-inning save strategy doesn't work.

For example, it doesn't prolong the careers of relievers. As Tom Verducci wrote earlier this spring, it may lead them to break down more often. It does, however, force teams to carry more relievers than necessary, costing them useful bench players. It also prompts them to waste financial resources on overpaid, overrated closers.

And most importantly, it doesn't help teams win more often.

Project Retrosheet founder Dave Smith scrupulously researched all late-inning leads over more than seven decades. He found that the success rate for a team protecting a ninth-inning lead hasn't changed a bit over time, regardless of relief strategy.

"It has never changed. Ever," Smith says. "If you lead by three runs going into the ninth inning, you're probably going to win. It's a pretty safe bet."

While Jonathan Papelbon's career save rate of 88.3 percent sounds impressive, Smith points out that teams historically have won 85.7 percent of games they led by one run after eight innings, 93.7 percent of games they led by two runs and 97.5 percent of games they led by three. Thus, it is clearly inefficient to pay Papelbon or any top closer $12 million a year and only use him for situations in which the team likely will win anyway.

Dan Quisenberry
In 1983, Dan Quisenberry saved 45 games while averaging more than two innings per appearance.

No one wants to hear this, though. Smith says he once pointed out the data to a manager, who then responded, "That may be, but I will increase my chance of winning if I bring in this guy for the ninth."

"People like me will never be taken as credible," Smith says, adding, "When you've got overwhelming numbers that are so compelling, can't you at least look at them? And the answer is no. … It is such mindless herd mentality. Because Tony La Russa is a genius, everyone follows."

Is there any way to end this herd mentality after it has been ingrained for so many years? Can we convert closers back to firemen, who were more valuable and possibly healthier?

Yes. If managers can't change their strategy to adapt to the realities of the save, then we must change the save rule.

Here's how:

No more five-run saves. Earlier this season, Tampa Bay's Joel Peralta received a save for getting one out in a game the Rays led by five runs. That's because he took over with the bases loaded, which meant the potential tying run was in the on-deck circle, which is officially a save situation under Rule 10.20, clause (b). No matter that Peralta would have had to give up a grand slam and another run before retiring a single batter to blow the lead. He SAVED the game.

A basic tenet of the save rule is that a reliever supposedly cannot pitch his way into a save situation. But the rule's very wording allows a pitcher to do so, thanks to that "potential tying run on deck" clause. It's silly. If you're talking about a guy in the on-deck circle, it means a pitcher must allow a base runner before facing the tying run. That's rewarding a pitcher with a positive stat for the mere potential of failure.

Clause (b) is the easiest fix. From now on, the potential tying run must actually bat -- not just be in the on-deck circle.

No more cheap saves. Unfortunately, the potential tying run doesn't even have to be in the on-deck circle for a reliever to get a save. The batter representing that run can be sitting on the bench and scoping out women in section 137; but thanks to Clause (a) the closer will still get the save as long as the lead is within three runs and he pitches at least the ninth inning.

Goose Gossage
It's hard to imagine any of Goose Gossage's 310 career saves as cheap.

Again, this is ridiculous. Protecting a three-run lead for one inning is not strenuous work and it should not be handsomely rewarded. Even managers will tell you this privately. And yet it's this very aspect of the save rule that has affected the game the most by limiting the way managers use their best relievers. Rather than use them earlier when the game really is on the line, they hold them back to begin the ninth for the reliable cheap save.

Top relievers used to enter games regularly with runners on. Dan Quisenberry inherited 89 runners in his 75 appearances while saving 33 games in 1980. Now, the top closers rarely inherit runners because managers almost always save them to begin the ninth. Craig Kimbrel led the National League with 46 saves last year, but inherited just four runners in 79 appearances.

This is another easy fix. To earn a save, a closer must face the tying run, even if he pitches an entire inning.

Wait, you say. That means a closer who starts the ninth will only get a save if the lead is one run! Yes, that's correct. But as Smith points out, teams win with two-run leads in the ninth win 93.7 percent of the time. We don't need to reward a pitcher simply for NOT screwing up.

No more saves based on innings alone. Two weeks ago, Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma received a save despite allowing five hits, three runs and a walk in three innings with a 12-run lead. This is insulting. Clause (c) says a reliever must pitch effectively but does not specify what is effective. Let's remove the subjective word "effective'' and replace it with specifics.

Since we want to encourage closers to throw more innings, we must provide incentives for them to do so. So we'll say a reliever doesn't need to face the tying run if he pitches two or more innings. But the lead still must not be more than the total number of innings pitched.

Give the scorekeeper say. When a starting pitcher has the lead but doesn't pitch the five-inning minimum for the win, the scorekeeper is allowed to decide which reliever deserves the victory. Let's do the same for the save. When the other criteria aren't met, allow the scorekeeper to determine if the game was "saved" by a pitcher other than the closer.

As Mets manager Terry Collins says, "If the save rule was at the discretion of the scorekeeper, if it was saved in the sixth or saved in the ninth or if you have to pitch multiple innings, then I think you would see some of those guys come in and pitch in the seventh inning."

And that's really the point of changing the rule: To get relievers used in a more efficient and perhaps healthier way.

If these changes sound harsh, bear in mind that the save is just an arbitrary statistic created by a sportswriter a century after the first professional game was played. Whether a closer piles up a lot of saves or a precious few doesn't matter. What matters to a team is winning as many games as possible, and that means paying and using top relievers efficiently. And that also means using them as firemen, not closers. Freeing managers from the tyranny of the current save rule would allow them to do that.

Holtzman had the best of intentions when he created the save. And it isn't his fault that managers, closers and agents have steadily cheapened it. But it has been cheapened.

It's time to make it valuable again.