A save became an official statistic in baseball in 1969. Yet somehow all of the top 50 single season records in saves have occurred post-1990 and a significant portion came during the infamous steroid era, when players like Bonds and McGwire were shattering home run records left and right. How can this be?
First, looking at the definition of a save, Major League Baseball Rule 10.19 states that a save is recorded when a pitcher is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team, records at least one out, and has satisfied one of the following conditions: 1) enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning, 2) enters the game with the potential tying run on base or is one of the first two batters he will face, or 3) pitches at least three innings.
One can imagine all of the possible permutations of possible save situations, but here is a good indicator of the evolution of the save, and naturally also the evolution of the closer. From 1960 to 2010, saves of more than one inning decreased by more than forty percent. Thus the workload per game on closers has diminished, allowing for more opportunities to accumulate saves.
This fact that closers have been pitching for increasingly less and less outs enables what Bradford Doolittle of the Kansas City Star called “a statistic creating a job." Francisco Rodriguez was able to amass 62 saves in 2008 in large part because he simply had so many opportunities to convert saves. Rodriguez’s 69 save opportunities in 2008 was nearly half of the total of games his team played during the entire season. That incredible number is due to the ability the Angels had during that year to put him in situations that weren’t really “saving” a game.
It may be difficult to comprehensively quantify the quality of K-Rod’s 2008 season, but this article shows that 08 was arguably Rodriguez’s worst season up to that point in his career. “Worst” for a dominating closer may insignificant, but achieving the incredible statistical record he did certainly in part was due to his increase in opportunities. He took advantage of the rule that a save can occur when a pitcher starts the ninth inning and his team is up by three runs.
After that season K-Rod was a free agent and, because of the record, commanded a lot of money. The Mets succumbed to Rodriguez, giving him a 3yr/$37 million contract. Since then, his velocity and numbers have declined and he is currently sporting a measly one year deal with the Brewers. That’s not to say Francisco Rodriguez wasn’t incredible prior to 2009, but his truly impressive saves were diluted by less impressive saves and his true ability was masked by the loopholes with the definition of a save.
Greats like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman were nothing short of spectacular for their careers, which shouldn’t be affected by K-Rod’s record breaking season. But something needs to change the ability closers currently have to bolster their statistics and cashing in like Rodriguez did.
MLB should modify the definition of a save opportunity. Increasing the one out requirement to a two out requirement may help, but only five of Rodriguez’s 62 saves were one out outings. One out saves also can occur during intense situations where a truly gutty performance is required, and those are definitely worthy of a “save,” although Hall of Fame fireman Goose Gossage may disagree.
A small and simple fix would make a world of difference: change the three run rule to a two run rule. This takes care of the situation where a closer can get a save when he pitches one inning when he’s up by three runs. A good closer rarely allows base runners, therefore a three run lead is a generally insurmountable cushion – and nearly a guaranteed save. A two run rule would mean only one runner needs to reach base for a home run to tie the game.
A change of focus to ERA could also alleviate the problem of overrated closers, but that is unlikely to happen because one bad outing for a closer could damage his ERA significantly because he doesn’t pitch as many innings as a starter. Bottom line: MLB needs to change something before the 500 save club makes way to the 600 save club the way the 500 home run club lost its glory to the 600 home run club.