Let me begin my case for why saves as a statistic should not matter in any respect whatsoever with my personal input. Every time I go to a Mets game (or any Major League Baseball game, for that matter) the graphics people at the stadium flash extremely contrived stats on the scoreboard for each batter. For example, something like: “Curtis Granderson ranks fourth in doubles among National League right fielders over the past month.” I’m happy for Curtis, but this isn’t a meaningful bit of information, unless you want to know where Granderson ranks among NL RFs in doubles over the past month. The stat doesn’t give us any information regarding his contribution to the team overall; fourth in doubles among NL RF over the past thirty days could translate to a .200/.250/.300 slash-line in which he has hit mostly doubles and is still producing virtually nothing at the plate, or it could be a product of a .350/.400/.450 triple-slash over the past month in which he has hit more home runs than doubles, and he is on an absolute tear.
My point is this: if the statistic isn’t giving any meaningful information, it is not useful, and shouldn’t be used in negotiations as “evidence” of a particular player’s performance. That’s not to say there is not a time and place for “fun facts” like the Granderson doubles fact, or, for example, the fact that Fernando Tatis is the only major leaguer ever to hit two grand slams in the same inning, but those stats should have no bearing on what a player’s salary is, or whether or not they make the Hall of Fame.
“Well, Max, that’s all good and well, but how does this relate to saves?”
Saves are equally as contrived a stat as the Granderson doubles stat. Instead of that stat, though, think of it as “How many times has this player come into a game with a three-run lead or less and gotten the final three outs of the game?” Sure, it has some merit, but not any more than games finished. What makes the final three outs of a game more valuable than the previous 24? You need to get all of them to win the game, it’s not like the final three outs of the game have any more inherent value than the three outs in any other inning. I would argue, actually, that depending on the save situation, those outs have a lower “leverage index” than most of the rest of the game. (For reference, leverage index is a statistic used to measure how much “pressure” is on in a situation, so bases loaded in a tie game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth is an extremely high leverage situation, whereas nobody on and two out in a 10-1 blowout is an extremely low leverage situation. You can read more about it here.)
Furthering the example, a pitcher entering the game with runners on first and second in a three-run game in the sixth inning is entering a higher leverage situation than one who enters the ninth inning with nobody on base and a three-run lead. To most this seems like common sense, but, for some reason, teams tend to value pitchers who rack up saves greater than those who don’t (though I must note that the market is beginning to correct for this; see the contracts of Darren O’Day and Brett Cecil). Why?
I can’t give you a neat one-sentence answer, but I can offer a bit of history that could help answer the question.
In the dinosaur days of baseball, (we’re talking 1870s to 1920s) pitchers used to throw the entire game. They’d pitch all nine innings, save for the occasional appearance by a relief pitcher in a blowout game. Relievers in these days tended to be failed starters, and a team would typically carry no more than one or two relievers, if that. As the game evolved post-WWII, teams eventually began to use “firemen,” or relievers that would come in to put out the fire (hence the name).
Firemen tended to pitch around 120 innings on average and in the most extreme cases, they could appear in as many as half of a team’s games. These relievers went by the wayside for the most part after the advent of saves as an official MLB statistic in 1969. That’s not to say that the fireman disappeared from the game entirely, just that managers tended to begin using one designated pitcher to accrue most, if not all, of a team’s saves.
Brian Kenny has a fantastic book challenging conventional baseball wisdom (Ahead of the Curve, available here) and in his chapter entitled “Kill the Save Too” he says the following regarding the modern-day closer:
You’ve established one pitcher as the best on your staff—batter for batter. You then:
- Artificially restrict his innings.
- Keep him from the most important parts of the game.
Does this make sense?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: it makes no sense at all, and saves as a statistic are what drive modern bullpen usage. For all the reasons above, we need to get rid of it.
This brings me to a recent example of why saves are a terrible stat. Which of the following relief pitchers has been more valuable over their career? (For reference, they both have a similar average velocity on the fastball.)
In case you’re wondering, Pitcher A is more better known as New York Yankees’ fireballer Dellin Betances, and Pitcher B goes by Trevor Rosenthal, reliever for the St. Louis Cardinals. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a team that would give more money to Rosenthal than Betances, especially considering their numbers this far. But what if I tell you that Betances only has 22 career saves to Rosenthal’s 110? It shouldn’t really change your valuation of the two pitchers, but you needn’t look any further than their salaries to indicate how MLB arbitrators value the two.
Betances, on February 18th, lost his first arbitration hearing, so his salary for the 2017 season will be $3MM, as opposed to the $5MM he filed for. Five million is a lot for a reliever, but Betances has precedent to ask for that much: Trevor Rosenthal won his first arbitration hearing ($5.6MM) last season with worse numbers. So why did Betances lose?
I can’t say for certain, but it was probably saves. Betances wasn’t the first to get shafted by not getting many saves as a reliever, and I’m positive he will not be the last. Kill the save.
Some MLB players are more solid proponents of a defined closer role, though. Take Huston Street, for example. Street ranks #17 all-time in career saves, and could move into the top ten this year (he would need 43 saves to do so). Street is a staunch proponent of having defined roles in a bullpen, and when asked what he would do if the Angels started calling upon him in “higher leverage” situations as opposed to just in the ninth inning for saves, he said:
I’ll retire if that ever happens. If they ever tell me, ‘Oh, we’re gonna start using you in these high-leverage situations.’ … All right, good. You now can go find someone else to do that, because I’m going home.
Mr. Street was generous enough to answer a few questions of mine on Twitter (you can find the whole exchange here) and when I asked him a similar question regarding usage in high leverage situations, he said “Roles are a staple of every single successful company across every single business model, I enjoy exploring alternatives, but defining high leverage is far trickier and happens far quicker in baseball than people realize.”
I have to say that I subscribe more to the Dick Radatz school of thought than the Huston Street school of thought on the matter. The late Radatz was a two-time American League saves leader and pitching coach, and had this to say about roles: “Roles are bullshit. Your job is to throw strikes when I put your ass out on the mound.”
A little crass for my taste, but it gets the point across. The advent of saves created the closer role, not the other way around, and that’s a huge problem, because it’s led not only to bullpen mismanagement, but also unfair monetary compensation for players like Dellin Betances (getting underpaid) and Trevor Rosenthal (getting overpaid). Fortunately, it seems that MLB teams are finally beginning to correct for the market inefficiency that has been present for the past few decades. And on baseball’s current path, the save might be dead within the next few decades. But until the day the save dies, we will be constantly referencing a garbage stat.
(Image Credit: Bill Kostroun/New York Post)