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Joe Nathan's Silly Saves

MINNEAPOLIS, MN- SEPTEMBER 28: Nick Punto #8, Brendan Harris #23, Justin Morneau #33 and Joe Nathan #36 of the Minnesota Twins celebrate after beating the Kansas City Royals 6-0 at the Metrodome on September 28, 2008 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Scott A. Schneider/Getty Images)
Marty AndradeSenior Writer IJuly 4, 2009

The “Save” is a bad stat with good intentions.

It was an attempt to quantify the contributions made by relief pitchers in a way easily grasped by fans and sportswriters. Since most sportswriters are pretty dense, one can really appreciate the sentiment.

Unfortunately, as the save stat evolved, so too did the role of the reliever. In Joe Garagiola’s book “Baseball is a Funny Game” we learn that baseball managers relied on their best bullpen reliever, known as the “short man” to pitch the team out of tight spots when the game’s outcome was in doubt. It didn’t matter when this was, it could be in the ninth inning or the sixth. These relievers eventually picked up the nickname “fireman” because they put out fires.

There is no stat for “fires put out by.” Today, there are leverage indexes and win-percentage stats which give us some indication of the value of a pitcher’s performance based on the specific circumstances of the game. Learning these advanced sabermetrics can be daunting endeavour for the uninitiated.

It’s just easier to count up saves.

So, eventually, managers started to manage not around the circumstances of the game but by the circumstances of save stat. As a consequence, often a team’s best pitcher is not used when the game is in doubt.

Depending on what analysis you use, there is about a three percent difference between using an exceptional pitcher in a save situation and using a mediocre pitcher. The three out, three run save is easy to get.

But what about the four run, one out save? Nathan already has two this year and is likely to get more. On June 28th against the Cardinals, and on July 1st against the Royals Nathan was able to put two easy saves up on the board with little effort.

The reason is because in both games knuckleballer R.A. Dickey was given the task to pitch the last frame. Even good knuckleballers have high WHIPs (Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched). They allow a lot of baserunners. Good knuckleballers deal with these ups and downs and Dickey has shown incredible growth this year in handling difficult situations throwing his exceptionally fast butterflies.

In both games Dickey worked through trouble and got two outs. But, once the tying run is on-deck, it’s a save situation. Dickey goes out, Nathan goes in, game over. And the stupidity continues

Maybe these saves will provide Nathan the attention he deserves. Based on sabermetric stats like xFIP and PRC, Nathan ranks among the top three closers in baseball this year. He deserves a spot on the All Star team and getting five or six cheap saves might get him the attention of the national media.

But it’s still really stupid.

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