Mariano Rivera Is the Save King: Fun Record but Does It Mean Anything?

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Mariano Rivera Is the Save King: Fun Record but Does It Mean Anything?
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This article comes from the blog 90% is Half Statistical and to read the other posts of this blog go to http://ninetypercentishalfstatistical.mlblogs.com/

The great Mariano Rivera is now the all-time leader in saves. He is the greatest closer baseball has ever seen and that argument starts with the number of games he has saved. Right? Before we get into the meat of this post, let's have some fun with a blind resume.

Player A: 1.91 ERA, .913 WHIP,  93 K, 80 IP, 3.0 WAR

Player B: 2.41 ERA, 1.074 WHIP, 208 K, 246.2 IP, 7.9 WAR

Before the season, if you knew these players would post these numbers and Player A was traded for Player B, who got the better end of the deal? Who would you vote for Cy Young? Who would you vote for MVP?

In 1992, voters were asked the latter two questions. Their answer? Player A. In the Cy Young vote, Player A finished first with 107 vote points and 19 first place votes. Player B received finished third with 48 vote points and four first place votes. In the MVP vote, Player A finished first with 304 vote points and 15 first place votes, while Player B finished tied for 14 with 16 vote points and no first place votes.

Now why did Dennis Eckersley (Player A) win the Cy Young and MVP awards, while Roger Clemens (Player B) finished 3rd and 14th in the Cy Young Award? What criteria did he fulfill to win the two awards? What was the driving force behind the bloc that voted for him? Saves.

Dennis Eckersley saved 51 games that season, which was the second most saves in a season up to that point. How else could a closer win the Cy Young over a starter? If Eckersley puts up the same numbers as a set up man, he does not win the MVP or the Cy Young. Somehow the fact that he saved 51 games vaulted him from valuable relief pitcher to the Most Valuable Player in all the American League.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

So the question now becomes,"Are saves a measuring tool of a pitcher's performance?"

Well let's first look at how the save came into existence. In 1960, Jerome Holtzman, a writer for the Chicago-Sun Times, had a problem with the stats of the day. While he believed that W-L was apt at measuring the performance of a starting pitcher, he did not feel like it accurately reflected the performance of relief pitchers.  Wins and losses did not reward relief pitchers for protecting leads. To remedy the issue, Holtzman came up with the save stat[1].

Initially, a save occurred when a pitcher finished the game for the winning team without being credited for a save. It evolved as the years went on. Later it became that a relief pitcher earned a save by closing a game in which the tying run was on base, at the plate or pitching three innings on the winning team without recording a win. A year later, the former requirement changed to closing a game with at most a two run lead.

Currently a pitcher earns a save if he fulfills the following criteria:

1) His team wins

2) He finishes the game

3) He is not credited with the win

4) He fulfills one of the following:

A) He enters the game with at most a three run lead and pitches one inning
B) He enters the game with at least the tying run on deck
C) He pitches three innings of relief[2]

Jerome Holtzman

So the save measures how successful a relief pitcher is at meeting the criteria, but how low has the save stat placed the bar for success?

Let's say that in the top of the eighth, a reliever for the home team comes in with a three run lead. He faces the 3-4-5 hitters of the opposing team and they go down in order.

The closer comes into the ballgame with a three run lead in the beginning of the ninth inning. He gives up a two singles and a double and allows one run to score. With men on second and third he walks the next batter to load the bases. He walks another batter, allowing another run to score. With the bases loaded, the closer induces a double play that does not lead to another run scoring. He then walks another batter to load the bases again. He gets out of the inning as the batter's fly ball gets caught at the warning track.

The closer's line for the night: 18.00 ERA, 6.00 WHIP, 0 K, 3 BB. But he got the save so he must have performed well, right? He got the save, so he must have been more important in winning the game than the reliever who pitched the eighth inning?

Let's look at a second hypothetical. Let's say it is the beginning of the bottom of the seventh with the home team up 17-4. A relief pitcher comes in and pitches a scoreless three innings. In the meantime, the home team tacks on 13 more runs and wins the game 30-4. So the relief pitcher comes in with a 13 run lead and leaves the game with a 26 run lead. And guess what else? He picks up a save since his outing fit the criteria for a save. So does not blowing an initial 13 run lead and not blowing a 26 run lead signify a good performance?

Actually, this hypothetical is not a hypothetical. As Orioles and Rangers fans may remember, this happened on August 22nd, 2007. The Texas Rangers beat the Baltimore Orioles 30-3 with Wes Littleton earning the save.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Wes Littleton

A save is rewarded to a relief pitcher who meets the bar set by the criteria, but when it comes to earning a save, the bar is set quite low.

Let's ignore the fact that saves do not value shutting down the heart of the order in the eighth, but does value getting the 6-7-8 hitters in the ninth. If saves were a measure of performance, then, the better one pitches, the better one would be in the save statistic. Most often, the better a pitcher performs, the better his ERA and/or WHIP numbers become. That is what one should see with saves. Let's look at another blind resume.

Player A: 62 saves, 68.1 IP

Player B: 47 saves, 73 IP

If saves are truly a measure of performance, then the other performance based statistics will show that Player A performed better.

Player A: 2.24 ERA, 1.288 WHIP, 7.1 H/9, 10.1 K/9, 4.5 BB/9, 2.26 K/BB

Player B: 1.73 ERA, 1.096 WHIP, 6.4 H/9, 12.1 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 3.50 K/BB

The reveal: Player A is Francisco Rodriguez in 2008 and Player B is Francisco Rodriguez in 2006.

While K-Rod had more saves in 2008, all the pitching performance metrics show that he pitched better in 2006. Even though K-Rod would probably say he pitched better in 2008 because he saved more games[3], he pitched better in 2006 and his best season came in 2004, setting up Troy Percival, but he probably hated doing that.

While Mariano Rivera is the greatest relief pitcher of all-time, the number of games he has saves should have no bearing, negative or positive, on that. It should not be a measure of a relief pitcher. It should not be the reason a closer is given $10 million a season for three years. It should not be the reason a set up man abhors his role. It should be seen for what it is—it is an event where the criteria are satisfied.

1) In May 2002, Holtzman wrote an article detailing how he came up with the save which can be read at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0FCI/is_5_61/ai_84542687/

2) Initially the criteria stated that the three innings had to be pitched "effectively" and that gave the scorekeeper a say whether a relief pitcher was effective in the three innings he pitched.

3) If I am a GM, how an I taking a chance on K-Rod unless I'm so bad in the bullpen that there is no chance I could have a guy better than Rodriguez. Teams decided what roles players play, not the players themselves.

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