Blowing the Save: Questioning Baseball’s Most Dangerous Statistic

Sports / In Play

Blowing the Save: Questioning Baseball’s Most Dangerous Statistic

By: James Smith

Long the most common measuring stick for elite relief pitchers in Major League Baseball, the save – a statistic meant to measure how effectively relievers helped their teams win, particularly in high-pressure situations – has in recent years come under attack from baseball’s advanced statistics wing. According to sabermetricians, the statistic distorts contracts, causes managers to handle games less efficiently, leads to health issues, and provides a poor barometer onto a pitcher’s performance. It’s even been referred to as "baseball’s most dangerous stat".

The term has been in use since the 1950s, when a few National League executives began unofficially keeping tabs on when "pitchers finished winning games, but were not awarded the win," meaning, essentially, that a reliever could be credited with a save for recording the final out of a game where his team was leading by a dozen runs. In 1959, Jerome Holtzman, a baseball historian and baseball writer, decided that there needed to be more scientific way to measure reliever performance. His new idea was a more restrictive modification of the older stat: a pitcher could earn a save only if his team won by three runs or fewer, or if he pitched for three full innings. The new stat took off quickly, eventually giving birth to a new class of elite pitcher, the closer.

So, why the recent outrage? Well, as any baseball fan knows, people who care about these things have spent a lot of time the last few years trying to figure out how better to measure players’ performance. In most cases, "sabermetrics" has provided more scientific analysis that more or less confirm what we already knew: starting pitchers that win a lot of games are usually better than ones that don’t, and having a high batting average is usually a pretty good indication that someone is a good hitter. With the save, however, sabermetricians have come to the conclusion that it not only doesn’t express anything very useful about pitchers, it adversely affects teams’ abilities to win games.

First of all, saves impact the way that managers approach games. Elite closers like Jonathan Papelbon of the Phillies or Mariano Rivera of the Yankees, because of the save statistic, are viewed as more or less final-inning options only – meaning that managers may opt not to bring them into a game earlier on when their services are actually more needed. In other words, it places too much importance on the ninth inning when on a given day it may be more important to navigate the seventh successfully. Second of all, such elite relievers are given inordinately large contracts (Papelbon signed a four-year deal worth $50 million earlier this year) compared to other relievers who don’t exclusively pitch the 9th for a living. And, finally, closers break down at an inordinate rate because of the way that they pitch to their save total.

Unfortunately, the save is a much simpler statistic than what the sabermetrics fiends want to have adopted, so it’s here to stay, at least for the time being. As always in baseball, the only way things will change is when a manager starts winning lots of games without having a closer. It just won’t be this season.

[Pic via Wikimedia - Chris Connelly]

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