Commentary

Can K-Rod maintain historic saves pace?

Updated: July 2, 2008, 1:40 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

It's amazing how much can change in a matter of 84 days.

I want to take you to the evening of April 7 for a moment. It was a typical night in Anaheim: 60 degrees, clear skies, little wind. But on that night, Francisco Rodriguez wasn't himself. He couldn't throw strikes, blew a 2-1 lead and didn't even finish his outing. His ankle -- which had been the subject of several news reports earlier in the day -- was bothering him, and his pain wasn't going away.

Francisco Rodriguez
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesFrancisco Rodriguez's season did not get off to a promising start.
Apparently, "K-Rod" had slipped off the top step of the dugout a few days earlier and aggravated an ankle injury he had suffered in August of last season. He won scheduled for X-rays and an MRI exam, and his prognosis did not at all look good.

Then, amazingly, five nights later, having aced those tests with flying colors, Rodriguez returned to the mound and pitched the ninth inning of a 10-5 win. He wouldn't record a save, he surrendered a run and wasn't overpowering. No one who saw the game could've been sure that the old K-Rod was back and ready to dominate.

But, boy, was he!

In his next 34 appearances, Rodriguez notched 30 saves in 31 chances, registering a 1.13 ERA and holding opposing batters to a .147 average. It's a hot streak still alive, and it has him on pace for one of, if not the, greatest season by a closer. Ever.

James Quintong had some fascinating numbers on K-Rod's historic season in his Monday column, and after reading James' take, two things come to mind: One, the story I shared above. Two, how likely is Rodriguez to keep this pace?

You saw in James' column the chart of 40-save pitchers, and which ones saved the greatest percentage of their teams' wins. But what if I expanded that study to include all pitchers during the save era (since 1970, the year the save was added to the MLB rulebook)? Rodriguez, thus far, would rank pretty high in the all-time top 25:

PlayerYearTeamSavesTeam's winsPCT
Bryan Harvey1993Marlins456470.3%
Francisco Rodriguez2008Angels335066.0%
Eric Gagne2003Dodgers558564.7%
George Sherrill2008Orioles274264.3%
Mike Williams2002Pirates467263.9%
Randy Myers1993Cubs538463.1%
Roberto Hernandez1999Devil Rays436962.3%
Brian Wilson2008Giants233762.2%
Danys Baez2005Devil Rays416761.2%
Bobby Thigpen1990White Sox579460.6%
Ugueth Urbina1999Expos416860.3%
Jose Mesa2004Pirates437259.7%
Danny Kolb2004Brewers396758.2%
Tom Henke1995Cardinals366258.1%
Chad Cordero2005Nationals478158.0%
Joakim Soria2008Royals223857.8%
Trevor Hoffman2002Padres386657.6%
Antonio Alfonseca2000Marlins457957.0%
Dan Quisenberry1983Royals457957.0%
Bryan Harvey1991Angels468156.8%
Rod Beck1998Cubs519056.7%
Armando Benitez2004Marlins478356.6%
Trevor Hoffman2000Padres437656.6%
Eric Gagne2002Dodgers529256.5%
Jose Mesa2002Phillies458056.3%
Jose Jimenez2002Rockies417356.2%

As you can see, not only is Rodriguez's season high on the list, so are those of Sherrill, Wilson and Soria. Not that K-Rod, Sherrill and Wilson can't maintain a pace of saving better than 60 percent of their team's wins, but eight -- eight -- pitchers in 38 completed seasons in the save era managed a percentage that high. By the way, for your reference, only 79 pitchers saved at least half of their team's wins. That may sound like a lot of pitchers, but it really averages to a hair more than two per year (2.08).

It's something to think about if you're a believer in the "stock market" approach to player values, buying low, selling high, etc. As James noted Monday, saves can be a streaky category, so we can't look at K-Rod's current pace of 64 saves as any guarantee that he'll even approach that number.

But in researching the numbers, it was seeing Harvey's name atop that list which got me thinking about the saves market in general. Isn't Harvey the same guy constantly hailed as evidence that good closers can come from terrible teams?

Terrible team, terrible closer

Unfortunately, historical evidence identifies Harvey as the exception, not the rule. Granted, he pitched for a 98-loss team, and you can see from the chart above that Hernandez, Baez and Urbina topped 40 saves despite pitching for teams that lost 90-plus.

However, the closer a pitcher's team gets to the 100-loss plateau, the more likely he is to disappoint in the category. That might seem like common sense; you can't save a game you don't win, and bad teams tend to shop good closers because they serve little purpose to their cause. But let the stats serve as a reminder: The chart below breaks down closer performance since 1970 based on his team's winning percentage.

Team's win PCTAverage SV leaderHad 20+ SVHad 30+ SVHad 40+ SVHad 50+ SV
.601 and up24.553.8%33.7%14.4%2.9%
.576-.60027.262.4%44.7%23.5%3.5%
.551-.57523.853.2%29.4%13.5%1.6%
.526-55023.257.0%28.5%10.1%0.0%
.501-.52524.259.4%31.5%13.3%1.4%
.476-.50022.651.0%31.0%6.2%0.0%
.451-.47520.343.3%19.1%3.4%0.0%
.426-.45022.651.1%30.4%4.3%0.0%
.401-.42520.847.0%18.1%2.4%0.0%
sub-.40017.132.8%1.7%1.7%0.0%

By the way, if a 7.3-save difference between a sub-.400 team's and a .601-plus team's closer doesn't concern you, I broke down the numbers since 1990, the year Bobby Thigpen set the all-time record and around the time the modern closer era really seemed to take shape.

Team's win PCTAverage SV leaderHad 20+ SVHad 30+ SVHad 40+ SVHad 50+ SV
.601+33.979.5%66.7%35.9%7.7%
.576-.60030.267.2%55.2%34.5%5.2%
.551-.57529.170.2%50.9%26.3%3.5%
.526-.55027.668.5%49.3%20.5%0.0%
.501-.52527.869.7%43.4%21.1%2.6%
.476-.50026.768.7%47.8%10.4%0.0%
.451-.47522.753.9%26.5%5.9%0.0%
.426-.45024.658.6%36.2%6.9%0.0%
.401-.42523.762.3%28.3%3.8%0.0%
sub-.40018.944.8%3.4%3.4%0.0%

That tells me a few things: One, have low expectations for closers on sub-.400 teams. I'm talking to you, owners of Brian Fuentes (Rockies), Trevor Hoffman (Padres), J.J. Putz/Brandon Morrow (Mariners) and Jon Rauch (Nationals).

Two, if you're angling for a 40-save performer or better, look to the winning squads. It might feel like anyone can get to that level, but common logic appears to take hold -- again, you can't save a game you can't win -- so you need a team that's going to win at least half the time for your pitcher to get enough chances to save 40.

For your reference, only 19 pitchers in history saved 40-plus games for a losing team. Bobby Jenks (40 for the 72-90 White Sox) was the only one to do so last season. Even if you consider that 17 of the 19 did it since 1990, that still averages less than one per year (0.94). And in case you weren't aware, about half of MLB's teams will finish under .500, so we're talking about a pitcher on one out of 15 teams pulls off the feat.

Sorry Wilson and Jose Valverde, both of whom are on pace to top 40 saves (44 and 42, respectively). History suggests one of you is going to fall short!

Avoid 100-loss teams

By the way, what of 100-loss teams? You might be surprised to learn that no pitcher since 1970 has saved 30 games for a team that lost 100. Even if healthy, this doesn't bode well for Putz's chances at getting anywhere near last year's 40-save pace. The top 10:

PlayerYearTeamSavesTeam's winsTeam's lossesSV PCT
Juan Acevedo2002Tigers285510650.9%
Mike DeJean2002Brewers275610648.2%
Bill Caudill1983Mariners266010243.3%
Roberto Hernandez2002Royals266210041.9%
Gene Harris1993Padres236110137.7%
Ron Davis1982Twins226010236.7%
Mike Williams2001Pirates226210035.5%
Esteban Yan2001Devil Rays226210035.5%
Wilbur Wood1970White Sox215610637.5%
Mike MacDougal2005Royals215610637.5%

Those, by the way, represent the only 10 instances of a closer saving 20-plus games for a 100-loss team. By comparison, 12 of the 43 teams to lose 100 games since 1970 failed to have a single closer reach double-digit saves.

MLB averages

In case you were wondering about Rodriguez's current pace, particularly how far off the MLB average he is in terms of save percentage compared to his team's wins, it's by a wider margin than you'd think. Almost exactly 50 percent (50.2) of all wins through Tuesday have resulted in a save. Since 1970, that number is 46.5. Here's how those numbers break down by era/year:

YearPCT of team's winsGames per saveYearPCT of team's winsGames per save
1970s37.8%5.30200349.4%4.05
1980s46.7%4.29200450.7%3.95
1990s51.3%3.90200551.6%3.88
200048.5%4.12200649.4%4.04
200149.8%4.01200749.3%4.06
200250.5%3.96200850.2%3.98

Among full-time closers who fall significantly short of that 50-percent number so far this season, perhaps making them undervalued trade targets: Kevin Gregg (32.6 percent, 14-in-43), Jenks (37.5 percent, 18-in-48), Todd Jones (35.7, 15-in-42), Takashi Saito (33.3, 13-in-39) and Huston Street (33.3, 15-in-45).

Guess this is a prime time to peddle K-Rod for Jenks, especially knowing such a deal would practically guarantee you a valuable second piece.

Or, the perfect time might be once Rodriguez breaks John Smoltz's record for saves before the All-Star break (34), set in 2003. Smoltz's 2003 season was derailed by shoulder tendinitis in August, limiting him to only 11 saves in the second half. Entering Wednesday's play, K-Rod was one away from tying, putting his timetable, oh, say, Friday night?

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.

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