Is Gagne's saves streak overrated?

Is closer Eric Gagne's saves streak a great accomplishment or an overblown statistic? I can see both sides.

Originally Published: June 9, 2004
By Joe Morgan | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note -- Joe Morgan will take your questions in an ESPN.com chat on Friday at 10:30 a.m. ET.

More from Joe Morgan: Junior Griffey could hit as a kid too

There has been plenty of discussion about the 76 consecutive saves recorded by Los Angeles Dodgers closer Eric Gagne. Is it a great accomplishment or an overblown statistic? I can see both sides of the debate.

I agree that it's a fantastic record. The key, though, is that we need to compare players with their peers -- because we can't really compare Gagne to Rollie Fingers and other relievers of my era.

Gagne
Gagne
Closers are used differently today, pitching far fewer innings than in my day, which means that the save rule is being applied differently today. From 1972-78, Fingers averaged 122 innings and 25 saves per season . By contrast, Gagne pitched only 82 innings last year in his NL Cy Young season as he tied the NL record of 55 saves (to complement a 1.20 ERA and a 2-3 record). Gagne also threw 82 innings in 2002 when he saved 52 games.

In 1974, reliever Mike Marshall pitched 208 innings and won the NL Cy Young award with a 15-12 record, 21 saves and a 2.42 ERA -- without starting a single game! Meanwhile, Atlanta Braves closer John Smoltz, who shares the NL saves record with Gagne, threw 80 innings in 2002 when he notched 55 saves. Bobby Thigpen holds the AL and MLB single-season saves record (57 saves in 88 innings in 1990).

Keep in mind that in the midst of Gagne's streak of consecutive games saved, he has lost games after entering a tie contest -- but those don't count as blown saves.

If managers today would change their approach for an entire season and use today's closers like the best relievers of 30 years ago, then we could compare their save statistics in an apples-to-apples manner. Otherwise, we're comparing apples and oranges.

Thirty years ago, the relief role itself was approached differently -- a reliever was simply a reliever. The term closer wasn't even used because the concept of specialized relief roles (middle-inning reliever, setup man, closer) hadn't been introduced yet.

Save Rule Revisited
The intent of the save rule, according to veteran Chicago baseball writer Jerome Holtzman (who wrote the rule), is to have the star reliever pitch the final two or three innings of the game to get the save. But managers have changed the way saves are recorded by saving their best reliever to get the last three outs of the game.

The difference between the accomplishments of Gagne and Fingers is this: Fingers would enter the game in the seventh inning with runners in scoring position, get out of that jam and then close the door for two more innings -- in today's terms, he would act as his own setup man.

Today, most closers enter the game to start the ninth inning. With no one on base, they typically don't face a pressure-cooker situation as the closers of the past invariably did.

Having said that, we need to compare what Gagne is doing now with his peers today, and he's clearly distinguished himself with his major-league record of 76 consecutive saves that began on Aug. 28, 2002. Gagne eclipsed the previous record of 54 straight (held by Tom Gordon) on Sept. 2, 2003.

Can't Compare
The especially impressive part of Gagne's accomplishment is that he hasn't slipped once in nearly 80 straight save opportunities. Still, I've always said that I can't compare Gagne with Fingers, Bruce Sutter and the relievers I saw who typically pitched three innings to record one save. In today's game, those three innings would be three saves for most closers.

There's no question that today's closers face a far easier task. How difficult is it to get a save when you have a three-run lead and only need to get three outs?

If you turned Hall of Fame starter Bob Gibson into a closer and gave him a three-run lead in the ninth inning with no one on base, he'd never lose a game -- he'd get a save every time.

So, regarding the Gagne debate, I can see both sides of the argument (and each side has merit). Rollie Fingers and others have maintained that if Gagne routinely had to pitch three innings to get a save, he wouldn't be able to get 76 saves in a row. I agree with that.

But as much as I admire the relievers I've seen in the past, I don't think any of them would be able to get 76 saves in a row today. Gagne has been able to accomplish that because he absolutely dominates hitters night in and night out.

Save Shift
I've always felt that the save numbers achieved by closers are overrated. I mean, closers always come in with the lead! This isn't a knock on Gagne or any other closer, because closers fill an important role on a team. But getting three outs with a three-run lead is not as difficult as pitching five innings to get that lead.

Starting pitchers aren't given the lead, they earn it. A starting pitcher must pitch well enough to allow his team the take the lead. That's why I believe a reliever shouldn't win the Cy Young award -- especially a modern reliever. Pitching 70-80 innings isn't enough to justify winning the Cy Young. Major League Baseball has a Fireman of the Year award for relievers.

In my new "Baseball for Dummies" book, I identify some changes that I believe should take place in MLB's awards system, and among them are these: Only starters should win the Cy Young and only everyday players should win the MVP.

Getting three outs with a three-run lead is not as difficult as pitching five innings to get that lead.
Some fans might not remember how the trend of having the closer pitch only the ninth inning started. As I recall, it began when reliever Bruce Sutter got injured in the early 1980s (I'm not sure of the exact year).

Sutter used to pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth to record saves. But after he injured his arm, it was too risky for him to pitch three innings, so he cut back to one inning per appearance. His arm held up well for several years afterwards.

Then, the one-inning closer system was perfected and popularized by manager Tony La Russa, who began the strategy of bringing in one reliever for the seventh, another for the eighth and the closer for the ninth. That was the start of the the current system of middle-inning relievers and a setup man paving the way for a one-inning closer. La Russa's idea was to shorten the game when his team had the lead.

According to Jerome Holtzman, though, that changed the way saves were recorded and circumvented the intent of the save rule.

One final note: I've established that due to the way closers are used, saves are easier to attain today. But it's also true that smaller ballparks and livelier baseballs make home-run and RBI numbers easier to attain. So the way the game has changed over the years is affecting both pitching and hitting statistics.

An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76 (the Reds won the World Series both years). He contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE