Commentary

Time to amend the save stat

Originally Published: September 6, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

One thing we never get tired of, here at International Rumblings and Grumblings Headquarters, is offering our completely voluntary services to save the game of baseball.

We're selfless like that.

So this week, what we'd like to help with, if this sport will just let us, is to save the save.

We're not sure at what point the save reeled completely out of control. But over the past couple of weeks, it's become obvious that this stat has arrived, officially, at that stage of lunacy where it needs rescuing. After all, just since mid-August, we've seen:…

Wes Littleton

Littleton

Relief Pitcher
Texas Rangers

Profile

2007 Season Stats
GM W L SV K ERA
25 3 1 1 19 3.82

• One pitcher (the Rangers' Wes Littleton) get credit for a save in a (shudder) 30-3 game.

• Two other pitchers (the Angels' Marc Gwyn and the Phillies' John Ennis) earn dramatic saves in games their teams won by scores of 18-9 and 14-3, respectively. (Ennis' save was so meaningful, he got designated for assignment the next day.)

• And a longtime closer (the Braves' Bob Wickman) get dumped by his team in mid-pennant-race because, allegedly, he wasn't happy about being asked to pitch in those dreaded "non-save situations."

We'd love to address all those issues. But there's a more fundamental question about the save that we need to pose first:

Is there anyone out there, other than your average $7 million-a-year closer, who thinks this stat still accurately reflects which relief pitchers are (1) pitching the best, (2) pitching in the most critical stage of a game, or (3) even, in many cases, making the most important contribution to winning in their own bullpen, let alone the whole sport?

OK, let's answer all of those questions for you: No. No. And, well, no.

If you'd like to try to argue that Joe Borowski (40 saves, 5.50 ERA) is having a better, or more significant, season than his trusty Cleveland 'pen-mate, Rafael Betancourt (one save, 1.48 ERA), go right ahead. But we wish you luck trying to prove that case.

So now that we've got that point settled, here's another of our longtime gripes. This stat no longer merely measures the performance of closers. It has somehow hijacked managers everywhere. It has made them slaves to one of the worst stats in baseball. And it has turned into the only number in baseball that actually dictates strategy.

Watch any game on any night. You're almost guaranteed to see more absurd evidence that the way closers are used "has now been defined pretty much entirely by the save rule," says Baseball Prospectus' always-insightful Joe Sheehan. "It is the most ridiculous case of a stat driving a tactic in baseball history, and how that has been lost in the discussion boggles my mind."

Well, amen.

We're not sure we can solve all these issues with a quick trip to the Jiffy Rule Change Shop. But after surveying a bunch of people around baseball over the last week and a half, we're determined to give it a shot.

We heard lots of great ideas on righting these save-rule injustices. So now that we've sifted through them, here are three options we'd love to hear your reaction to:

1. We have to begin with what might forever be known as the Wes Littleton Rule. Even other relievers found that 30-3 save slightly offensive, and they should. "I had no idea you could do that," said Tom Gordon, a fellow with 156 career saves. "If a guy is coming in there in a five-, six-, seven-, eight-run game, he's not 'saving' a game -- because the game is not actually on the line."

Yes sir. Couldn't have said it better. So our proposal is this:

No matter how long a reliever pitches to finish the game, he must enter the game with no more than a three-run lead, or with the tying run either at the plate or on deck. If not, the Save Nazi says: "No save for you!"

2. But why stop there? The idea that a pitcher deserves massive credit for getting three outs before he allows three runs is preposterous. So we would love to propose modifying the current save rule this way:

    • A save of one inning or less would require no more than a one-run lead to protect -- or the reliever would have to enter with the tying run on base or at the plate.
    • A save of between 1 1/3 and two innings would require no more than a two-run lead -- or the reliever would have to enter with the tying run on base or at the plate.
    • A save of more than two innings would use the definition in the Wes Littleton Rule -- no more than a three-run lead unless the tying run is at the plate or on deck.

One general manager was so enthusiastic about this idea, he told us he'd even be willing to propose this rule change at the GM meetings this fall. Wish him luck.

3. But there's also a downside to making a rule change that dramatic. It would, as one AL executive put it, screw up nearly 40 years worth of stat keeping. Granted, we're talking about often-misleading stat-keeping. But if we radically revamp this definition, what do we do about all those saves that have piled up since 1969 -- set fire to them? Tough question. So our third alternative is to suck it up and keep the current rule, but also add a stat that would reflect which relievers are truly getting the toughest outs in a game.

The same AL executive proposed this idea, and he would call it a "stop." To earn a stop, a reliever would have to enter with the tying run either on base or at the plate at any point in the game -- and then:

A. Retire at least one hitter.

B. Leave with the lead intact.

C. Get his team through the inning without any baserunner he was responsible for scoring.

So if, for instance, Carlos Marmol strikes out Prince Fielder with two on and two outs in the eighth inning of a 5-3 game, he gets a stop. But if Ryan Dempster then enters and gets through the ninth, he wouldn't earn a stop even though he would get a save.

TRIVIALITY

Ichiro Suzuki just became the third player in history with seven straight 200-hit seasons (joining Willie Keeler and Wade Boggs). Can you name the active player who has had the next-longest streak (four in a row) at any stage of his career? (Answer later.)

Yeah, there are some principles here similar to the semi-meaningless stat, the hold. But we like this better. The game situations would be tighter. The effective-outing requirements would be tougher. And we could compare closers and set-up men with the same stat.

It would pain us, of course, to leave the current save rule alone, except for that Wes Littleton Rule addendum. But if we had an additional stat like the stop to cross-reference those save numbers with, it would help put those save numbers in better perspective and reward big-time set-up men for their great work.

What would come out of it, says the executive who proposed the stop, is that "a lot of closers wouldn't fare very well." But the J.J. Putzes of the sport would get their due, and so would the Pat Nesheks. Then it would be up to us stop fans in the media to refer to this stat enough that people might even take it seriously. That's happened before with other stats, in the very recent past.

"After all," the AL executive said, "on-base percentage is now on almost every video board -- and that was never the case in the '90s."

So that's our brand new, hot-off-the-cyberpresses "Save The Save" plan. Where it goes from here is up to the rest of the planet.

By making these proposals, we're not trying to demean or diminish any save ever accumulated by, say, Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman. But all saves are not created equal. And some, to be honest, should never have been created at all.

So if we're going to allow a statistical concoction as flawed as the save to continue to exist, we need to aspire to make it something better. Something meaningful. Something that's at least … well … savory.

Rumbling toward the great Northwest

If the Mariners make the playoffs, they're going to follow the strangest path by any playoff team we can remember. For one thing, they've had four losing streaks of six games or longer -- one more than the Pirates and Devil Rays combined. For another, they just lost nine games in a row -- a streak that began on Aug. 24, when they were leading the wild-card race by three games. We took a look at the 52 previous losing streaks of nine games or longer that have started on Aug. 24 or later since the 1964 Phillies (10 in a row) became the brand name for late-season collapsing. We found only two other teams in that group that led their league, division or wild-card standings at the time that losing streak started. One was the 1995 Angels (who lost nine straight twice while blowing an 11½-game Aug. 25 lead to -- how 'bout this coincidence? -- the Mariners. The other was the 1973 Dodgers (who led the NL West by four games with 28 to play, then also lost nine straight).

Felix Hernandez

Hernandez

Starting Pitcher
Seattle Mariners

Profile

2007 Season Stats
GM W L BB K ERA
25 11 7 45 140 3.96

So why are these Mariners so streaky? That's the question.

"Two reasons," one AL scout says. "One is starting pitching. When all you've got is a bunch of 3-4-5 starters and a kid [Felix Hernandez], it's really hard to stop that kind of streak. The second reason is, this is a very impatient club offensively. When they face a pitcher like A.J. Burnett, on a day when he's got dominating stuff, they don't walk and they don't take pitches, so they don't drive up his pitch count. And that means he stays in there longer than he might against some other teams, and they don't see that middle layer of teams' bullpens like other clubs do."

One more note while we're on this topic: No team in history has lost nine games or more after Aug. 24 and lived to play a postseason game. And the only team in history that had a nine-game losing streak (or longer) at any point in a season and went on to win a postseason series was the 1953 Yankees. They lost nine in a row from June 21 through July 1 but recovered to win the World Series.

Rumbling toward the Bronx

Even if Roger Clemens comes back and goes 6-0 in September and October, the feeling among baseball people who know him is that this is it -- his actual final season. Really. Finally. No kidding. One friend says: "I'd be shocked if he comes back -- anywhere. The impression I get is, this time it's just been too hard, physically."

Meanwhile, what does the future hold for Clemens' buddy, Andy Pettitte? He has a player option for next year at $16 million. And given the gruesome state of this winter's free-agent starting pitching market, we hear increasing speculation that Pettitte could opt out and bungee jump to the top of that market. There's no sign he's sincerely interested in going anywhere else, including back to Houston. But given the alternatives, the Yankees would have no choice but to inhale deeply, then cough up more years, more dollars or both.

Andy Pettitte

Pettitte

Starting Pitcher
New York Yankees

Profile

2007 Season Stats
GM W L BB K ERA
31 12 8 59 127 3.82

Whether Pettitte's status is in play or not, think about all the prominent names whose place in the Yankees' universe will be hanging out there this winter: Clemens, Rivera, Jorge Posada, Joe Torre, Bobby Abreu and, oh yeah, A-Rod. The Yankees also need to figure out what they're going to do about Joba Chamberlain, Mike Mussina, Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, first base and their bullpen with or without Rivera. So no wonder one prominent baseball man says: "Yankees baseball for the next decade will be determined by the results of this offseason … and all 4 million fans are watching."

One AL executive says he's starting to feel sorry for Phil Hughes -- because he may never be able to match all the hype that was laid on him before he arrived in New York.

"I think he's going to wind up being a No. 3 starter, and that's not bad," the exec says. "But people were led to believe he'd be more than that. It's going to be really hard for him to ever live up to all his expectations."

OK, one more Yankees note: A scout who recently followed the Yankees for a week gave this unsolicited monologue on Derek Jeter: "The more you see him play, the more you notice all the little things he does during the course of a game that, for the most part, go unnoticed. Just the fact that he's on that top step of the dugout, watching every single pitch, goes a long ways for me. The guy doesn't miss a pitch. He's never up there in the clubhouse, doing whatever, and just coming out for his at-bats. You never see that."

The rumble in the September jungle

• If the Red Sox don't bring back Mike Lowell, the Dodgers, Angels, Padres, Astros and Yankees (if they lose A-Rod) would all be major bidders. But Lowell has sent signals to his friends on the Phillies that, in the words of one of them: "He would love to play in Philadelphia." And why not? Lowell is a .353 lifetime hitter in 70 career plate appearances in Citizens Bank Park, with seven homers, six doubles and a .750 slugging percentage. The Phillies could have about $27 million coming off the books this winter, depending on whether Aaron Rowand departs. And a year from now, Pat Burrell's $14 million will also disappear. So the Phillies should have money to spend to address their third-base and bullpen issues.

• Ominous note for teams like the Tigers, Dodgers and Phillies (all of whom emerged from Labor Day weekend at least three games out in the wild-card race): In the 12 seasons of the wild-card era, just one of the 24 wild-card teams was as many as three games back on Labor Day: the 2001 Cardinals. One asterisk: The '99 Reds were four out, came back and tied the Mets, but missed the playoffs because they lost in a one-game playoff the day after the regular season.

Chipper Jones

Jones

• Chipper Jones spoke for a lot of people in baseball Tuesday when he torched the current state of umpiring. "It hasn't been the same," one baseball man says, "since Sandy Alderson left [the commissioner's office] for San Diego. Sandy stayed on top of those [umpires] every day. And it showed."

• Stop us if you've heard this before. But the Marlins are suddenly optimistic again about their chances of getting a new ballpark in the wake of Bud Selig's personal visit to South Florida last week. The bad news is, they could get stuck building that park in their least-desired location: the soon-to-be-vacated Orange Bowl. Selig and the club both prefer downtown Miami.

• The Angels' Scot Shields since Aug. 1: 11 1/3 innings pitched, 17 hits, 29 baserunners and an 11.91 ERA. That's the highest ERA in the big leagues since then among pitchers who have pitched strictly in relief. And Shields' decline looms as one of baseball's most important stretch-drive developments.

"He's such a crucial element to their club," says one scout. "It really upsets the way [Mike Scioscia] runs a game, because he's always been a guy who knew he could afford to make that quick hook on his starters because he was confident his bullpen could keep the game close. Now, if Shields can't get it back together, it means there are three big outs a night in jeopardy that were never in jeopardy over the last two or three years."

TRIVIA ANSWER

It's actually a current streak. Michael Young is working on four 200-hit seasons in a row -- and would need 29 hits in the Rangers' last 23 games to make it five.

• Is there a more underrated starting pitcher in baseball than Reds ace Aaron Harang? Over the past two seasons, he's 30-15. He leads the majors in innings pitched (430). He's tied with Brandon Webb and Brad Penny for the most wins by an NL pitcher in that span, and trails only Jake Peavy in strikeouts (396).

"I just saw Ben Sheets and Harang in the last week," one scout says. "And if I had my choice, I'd take Harang. All he does is throw strikes. He's Brandon Webb, man. He's a horse."

• Our favorite quote of the week comes from always-entertaining Cubs closer Ryan Dempster. After he loaded the bases and walked in a run before saving a huge game against the Brewers last week, he was asked what was going through his head after he filled up those bases. His answer ranks in our all-time top five of closer-wackiness quips. "I was thinking, 'I need to pump my bicycle tires up,'" Dempster deadpanned. "They were getting a little flat."

• Finally, can we just pose this question: Suppose a prominent and popular All-Star player on a two-time World Series champion were to get suspended for a quarter of a season because he got nabbed obtaining HGH. And suppose, at the same time, a coach on one of last year's World Series teams was also suspended for the same offense. How gigantic would the headlines be on every front page in America? How scathing would the columns be from all your favorite writers? Well, any time America is ready to kick up a similarly massive sense of outrage over the HGH suspensions of Rodney Harrison and Wade Wilson, we're ready to read every word of it.

Headliner of the week

From the hilarious Chicago sports-parody publication, The Heckler:

    "Cubs tweak Adam Dunn shift by putting entire infield on Sheffield Ave."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is now available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com