Closer, stopper, fireman -- call it what you will. The role of the relief ace has changed greatly over the years, but despite the different ways in which managers have deployed their best relievers, the rate at which teams convert save opportunities has remained constant since the save rule took its current form prior to the 1975 season.
Since 1975, major-league teams have converted 67.8 percent of their save chances. Year-to-year, that rate has never gone above 71.5 percent (1988) nor below 64 percent (2008), and within that narrow range of fluctuation there has been just one discernable peak (70.7 percent from 1988 to 1992) and no multiyear valleys. One might argue that the expansions in 1977, 1993, and 1998 as well as the surge in run-scoring in the late 1990s undermined the gains made by management, but the recent slowdown in run-scoring has not seen a corresponding increase in league-wide save percentage, suggesting that whatever gains might have been counterbalanced were either negligible, transitory, or simply non-existent.
That might seem contradictory for anyone looking at the all-time saves leader lists. Of the top 46 single-season saves totals, only three were recorded prior to 1988, and of the three that occurred between 1988 and 1990, two were by
La Russa's revolution did increase the rate at which closers converted their save opportunities. Eckersley converted 89 percent of his save chances during his five-year peak from 1988 to 1992, compared to
As Pinto wrote in the
Here's a tiered look at which teams are devoting significant resources to their closer and which aren't, along with where each team ranks on my list of the 30 major-league closers.
These are teams that acquired established closers or re-signed or extended them into their free agency years at a premium. The Twins and Yankees deserve credit for establishing Nathan and Rivera in their roles, but they both have chosen to shell out huge contracts to keep those players rather than attempt to repeat the feat with younger, less expensive pitchers. Valverde, Gonzalez, Gregg, and Street haven't reached free agency yet, but their teams each traded for them after they had spent full seasons closing elsewhere, so the Astros, Braves, Cubs, and Rockies qualify as teams who devoted resources to acquiring an established closer. Hoffman and Percival weren't particularly expensive, but they're both old (41 and 39, respectively), and with more than 900 combined saves they certainly qualify as established closers imported by their teams. The Mets are the worst case here as they're also paying
These are teams enjoying the budget-priced fruits of having established a closer in-house. None of these six pitchers has reached free agency yet, but all have enjoyed successful full seasons as closers prior to the 2009 season. The one odd case is Sherrill, who was not a closer when the Orioles acquired him as a throw-in in the deal that also netted them top-outfield prospect
These 10 teams all hope to be in the "Do-It-Yourself" category a year from now as they are attempting to establish players developed in-house or acquired on the cheap as closers. Lone major-league free-agent acquisition Franklin is on a two-year, $5 million contract and is likely to yield to either