Abolishing Savery

The save started out innocently enough, but the obsession with racking up the stat has thrown bullpen usage, roster management and the pitching salary structure out of whack. Here's the fix: Get rid of it
April 23, 2012

Last Thursday, with a pinch hitter and then the top of the order due up, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel called on righthander Chad Qualls (career ERA: 3.76; salary: $1.15 million) to protect a two-run, eighth-inning lead against the Marlins. Qualls got into a two-out, two-on jam, yet with the game on the line Manuel let him face one of the NL's most dangerous power hitters, Giancarlo Stanton. Qualls escaped with a strikeout, and Manuel summoned closer Jonathan Papelbon (2.33; $11 million) to start the ninth against Miami's No. 5 through 7 hitters—none nearly as threatening as Stanton.

The Phillies won, but what did we learn from this silly use of resources? It is time to get rid of the save rule.

In 1959, when Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman came up with a stat to capture the value of relievers, the idea was to hang a number on a developing role in the game. But the save now dictates pitcher usage in a way that warps bullpens—not to mention pay scales. Holtzman was trying to quantify the impact of pitchers who worked multiple, high-leverage innings. But in the late '80s, with the advent of the one-inning save specialist, the stat became more cause than effect.

The most significant misconception that grew out of the save rule was that only certain pitchers have the ability to close games. The "closer mentality" holds that outs 25--27 are much harder to get than outs 1--24, regardless of game situation, hitter quality, platoon differentials and on and on. That's how you end up with a journeyman facing a devastating power hitter in the eighth inning while your $50 million free-agent signing stretches lightly.

The biggest positive of eliminating the save rule would be a reversal of the trend toward less and less work from more and more relievers. The one-inning closer begat the one-inning setup man, which begat one-batter matchup guys. That's why your team has eight relievers but no one to bat for the .180-hitting shortstop in the ninth. Eliminating the closer myth would free managers to use their best pitchers in the biggest spots and balance rosters and payrolls.

How do you measure relievers without saves? The same way we've learned to measure starters without leaning on W--L. Basic metrics such as strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio and ground ball rate tell us how good a pitcher is. Specific to relievers, there are statistics such as Win Probability Added and Leverage Index that gauge the importance of an outing in a way that the save never could.

Statistics should tell the story of what happens, not write that story—and the save now does the latter. Eliminating it would force managers to get back to using relievers in a way that wins games, rather than builds a stat count.

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THROWBACKS

If the save were no longer a stat and managers brought back the multi-inning relief ace, these pitchers could become recognized as stars.

AROLDIS CHAPMAN

Reds

A durable starter in Cuba, the flamethrowing lefty has been used in several roles since coming to the U.S. He's off to a huge start in 2012 as a setup man, striking out 11 of the first 20 men he faced.

ALEXI OGANDO

Rangers

The righty has proved his mettle as a short reliever (1.30 ERA in 2010) and as a starter (3.56 in 2011), and was devastating in a fireman role in last year's ALCS, when he averaged nearly two innings in four appearances.

LANCE LYNN

Cardinals

One of the heroes of the 2011 World Series bullpen, Lynn is in the rotation for now. But when Chris Carpenter returns, Lynn's stamina and ability to miss bats could make him a two-inning weapon.

PHOTOREUTERS/TIM SHAFFER (PAPELBON)WHERE'S THE FIRE? The save was meant to reward relievers who acted like firemen, but modern closers like Papelbon rarely are asked to put out blazes that aren't of their own making. PHOTOANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES (CHAPMAN)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)