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Top Relievers in Trouble

Second in a Series on Relief Pitchers | > Part One

"We triumph without glory when we conquer without danger" — Pierre Corneille, "Le Cid"

Unlike some things in life, saves are not all created equal. The reliever who enters the game with a one-run lead and the bases loaded faces much more danger than the one who is asked merely to protect a three-run lead in the ninth inning. Yet they both get credit for one save if they get the side out. Looking at the raw numbers can tell us only so much; we have to put them in context to appreciate them fully. Here are the basic career figures for the seven top relievers being examined in this series of articles:

Save Opportunities: Success and Failure

Games in Relief Save Opps Saves Blown Saves
Fingers 907 479 341 110
Gossage 965 463 310 112
Sutter 661 412 300 101
L. Smith 1016 616 478 103
Eckersley 710 484 390 71
Hoffman 756 505 436 51
Rivera 657 464 379 52

Judging from these figures, it would appear that the best of the current closers, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, are far superior to the earlier relievers already elected to the Hall of Fame. Hoffman has recorded more than eight times as many saves as blown saves and Rivera more than seven times as many, compared to roughly three times as many for Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter. Is it possible that Hoffman and Rivera are that much better? Of course not. They're being used in much less perilous situations than their predecessors, thanks to changes in how current managers deploy their bullpens.

In 1974, the majors adopted tough requirements for saves, insisting that the tying run be on base or at the plate when the reliever entered in order for him to qualify for a save (unless he pitched three innings). That policy lasted one year, and since 1975 the restrictions have been relaxed, allowing a reliever to get a save if he pitches at least one inning with no more than a three-run lead, or comes in with runners on base but the tying run on deck. The folks at Rolaids, who hand out the annual award for relief pitching, have tallied "tough" saves since 2000, defined as having the tying run on base when the reliever enters. In the past six seasons, Rivera has more "tough" saves than any other reliever,19, which happens to be the same number that John Hiller had just in 1973. Using the 1974 definition, Rivera would have recorded 18 saves in 2005 (as would NL saves leader Chad Cordero), equaling the total credited to Fingers in 1974.

Only by seeing how relievers performed in similar situations can we approach an answer to the question of who is better. First, look at the most dangerous situation a reliever can face, entering with the tying and winning runs already on base.

Performance When Entering with the Winning Run On Base

WR on base Saves Blown Saves
Fingers 50 24 25
Gossage 45 22 21
Sutter 26 11 15
L. Smith 27 14 13
Eckersley 15 7 8
Hoffman 17 11 5
Rivera 10 3 7

The thing that jumps off this chart is that even the best relievers blow the save in this situation more often than not. Hoffman has done the best and Rivera the worst, though the more significant point is that their opportunities are so few compared to Fingers and the earlier relievers. Give Rivera as many appearances as Fingers with the winning run on base and, using his "success" rate, we'd be adding 28 blown saves to his career total. Conversely, putting Fingers in that spot as seldom as Rivera has faced it would lop off 20 blown saves from his total. This doesn't even take into consideration what inning it is or how many outs there are, factors which will be examined in the next article.

Performance When Entering with the Tying Run(s) On Base

Tying Run on base Saves Blown Saves
Fingers 118 77 35
Gossage 102 59 36
Sutter 80 47 31
L. Smith 59 37 20
Eckersley 42 28 11
Hoffman 36 25 8
Rivera 38 25 11

As with the previous chart, Fingers has more of these dangerous outings than Rivera, Hoffman, and Dennis Eckersley put together. As a group, these seven stalwarts recorded the save about twice as often as they blew it, a measure of the difficulty of handling inherited runners. Taking these two charts together, the career "tough" saves add up to: Fingers 101, Gossage 81, Sutter 58, Smith 51, Eckersley 35, Hoffman 36, and Rivera 28. For Fingers and Gossage, more than half of their career blown saves came in these spots, and in nearly half of those blown saves, they entered the game in the 6th or 7th inning. For Rivera and Hoffman, most of their blown "tough" saves come in the 8th inning, the only time they enter with inherited runners.

Performance When Entering with the Tying Run At Bat

Tying Run At Bat Saves Blown Saves
Fingers 175 126 37
Gossage 174 116 42
Sutter 161 117 41
L. Smith 259 189 54
Eckersley 168 128 37
Hoffman 166 139 24
Rivera 150 116 25

Here we have data that is, on the surface, more comparable, since all seven relievers faced this situation roughly the same percentage of the time, roughly 36-39% of their save opportunities for the earlier guys and 32-35% for the later group, with Lee Smith at 42%. The career figures for Fingers and Eckersley are almost identical, as are those for Sutter and Gossage. Hoffman and Rivera had significantly higher ratios of saves to blown saves when facing the tying run at the plate, but a breakdown of the situations reveals why. For Fingers, Gossage, and Sutter, more than two-thirds of their blown saves came when they entered no later than the eighth inning, meaning they not only had to get out of their first jam, they also pitched more innings and therefore had extra chances to blow the lead. Of Hoffman's 24 blown saves in this category, only one came when he entered before the ninth inning; similarly, for Rivera it was only five out of 25.

The biggest difference between the "old-style" relievers like Fingers, Sutter, and Gossage and the current crop is the number of times they enter the game to start the ninth inning, with no runners on base. This is the easier situation for a reliever to face, even with just a one-run lead. Figures supplied by Tom Ruane of Retrosheet indicate a home team's chance of winning in any possible combination of leads, innings, outs, and baserunners. If you start the ninth inning with a one-run lead, the home team will win roughly 85% of the time. Put the leadoff runner on first, and the percentage drops to 75%, the same as having runners on first and second with nobody out and a two-run lead, or the bases loaded and nobody out with a three-run lead. Start the ninth inning with a two-run lead, and you'll win about 93% of the time; with a three-run lead, it jumps to a 97% win rate. Current managers love to put in their big-time closer with that three-run lead in the ninth inning because victory is a near-sure thing, but it would be a near-sure thing no matter who pitched the ninth inning. Trevor Hoffman has been used in this situation 108 times in his career, compared to 11 for Fingers, 14 for Gossage, and 16 for Sutter.

Performance When Entering to Start the Ninth Inning

SV 1-run BS 1-run SV 2-run BS 2-run SV 3-run BS 3-run
Fingers 25 12 17 2 11 0
Gossage 21 6 17 2 13 1
Sutter 28 10 22 4 16 0
L. Smith 96 30 87 9 61 0
Eckersley 78 22 78 8 65 1
Hoffman 120 23 110 7 101 7
Rivera 84 19 93 3 88 2
TOTALS 452 122 424 35 355 11

This chart breaks down the performance according to the size of the lead. As a group, they have gotten the save 97% of the time with a three-run lead and 92.4% of the time with a two-run lead, very close to Tom Ruane's figures. With a one-run lead, their figure is 78.7%, but keep in mind that the 85% "win rate" includes games where the reliever blows the lead but his team winds up winning the game.

The most striking thing about this chart is the high percentage of the time that the modern closers enter in the ninth inning, especially with more than a one-run lead. I can't explain why Fingers struggled more than the others with a one-run lead, or why Hoffman has blown a three-run lead more often than the other six put together even though he has the highest save rate with a one-run lead. More significant is the number of saves recorded by Hoffman and Rivera with more than a one-run lead, what I think of as an "easy save". A whopping 60% of Hoffman's career saves have come when he entered the game with no more peril than having the tying run in the on-deck circle. It's even higher for Rivera at 62%. The percentage goes down as we look further back: Eckersley 58.2%, Smith 49.8%, Sutter 41.7%, Gossage 36.5%, and Fingers 33.4%.

Tough Saves vs. Easy Saves

Tough SV Tough BS Ratio Easy SV Easy BS Ratio
Fingers 101 60 1.68 114 13 8.8
Gossage 81 57 1.42 113 13 8.7
Sutter 58 46 1.26 125 14 8.9
L. Smith 51 33 1.55 238 16 14.9
Eckersley 35 19 1.84 227 15 15.1
Hoffman 36 13 2.77 261 14 18.6
Rivera 28 18 1.55 235 9 26.1
TOTALS 390 246 1.59 1313 94 14.0

Fingers, who had almost as many tough saves as easy saves, had a better success rate in those dangerous situations than Rivera, the most revered of the current closers. Why is Hoffman's ratio of tough saves to blown tough saves so much higher? Of the 101 career saves he has recorded in which he inherited runners, 64 came when he entered with two outs, and 25 of those in the ninth inning. Only two of Hoffman's 436 saves saw him enter before the eighth inning, compared to 75 for Fingers.

Dennis Eckersley has said that "you can't blame a pitcher for the way a manager uses him." That is true, but we can assess the relative difficulty of their assigned tasks. How much danger is there when you have to record no more than three outs while protecting a two- or three-run lead? When the worst performer of these seven recorded the save 90% of the time in that situation, is the glory that much greater for the reliever with a 96% success rate? I think not. I agree with Corneille in giving the most praise to the combatants who faced more danger for more innings.

Second in a Series on Relief Pitchers | > Part One

Gabriel Schechter is a Research Associate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and author of Unhittable: Baseball's Greatest Pitching Seasons.

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