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The Evolution of the Closer

Rollie Fingers

In his Hall of Fame career, Rollie Fingers recorded 36 saves of three innings or more. Neither Trevor Hoffman nor Mariano Rivera has ever recorded one save of three innings or more. 

With Bruce Sutter recently elected to the Hall of Fame and Goose Gossage moving closer to election, the question of how to evaluate relievers seems more elusive than ever. This is the first of several studies comparing top relief pitchers as a way of illustrating the shifting in relief roles which has occurred over the past few decades.

One useful way of comparing relievers is to look at how hard they worked. A common criticism leveled at current closers it that they have it relatively easy when they pick up saves by working the 9th inning with a two- or three-run lead. Is this actually the case? Did the elite relievers of the 1970s work that much harder, and do they deserve more respect for doing so?

The seven pitchers in this study provide a vivid cross-section of the 37 seasons since 1969, when saves became an official statistic and the way we look at relievers began to change. Three of the seven have already been elected to the Hall of Fame: Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, and Bruce Sutter. Two others were the top vote-getters among relievers on the 2006 ballot who were not elected: Goose Gossage and Lee Smith. The final two are active pitchers with the most career saves in their respective leagues: Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. Hoffman ranks second to Smith on the all-time saves list, and Rivera holds the all-time record for saves in the post-season.

The subject of this study is how hard relievers work to get saves. Just as a starting pitcher who completes the game has worked harder than one who lasts only six or seven innings, so can a reliever's workload - his contribution to the team's winning effort - be measured in terms of innings pitched. One argument in favor of enshrining Bruce Sutter is that even though his career lasted only a dozen years and 17 pitchers rank ahead of him in career saves, he worked harder for his saves, often pitching two or three innings to do so. So I tallied exactly how many outs were recorded in every one of these pitchers' saves. 

For each pitcher, the chart shows the number of saves recorded pitching a certain number of innings, and below that figure is listed the percentage of his overall saves that figure accounts for. For example, 10.6% of Rollie Fingers' saves were recorded when he pitched three or more innings.

Saves by Innings Pitched

1/3 2/3 1 1 1/3 1 2/3 2 2 1/3 2 2/3 3+ Total
Fingers 39 20 81 30 36 61 20 18 36 341
'69-'85 11.4 5.9 23.8 8.8 10.6 17.9 5.9 5.3 10.6  
Gossage 24 23 70 33 35 73 16 12 24 310
'72-'94 7.7 7.4 22.6 10.6 11.3 23.5 5.2 3.9 7.7  
Sutter 18 12 82 25 33 84 21 10 15 300
'76-'88 6.0 4.0 27.3 8.3 11.0 28.0 7.0 3.3 5.0
Eckersley 25 28 231 44 34 23 2 2 1 390
'75-'98 6.4 7.2 59.2 11.3 8.7 5.9 0.5 0.5 0.3
L. Smith 26 23 260 46 29 79 5 2 8 478
'81-'97 5.4 4.8 54.4 9.6 6.1 16.5 1.0 0.4 1.7
Hoffman 25 12 344 39 9 5 1 1 0 436
'93-'05 5.7 2.8 78.9 8.9 2.1 1.1 0.2 0.2 0.0
Rivera 16 10 273 45 26 8 1 0 0 379
'96-'05 4.2 2.6 72.0 11.9 6.9 2.1 0.3 0.0 0.0

The numbers tell us quite a bit. Sutter pitched at least two innings in 43.3% of his career saves, more than any of the others. Gossage and Fingers weren't far behind, with Fingers the only pitcher who pitched at least three innings in more than 10% of his saves. Sutter and Gossage had more saves where they logged at least two innings than saves where they pitched an inning or less.

Contrast their innings with those pitched by Eckersley, Rivera, and Hoffman. The great majority of their saves involved pitching one inning or less, with few appearances outside of the 9th inning. Look at it this way: from May 27 through July 4, 1984 (39 days), Sutter had more saves where he pitched at least two innings (nine) than Hoffman has in his whole career, and the same number as Rivera has in his career. Gossage did the same thing from August 15, 1980 through the end of that season, and Fingers accomplished it in a 53-day stretch in 1978. These pitchers acted as their own "set-up" men. They joined the fray in the 7th or 8th inning when the lead was threatened, put out the fire, and finished the job themselves.

What separates Rivera from the pack of recent closers is his stalwart work in postseason play. In these most crucial games, his manager, Joe Torre, has not hesitated to bring him in early. In 27 of his 34 postseason saves (79.4%), Rivera has entered in the 8th inning. A dozen times (35.3%), he has worked two full innings for a save. Throw in a career E.R.A. of 0.81 in the postseason, and that makes him the most likely current reliever to make the Hall of Fame.

The change from multiple-inning to one-inning closers is seen most dramatically in the career of Lee Smith. From 1981-1990, he carried a load similar to the trio of Fingers, Gossage, and Sutter. However, from 1991 through the end of his career, he was used much the same way that Hoffman has been. The statistical breakdown shows the shifting trend. From 1981-1990, 44.2% of Smith's saves took one inning of work or less, a little more than Fingers & Co.; from 1991 on, that figure increased to 90.1%. His saves of 2+ innings went from 34% all the way down to 1.9%. It was during the second phase of his career that Smith recorded his top four seasonal totals for saves. He was no longer putting out troublesome fires in earlier innings; like most closers of the past 15 years, his duty was limited to the 9th inning.

Pitchers and statisticians will tell you that apart from coming in simply to get the final out of the game, the least stressful save involves coming in at the start of the 9th inning (or an extra inning). There's nobody on base, no imminent threat, and no reason to attempt anything besides overpowering three batters before a run or two (or three) can score. The study reveals some revealing trends in this category. Fingers and Gossage enjoyed this relatively carefree entrance in only one-sixth of their saves. It happened a little more often for Sutter, but still only 22%. For Smith, it was 27.2% in the first part of his career, but 78.9% in the second part, nearly four-fifths of the time. Hoffman has recorded three-fourths of his career saves in this manner.

Modern managers are making things as easy as they can for their closers. For Eckersley, Rivera, and Hoffman (and Smith after 1990), when they worked the 9th inning, more than 95% of the time they started the inning. That was not the case with the earlier workhorses. When Fingers recorded three outs for a save, he started the 9th inning only 65.4% of the time. That is, more than a third of the time, Fingers got the call with nobody out and runners on base. Gossage got to start the 9th in 72.9% of his three-out saves, and Sutter in 80.5%, all well below the more recent save specialists. No matter how you look at it, the earlier trio worked much harder for their saves.

NOTE: This study is limited to games in which saves were recorded. There are more contexts to be examined, such as the size of the lead when relievers enter the game, inherited runners, and other measures of how dangerous the situation is. Those will be the subjects of further studies, as will success rates and blown saves. Most of this work is possible because of the widespread gathering of information for the website. Thank you to Dave Smith and Retrosheet for providing this data to the public and for providing more detailed files to me to facilitate my research.

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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