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    Posted on Mon, Jul. 28, 2008 10:15 PM


    Wishing that baseball’s save statistic had never been invented

    Jerome Holtzman wrote for the dailies in Chicago, mostly about baseball, for more than 50 years. He’s in baseball’s Hall of Fame and was anointed as the official historian of major-league baseball. An impressive resumé.

    Nevertheless, when Holtzman died on July 19, his career was too-often abridged with the words “the inventor of the save.”

    Holtzman, believing that we needed a quantitative way to reward relief pitchers for their precious work, came up with the idea in 1959. It’s an epiphany I wish he never had.

    Prior to the save, there was no such thing as a closer in baseball. It is the only example in sports of a statistic creating a job — a well-paying job. But that’s not my issue with the save.

    No, the problem is that the over-specialization of pitching staffs in baseball has resulted in the best pitchers on each team throwing fewer innings than they have at any point in baseball’s history.

    This is manifest in five-man starting rotations and overly stringent pitch counts. But nowhere is this misallocation of resources more egregious than when it comes to the closer.

    A closer is typically a team’s best relief pitcher. Nevertheless, even the busiest of the breed chalks up a paltry 70 innings or so these days. The Royals’ Joakim Soria is on pace to throw 69 innings this season. Worse, because of the arbitrary rules defining the statistic, those innings aren’t even the 70 most important innings a reliever will throw during the season.

    Remember Jeremy Affeldt in the latter part of 2003? During the last two months of that season, Affeldt had 12 relief outings of two or more innings — a throwback to the way pitchers have been used for most of baseball history. Until the last 25 years or so, pitchers simply threw until they were no longer effective. That was as true of relievers as it was starters.

    There have undeniably been positive consequences from the shift in pitching staff alignments. Starting pitchers are enjoying longer careers. Also, the use of short relievers to preserve leads has made it more difficult for teams to come from behind.

    Thirty years ago, AL teams posted an OPS in late-and-close situations that was 99.1 percent as good as the league OPS. Not much difference. These days, that number has dropped to 95.7 percent. So you can look at it like this: Relief specialization has rendered batters 3.4 percent less effective in clutch situations than they were in the old model of pitcher usage.

    But should that be the end of it? Are teams getting the most value from their assets? Have they become paralyzed by specialization?

    A generation ago, Dan Quisenberry was not only saving 40 games a season for the Royals, but he was giving the team more than twice as many innings as KC will get from Soria in 2008. These days, half of Quiz’s innings would be replaced by somebody like Jimmy Gobble or Joel Peralta. Is that efficient?

    Royals manager Trey Hillman seems to be on board with the contemporary paradigm for pitcher usage, as evidenced by Soria’s limited time on the mound. That’s disappointing, given Hillman’s exposure to alternative methods of pitcher use in Japan.

    Someday, an innovative team in this country is going to break the manage-by-numbers pattern of using pitchers that has emerged over the last 20 years. That team will probably be a squad with limited resources, trying to find an edge while competing with the big markets.

    Sound like any team we know?

    Pitchers through time

    Key: lgOPS — league OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage); L&C — league OPS in late-and-close situations; Ratio — L&C as a portion of lgOPS; SV — percentage of games with a save; IP/R — innings per relief appearance; all numbers AL only.

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