June 14, 2001
The Daily Prospectus
Chasing BobbyBobby Thigpen, whose single-season mark of 57 saves, set in 1990, has never been seriously challenged. The record has the scent of a accident all over it; the White Sox closer shattered the previous record of 46 saves, set by the Yankees' Dave Righetti in 1986, and in the decade since, no one has accumulated more than 53 saves (Randy Myers in 1993 and Trevor Hoffman in 1998).
Thigpen's season screams "fluke." Outside of 1990, he never saved more than 34 games in one season. That was the only full season in which he had an ERA under 2.00 or impressive peripheral numbers, and he declined rapidly from that peak, fading out of baseball early in 1994.
The name atop the all-time leaderboard for saves illustrates that holding this record isn't so much about ability as it is about opportunity. Yes, you need to have a good season, but what you really need is a team that provides you at least 57 opportunities to save a game.
How difficult is this? Consider that since 1992 (that's not arbitrary: it's as far back as I can dig as I write this), just 15 pitchers have had even 50 save opportunities in a season, and just three have had 57. This during the peak period of the one-inning, scarlet-C-on-his-chest Closer.
Enter Kazuhiro Sasaki. Through 62 team games, Sasaki has 25 saves in an amazing 28 opportunities. Carried out to a full season, that would be 65 saves in 73 opportunities, or a performance that obliterates the existing record in much the same way Thigpen's did.
Making Sasaki's numbers more impressive is that he hasn't been maximized. Lou Piniella has gotten five saves from his great setup men (Jeff Nelson and Arthur Rhodes) and a couple of others from Jose Paniagua. Some of those could not have been saves for Sasaki (cases where the Ms scored in the eighth inning or the top of the ninth to extend a lead past three runs), but the number of team save opportunities illustrates the chance Sasaki has this season.
Can Sasaki break the record? Well, at bare minimum, it requires the Mariners to win 33 more games. That seems like a safe bet. It also requires at least 33 more save opportunities for Sasaki, which over three-and-a-half months reflects a full-season pace of 53. Since 1992, just six pitchers have had 53 save opportunities in a season, so that's far from a given.
The opportunity issues make this a more difficult record to break than, say, the doubles record might be for Mike Sweeney, or the hits record for Ichiro Suzuki. Additionally, Lou Piniella has already indicated a desire to lessen Sasaki's workload, meaning that Nelson and Rhodes will continue to notch saves on occasion.
Despite his exceptional early pace, I put Sasaki's chance of breaking the single-season saves record at about 20%.