August 7, 2003
Exploiting the Opportunity
With slacker Barry Bonds having an off year, we don't have the daily suspense of watching one player chase a variety of single-season records all at once. We do, however, have a fair chance that one of the game's marks will be broken: Bobby Thigpen's saves record of 57, set with the White Sox in 1990.
Through 113 games, the Braves' John Smoltz has 42 saves, leaving him 15 short of tying the mark and 16 from setting a new one. In last year's 55-save campaign, Smoltz had 59 opportunities, and 39 saves through 113 team games. He has had 45 save opportunities so far in 2003, on pace for 64.5 on the season. If that were to hold, Smoltz would have to save 16 of his last 19 opportunities to set the record, which seems well within his grasp.
Two summers ago, I wrote about the save record and what it would take for it to be broken. The primary barrier isn't ability or performance, but opportunity:
"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."
In the two seasons completed since I did that research, the 50-opportunity barrier has been breached 11 times, but only twice has a pitcher (Smoltz last year, Mariano Rivera in 2001) had the minimum of 57 save opportunities it would take to tie Thigpen's record. The minimum of 16 opportunities Smoltz needs the rest of the way works out to a 53-opportunity-a-year pace, which is in line with what very good teams provide their closers of late. That assumes perfection, of course, and every opportunity Smoltz blows is going to have a big impact on his chance at the record. Any change in his usage pattern as the Braves coast to their ninth straight NL East title would probably end his chance at the record.
The funny thing is that I would have pictured the saves record falling to a pitcher on a team in a different setting. It would have to be a good team, but not a great one, with a better pitching staff than offense, and playing in a low run-scoring environment. The Braves actually only fit a couple of those requirements. While a very good team, they have a very good offense in a pretty good hitting environment. Where they've helped Smoltz is in having a suspect middle-relief corps, one which has created save situations where past Braves bullpens would not have. Before the season, I would have pegged Eric Gagne as the better choice, but Gagne has suffered as the Dodgers have handed him just 37 save opportunities, as opposed to Smoltz's 45.
Bill James once wrote that the single-season saves mark would settle up around 83. I think that would require the most pathological example; no team has ever approached that number of save situations for its closer, and barring a return to a seven-runs-per-game environment, no team is likely to do so. If Smoltz can break the record this year, he's likely to hold it for as long as Thigpen did, and perhaps much, much longer.