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June 3, 2007

Every Given Sunday

Saves, Strikes, and Retreads

by John Perrotto

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  • There are certain magic numbers that will get a player elected to the Hall of Fame, like 3,000 hits, or 300 wins, or 500 home runs (unless you're Mark McGwire). Yet the ten-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, those who comprise the Hall electorate, have yet to figure out what the standard is when it comes to saves. Lee Smith held the all-time record with 477 saves until last season, and he has yet to get close to election. In stark contrast, Bruce Sutter made it to Cooperstown with exactly 300 saves, a total surpassed by 19 other relief pitchers.

    Beyond Sutter, the only other relievers in the Hall of Fame are Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, and Hoyt Wilhelm. Eckersley logged 390 saves, but has also amassed 197 wins, as he was a starter for 11 seasons before moving to the bullpen. Fingers finished his career with 341 saves, and Wilhelm had 227, though only 31 of Wilhelm's came after the save became an official statistic in 1969.

    With that in mind, who better to ask for his thoughts on a magic save number than Padres closer Trevor Hoffman? No one has saved more games in baseball history as the 39-year-old right-hander is two away from the 500 mark, and one of only four pitchers with 400 on his career, joining Smith, John Franco, and Mariano Rivera. While the genial Hoffman is always willing to answer questions, this is one that has him stumped. "I've thought about it from time to time and I just don't think there is an answer at this point in time," Hoffman said.

    The save is a relatively new statistic, having been devised by Chicago baseball writer Jerome Holtzman in the early 1960s, and adopted as part of the official record by Major League Baseball in 1969. "It's still such a relatively new stat that it's pretty hard to put it into the context of history like you can most of the other statistics," Hoffman said. "Having a chance to get to 500 saves is something that means a lot to me, but there is no way of knowing how many other closers will eventually reach that mark. Only time is going to be able to give that answer. Maybe down the road it will be an exclusive club, or maybe a lot of other guys will come along and do it. It will be interesting to see."

    Predicting closer performances can be extremely dicey, given the volatility-and the dependency on the team and its manager-associated with the role. However, with the help of PECOTA, we can learn that few current closers have much of a chance of joining Hoffman in the 500-save club. Longtime Yankees closer Mariano Rivera has the best chance of getting to 500, as he is 83 away. PECOTA projects that Rivera will finish his career with 520 saves, expecting him to retire following the 2010 season. The other New York closer, the Mets' Billy Wagner, also rates a good chance, as he currently has 337 saves. PECOTA projects him to be at 490 after the 2011 season, when he would be 41.

    Two other names to consider reflect statistical possibility and the virtue of getting started early. The Marlins' Armando Benitez has a statistically measurable case: he already has 280 saves, and considering he's only 34 years and logged his first save at 22, you might figure he has a shot at 500. However, Benitez is clearly on the downslope of his career, and the Marlins plan on using him as a set-up man to Kevin Gregg after acquiring him from the Giants in a trade on Thursday. PECOTA projects Benitez to finish his career with 404 saves at the end of the 2010 season. A better example of a young closer who could reach 500 might be Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez. Although PECOTA only projects five years out, and K-Rod currently has 125 saves, PECOTA sees him sitting at 325 following the 2011 season. At that point, he will be only 29.

    So, while, we all wait to crack the case of the magic Hall of Fame saves numbers, Hoffman suggests using longevity as a guide. He has the most 40-save (eight) and 30-save (11) seasons in history. Rivera is the closest challenger to those yardsticks, with six 40-save seasons and nine 30-save seasons. "The thing I'm most proud of is that I've stood the test of time," Hoffman said. "I'd like to think I've been pretty reliable. As a closer, the most important thing is to know you're team can count on you time after time to get that last out"

  • Cleveland Indians right-hander Paul Byrd admittedly doesn't have the best stuff and gets by mainly on guts and guile. However, pinpoint control has enabled Byrd to go 6-1 with a 3.57 ERA in nine starts this season. He has twice as many wins as walks (three) in 58 innings pitched. Byrd has also gone 43 consecutive innings and 183 batters since issuing his last walk. That came April 26, when the Rangers' Kenny Lofton drew a base on balls.

    Byrd rarely even throws balls. In his last two starts against Detroit and Boston, he threw an amazing 121 of 150 pitches for strikes (81 percent). "Sometimes I throw too many strikes," Byrd said. "Sometimes it's not always a bad thing to walk a guy. But I'm afraid to walk anyone because I give up so many hits. If I start walking guys, I'll really be in trouble." Byrd has allowed 72 hits this season and eight home runs. "It's not about his control, it's about his command," Indians manager Eric Wedge noted to the Lake County News-Herald. "Control is being on the plate. Command is how you cut up the plate and that's what he does."

    The major-league record for consecutive innings without a walk is 84 1/3 by the Kansas City Athletics' Bill Fischer in 1962. Ironically, Fischer ended that season with the most losses in his nine-year career as he went 4-12 with a 3.95 ERA in 34 games, 16 starts.

  • Many people around baseball chuckled when the Washington Nationals took 37 pitchers to spring training this year, many of them retreads. However, it obviously turned out to be a good move on General Manager Jim Bowden's part. Four members of the Nationals' season-opening starting rotation are now on the Disabled List: John Patterson, Jerome Williams, Jason Bergmann, and Shawn Hill. The lone holdover from the start of the season is rookie right-hander Matt Chico, who is 3-4 with a 5.13 ERA in 12 starts.

    Taking their places have been three journeymen-left-handers Mike Bacsik and Micah Bowie and right-hander Jason Simontacchi-along with Rule 5 draft pick Levale Speigner. Bacsik, Bowie, and Simontacchi have combined to go 4-4 with a 4.19 ERA (29-62 1/3) in 11 starts; the Nationals are 6-5 in those games. Remarkably, none had started a major-league game since Bacsik in 2004. Simontacchi's last start was in 2003 and Bowie's previous start came in 1999. Speigner has pitched a total of just 14 2/3 innings with a 0-2 record and 14.44 ERA in four starts after going 1-0 with a 3.77 ERA in 12 relief appearances to begin the season.

    "I feel fortunate that we brought those pitchers to camp," Nationals manager Manny Acta told the Washington Times. "Some of those guys are the ones that have given us a lift when we needed it."

  • The Chicago White Sox have fallen further than you might think since winning the franchise's first World Series title in 88 years in 2005. Since last July 6, the White Sox are just 59-69. That is quite a comedown for a team that went 166-93 from the start of the 2005 season (including that year's 11-1 blitz through the postseason) up until last year's All-Star break.

    The prolonged slump has always excitable manager Ozzie Guillen in an uproar and wondering how much longer he might survive in his job. "If we have to shake up this ballclub, we will," Guillen told the Chicago Tribune this past week after the White Sox were swept in a three-game series by the Twins in Minnesota. "At least, (General Manager) Kenny Williams will. I'm sitting here and watching, since July of last year to right now, the same (stuff). If I'm going to get fired, good. If this team's going to get better with me out of here, I'll be happy. But as long as I'm here, we have to play better."

From the rumor mill: Troy Percival is hoping to add to his 324 career saves by coming out of retirement, and is expected to sign as a free agent as early as this week. Detroit and Philadelphia appear to be the most likely destinations, and Percival is said to have a soft spot for the Tigers as he signed with them as a free agent following the 2004 season after 10 years as the Angels' closer. If Texas decides to trade first baseman Mark Teixeira at the July 31 non-waiver deadline (a more likely proposition as the Rangers fall further out of the American League West race), among the teams who figure to make an attempt to land him are the Angels, the Dodgers, the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Giants, and possibly the Tigers. Two other notable players almost certain to moved by July 31 if their teams are out of contention are Chicago White Sox third baseman Joe Crede and Philadelphia center fielder Aaron Rowand. ... Right-hander Carlos Zambrano's chances of re-signing with the Chicago Cubs seem to be fading with each bad outing, and probably weren't helped by his Friday altercation with catcher Michael Barrett. Zambrano is said to be considering re-hiring Scott Boras as his agent since he is eligible for free agency at the end of the season. Zambrano switched from Boras to Barry Praver during the offseason. Barrett was in danger of losing significant playing time behind the plate until Cubs backup catcher Henry Blanco went on the disabled list this past week. The Cubs are likely to release right-hander Wade Miller, who has lost his fastball after years of injuries. ... St. Louis is desperately seeking a catcher to pair up with journeyman Gary Bennett after Yadier Molina suffered a broken wrist this past week. The Cardinals' best in-house option was to call up the .174-hitting Brian Esposito from Triple-A Memphis, but they reportedly have no interest in free agent Javier Lopez or in bringing back Eli Marreo, who they released from Memphis last month. San Francisco left-hander Barry Zito took special pleasure in beating the Mets this past week. Zito believes the Mets tried to hold down his value as a free agent last winter by planting stories that he was no longer a top-of-the-rotation starter. The Angels are said to be considering using the speedy and versatile Chone Figgins as part of a trade package for an impact bat. ... Sammy Sosa says he feels so rejuvenated by serving as Texas' designated hitter after a year away from the game that he would now like to play five more seasons. Oakland outfielder Jack Cust's bat has cooled after a hot start, and the outfielder is likely to lose playing time now that center fielder Mark Kotsay has returned from March back surgery.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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