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September 11, 2008

Prospectus Today

Closing In

by Joe Sheehan

Sometime soon, Francisco Rodriguez will get a signal from the dugout, make one last toss to his bullpen catcher, have a door opened for him and stroll into history. He'll step onto the rubber, assume the awkward set position he's grown comfortable in, and deliver a pitch-maybe a 95 mph fastball, maybe a sharp breaking ball, maybe a deceptive changeup-and with that pitch, he will break a record that has stood for nearly 20 years: the record for save opportunities in a season.

While all of the focus on Rodriguez has been on the column one to the left of that-he's in line to set the record for saves in a season, currently held by Bobby Thigpen, who notched 57 in 1990-you cannot separate that chase from his march towards the opportunities mark. Rodriguez has had 62 save opportunities this season, the second-highest total of all time, three behind Thigpen's mark of 65 set in '90. Just three other relievers-John Smoltz in 2000 (55/59), Rod Beck in 1998 (51/58) and Randy Myers in 1993 (53/59) have ever had enough opportunities to break Thigpen's record.

The need for certain circumstances to be met for a save to be available to a reliever is why the saves record stands a bit apart from many others in baseball. No matter how well Dennis Eckersley pitched in 1990, when he posted a 0.61 ERA, or how dominant Eric Gagne was in 2003, when he converted every single save opportunity the Dodgers gave him, those pitchers were limited by their teams' ability to create save situations by taking small leads into the ninth inning. Eckersley got 50 save opportunities because his A's teammates, which included Bash Brothers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, blew out a lot of their opponents on their way to a third straight AL pennant. Gagne saved nearly two-thirds of the Dodgers' 85 wins in '03, and a better team might have provided him the handful of additional opportunities he would have needed to break Thigpen's mark.

The Angels have been the Goldilocks of baseball teams this year, good enough to win a lot of games, but not good enough to win them by a lot of runs. With a good rotation, excellent set-up relief, and a mediocre offense playing in a league in which scoring is down a bit, the Angels have created a perfect storm for save situations. Sixty-two of the Angels 88 wins have come by three runs or fewer, a 70 percent rate that compares nicely to Thigpen's White Sox, who had 74 percent of their 94 wins come in the "save range." That is why Rodriguez is in line to make history.

Without being too critical of an effective pitcher, what Francisco Rodriguez has done with those opportunities isn't special. He has blown six saves for a 90.3 percent conversion rate this season, a figure that compares unfavorably with peers such as Mariano Rivera (33/34, 97.1 percent) and Joakim Soria (35/38, 92.1 percent). That rate is also unimpressive when compared to other closers with high save totals; among the 11 50-save campaigns in baseball history, Rodriguez's 2008 season features the seventh-highest total of blown saves and the seventh-highest save percentage, the eighth-highest ERA and RA, the ninth-highest Reliever Expected Wins Added total, the 10th-best strikeout-to-walk ratio, and the worst Value Over Replacement Player.

The fact is, Francisco Rodriguez's performance this season has not been special for any closer, and it's been below average for 50-save closers. Even among his peers in 2008, Rodriguez's run prevention has been ordinary; Rivera, Soria, and Joe Nathan have lower ERAs, RAs, and higher VORP scores. He's chasing the record not because he's having a season like Eckersley's '90 or Gagne's '03, one that raises the bar for short relievers, but because his teammates have given him more chances to save a game than all but one pitcher in MLB history has had. If the Angels had Nathan, Soria, or Rivera-pitchers who have a higher save percentage than Rodriguez has posted-they would perhaps have already set the record for saves in a season, and the Angels would have more wins. Quite frankly, earlier versions of Rodriguez would have been more productive as well; this is one of the lesser seasons in his six-year career.

Rodriguez's pursuit of the saves mark is comparable to Ichiro Suzuki's setting the record for hits in a season. In both cases, a player who is among the best-but not the best-in the game was able to convert opportunities created by their usage and by their teammates' performance into a record. In Ichiro's case, batting leadoff for the 2004 Mariners enabled him to come to bat more times than any player ever had in a single season. Ichiro's durability and approach at the plate enabled him to accumulate more at-bats than any player ever had in a single season. (Both records have since been broken.) Ichiro's .372 batting average that season was a career high that led to a MLB-record 262 hits, but his lack of walks and power meant that peers such as Vladimir Guerrero were actually more productive than he was. The record is Ichiro's to keep, but it occurred thanks to greater opportunity than any player who came before.

So, when Rodriguez punches his glove and raises his arms to the sky for a 58th time, stand and cheer. Enjoy the moment, because baseball's record book is a sacred place, and the men who find their names atop the lists deserve to be honored. When the moment ends, though, regard Rodriguez as exactly what he is: not the most valuable player in the league, not the best pitcher in the league, not even the best closer in the league. He's a good player who landed in the perfect situation for him to build up a big total in one particular statistic.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Francisco Rodriguez

20 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

G-MOTA

The discomfort with which SABR types regard the save statistic is informative. The point isn't what the statistic does or does not tell us about performance, but rather that the creation of the statistic palpably altered -- perhaps definitively -- the way the game is _actually played_. The circumstances the save was meant to record have multiplied due to the very fact that they were being recorded in the first place.

My theory is that stat-heads chafe at the save not because it is overvalued by single-minded fans and the all-but-worthless mainstream sports media, but rather because the statistic brings with it a particularly direct reminder that statistics and their analysis can change the actual game -- the observation changes the observed. And this epistemological compromise goes beyond baseball coverage to strike at the heart of the technocratic mindset that gave rise to SABR and its legacies in the first place.

Also, Mariano Rivera pwns. That is all.

Sep 11, 2008 09:41 AM
rating: 0
 
Dr. Dave

I think you're right that the way the Save definition (I can't bring myself to call official scoring definitions 'rules') has corrupted reliever usage patterns is a huge part of why it grates on analysts. It's even worse than W's and RBI's, with the added shame of having been invented and adopted at a time when we should have known better.

That said, I think you're confused about what SABR is. This is probably Bill James's fault; the term 'sabermetrics' was his own pernicious contribution to future misunderstanding. SABR is an organization of mostly older guys who love to talk about baseball, and especially baseball history. If you were to kidnap a random SABR member, you'd be much more likely to find someone who is fascinated by the Negro Leagues or baseball in the 19th century, and who thinks the guy with the most RBI should be the MVP, than someone who knows what VORP is and ignores pitcher W's.

But, yes, Mariano Rivera is the epitome of pwnership.

Sep 11, 2008 10:12 AM
rating: 5
 
G-MOTA

DrDave -- point taken. I was actually struggling to find a term that referred to people interested in statistical analysis without sounding (too) snide: "stat-heads" is pretty bad too, I guess. Maybe I should have said "VORPies," per FJM, and let people assume I was being ironic. Good to have the reminder w/r/t what SABR really is, especially since I myself am more interested in history than in theory or analysis.

Also, I'm totes jealous that you apparently got comment #555 on the site.

Peace.


Sep 11, 2008 10:31 AM
rating: 0
 
tbraxton34

We get it. His season hasn't been that great. He is going to set a record in a silly category based on arbitrary criteria. We know. Can we move on now? How many articles does the BP crew intend to write on this exact point?

Sep 11, 2008 10:14 AM
rating: -2
 
aztropf

As many as you're willing to read ;)

Sep 11, 2008 16:04 PM
rating: 2
 
Mark Hanson

"...a better team might have provided [Gagne] the handful of additional opportunities he would have needed to break Thigpen's mark."

If a better team would have turned a few 1-run deficits into 1-run leads, leading to more save opportunities, wouldn't that same better team have turned some 3-run leads into 5-run leads, leading to fewer opportunities?

Sep 11, 2008 10:18 AM
rating: 0
 
deadmonkeyhead

Not just the BP crew. Analysts all over the baseball media landscape have been driving this point into the ground once it became clear Rodriguez would set the record. Yes, its silly when a few old goats talk about him winning the Cy or the MVP. And yes, hes had a down year, in spite of all the opportunities. Any baseball fan with half a brain knows all this already. I actually find it insulting that its been repeated to us so many times now.

Lets focus on something positive that has nothing to do with saves. This website (Will Carroll in particular) has been predicting K-Rod's arm would fall off since he entered the league in '02. Instead hes been maybe the third best reliever in the game over that span, spending exactly zero days on the DL, and showing no signs of slowing down. As an Angel fan, I hope hes allowed to walk at the end of the season. I know there are others that can do his job without the $15 millon fee, and that the Angels in particular have a good track record developing arms. But I also hope he goes on to a nice, healthy career and breaks the all time saves mark, just to rub it in a bit. I love BP and what they do for the game, but the arrogance and negativity can get tiresome.

Sep 11, 2008 10:34 AM
rating: 0
 
Ira

I think the issue of the save is one of the more polarizing issues in baseball statistics. Performance analysts decry it as "changing the game in a bad way" while baseball insiders talk about bullpen roles and how it defines a role for a closer in the game.


The truth of the matter is that they are both right and wrong. Having a save statistic virtually assured that the role of a closer (or "guy who gets saves") would be defined around the goal. for example, if the rule instead was written: "a save is awarded if the pitcher enters the game with the lead and the tying run either on base or at bat, and that pitcher finishes the game without ever surrendering the lead." Then there would be many fewer saves overall and certain pitchers would get fewer 9th innings with 3 run leads. Maybe not alot fewer, but some. Instead of brining in your closer (who is essentially the 3rd or 4th best pitcher on your staff (after 2 or 3 starters) in the 9th with a 3 run lead you'd bring in your 8th or 9th best pitcher (or maybe leave in your setup man), but you'd have your closer ready, in case your 9th best starter allows 2 runs, or puts 2 men on base.

Oh, well.... not that important.

Sep 11, 2008 11:05 AM
rating: 2
 
Evan
(47)

Jeez, Joe, you really don't like Ichiro's hit record, do you? You railed against it back in 2004 (the classic BP roundtable wherein Zumsteg made you look like a child), and you're still going on about it.

You're worse than Tim McCarver rooting for the Yankees in the 2004 World Series.

Sep 11, 2008 11:29 AM
rating: -1
 
Glenn B.

I don't remember the Yankees' appearance in the 2004 World Series.

McCarver may have still been rooting for them, of course. He certainly talked about the Yanks enough during last year's Series.

About Sheehan's article...

The main argument seems strange,as IvanXQZ below notes. All baseball stats are context-related. Of course K-Rod isn't the best closer in baseball, nor was Ichiro the best hitter in 2004 (which even the sportswriters noticed since Vlad won the MVP), nor was Hack Wilson the best 'run producer' ever. They just broke (or will break) the single-season records, whatever the extenuating circumstances.

Even if Rodriguez somehow wins the Cy Young or even MVP, there have been way, way more egregious choices in the past. At least he's a pretty good pitcher on a good team. There are plenty of relievers in baseball who, given K-Rod's opportunities, wouldn't have nearly his save total (several of whom pitch for the Diamondbacks and Brewers).

And, hey, shouldn't the guy with the most save opportunities have the most saves? The next four pitchers in save opportunities: Valverde, B. Wilson, Nathan and Papelbon are also the next four pitchers in total saves. Go figure.

If Joe Nathan had 65 save opportunities, I'm sure he would shatter Thigpen's record. But he won't come close for a number of reasons.

Which is why it's a record.

Sep 11, 2008 23:07 PM
rating: 0
 
IvanXQZ

There are multiple problems with this article, and I say this as a fan of both the Angels and Joe Sheehan.

The first is the pervasive worry that K-Rod might be remembered as one of the greats, if not the greatest, for this accomplishment. There's no real basis for this, as anyone who hadn't heard of or had forgotten Bobby Thigpen before this year will attest. I don't think Rivera needs to worry.

The second is the insincere recognition in the few places where it seems to have been doled out by obligation. Mr. Sheehan literally gives lip service to honoring a unique accomplishment and then decries it as ordinary in the next sentence. Why bother? The overwhelming message of this piece is that K-Rod doesn't deserve the honor, so it seems disingenous to not come out and say that.

Third, the whole premise is flawed. It's obvious that baseball doles out all kinds of awards and recognition which are devoid of context. Many of those are accumlative. No one cares if a guy who hits 60 home runs in a year is also a strikeout king. Many argue that save is a stupid stat in the first place. So what? It wouldn't matter if Frankie saved only 62 games out of 100 opportunities; he's still the guy who saved more games than anyone else in a season, for whatever reason, and he deserves unmitigated recognition for that, just as the wildcard World Series winner does, just as the Dodgers will when they win the West with a less-than-dominating record, just as Hank Aaron did when he got 8 extra games every year after 1961, just as Cal Ripken Jr did for being lucky enough to never be injured or benched. Luck, and the absence of context, factor into every record I can think of, especially the accumulative ones.

Finally, on the day after the Angels clinch the AL West earlier than any team has before, this is all that BP has to say? This is the fifth time, at least, that BP (and Mr. Sheehan particularly) has made these two largely obvious points, with no new subtleties, depth or nuance in their rehashing. The bitter monotone now feels obsessive, dull, and small, to say nothing of disappointing.

Sep 11, 2008 17:00 PM
rating: 2
 
rbrianc

not to mention they clinched it against Joe's Yanks.

Bad day for Joe, so to make him feel better, write a rant and discredit Frankie!

Been there, read that.

Sep 11, 2008 17:30 PM
rating: -3
 
mnerdahl

My feeling is that Joe is anticipating the "He got 60 saves! He's the AL MVP & Cy Young!" type of crooning that will inevitably occur.

The constant discussion of K-Rod reminds me of the "debate" around Obama's lipstick comment. It's not worth the press it's getting, but you have to talk about it to make people see that the saying (or accomplishment) isn't worth the press it's getting (or a MVP award).

Sep 11, 2008 18:39 PM
rating: 0
 
ndubby

Writing about the Angels clinching the division ahead of 3 mediocre teams isn't really worth the ink.

Sep 12, 2008 08:28 AM
rating: 0
 
pdxpadre

"So, when Rodriguez punches his glove and raises his arms to the sky for a 58th time, stand and cheer."

No Joe. I don't feel like it. I doubt anyone who reads BP will do so. Please write about something other than this non-issue.

Sep 11, 2008 22:34 PM
rating: 0
 
jcrwfrd
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

Angels BP projected record -- 85/77
Actual record to date -- 89/57

I never understood the generally negative slant on the Angels here, but then I looked up the company's address:
Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC
P.O. Box 15515 Seattle Washington 98115

There have been a few articles this year suggesting that the Angels are just lucky. In science, when predictive models fall short, one looks to adjust the model.

Sep 12, 2008 06:46 AM
rating: -4
 
jlefty

...except they were even (rightly so) harsher on the mariners, so there goes that theory. Baseball isn't science. In science, you change the model because luck doesn't exist. If you really can't acknowledge the existence of luck in baseball, you may as well cancel your BP subscription now and save the money..

Sep 12, 2008 08:47 AM
rating: 0
 
jthomas25

My Joe, we're a little cranky this morning. Did Will hoard all the coffee for himself this week and not share? I agree the save category is a little ubsurd, especially when you consider that a middle reliever who loses the lead doesn't get credit with a blown hold but rather a blown save. I digress. In your very large sample size of 11 pitchers, Rodriguez comes out near the end and you trumpet this fact. Why is it that anytime you want to tear someone down in baseball and he happens to be the first out of a very large sample of 10 he is just a product of small sample size? The saves record is going to fall. Live with it. It's nice when the best player holds the record, but we all know the "greatest" player doesn't always hold the top spot in the history books. See Thigpen, Bobby (for now) and Rose, Pete. At the end of the day, opportunities aside, he still had to go out and close 58 games.

Sep 12, 2008 08:23 AM
rating: 0
 
rbrianc

yeah, one of your worst columns Joe. i'm getting tired of every national sports writer trying to dimish Frankie's accomplishment - this piece was far from original and i've seen it in various forms on many publications. (but tearing down heroes is what journalists do i guess). we pay for BP for fresh insight, not a rehash of the local fish wrap.

Take any record or HOF'er, and we can diminish it with the "yeah, but...."

It wasn't the coffee JT, but probably that Frankie did #56 the day before against his Yanks and they are having a bad season.

Sep 12, 2008 14:00 PM
rating: 2
 
akachazz

wow... the negativity here. Personally I thought this was a great article. You're cranking out the articles like a true yeoman these days.


I hope this comment doesn't fall "below the viewing threshold..."

Sep 18, 2008 21:48 PM
rating: 0
 
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