September 11, 2008
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.