One of the more unlikely record-holders in baseball history is Bobby 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
Despite his exceptional early pace, I put Sasaki’s chance of breaking the
single-season saves record at about 20%.