Monday night, Francisco Rodriguez closed out an Angels 3-2 win over the Nationals by striking out the side in the ninth, picking up his 31st save in the process. With the Angels having played 78 games after Tuesday night’s win, that puts Rodriguez comfortably on pace to break Bobby Thigpen‘s single-season record of 57 saves, set in 1990.

It’s not terribly unusual for a pitcher to have at least some chance at the saves record at midseason. In the recent past, there was John Smoltz in 2003, Eric Gagne in 2002, and Kazuhiro Sasaki in 2001. However, no one has reached 56 saves since Thigpen did so; Gagne had 55 with five games to play in 2003, but didn’t get an opportunity in any of them. Smoltz had 53 with six games to go, but garnered just two opportunities after that. Sasaki had 25 saves through 62 Mariners games, but just 20 in the last 100, picking up just 24 opportunities in that stretch.

See, that is the key word: opportunities. Saves are unlike most achievements, in that specific game conditions need to be met to rack them up. It’s not enough to be dominant, it’s not even enough to convert your opportunities. You have to be given enough chances to have any shot at breaking this record. It’s impossible to overstate this point when it comes to saves: performance matters, but opportunity matters more.

How hard is it to pick up 57 saves? Just five pitchers have ever even had 57 save opportunities in one season.

Bobby Thigpen   65  1990
Randy Myers     59  1993
John Smoltz     59  2002
Rod Beck        58  1998
Mariano Rivera  57  2001
Mariano Rivera  57  2004

Thigpen had 57 saves…and six more opportunities than anyone else has ever had. Think about that. Every year, someone can hit 74 homers, or drive in 192 runs, or pop 263 hits, because those feats are all under a player’s control, a function of playing time and performance. Saves, however, are a function of save opportunities as well. Just three players in baseball history have ever had a chance to break Thigpen’s record: Smoltz, Myers, and Beck. Each fell short despite having fantastic seasons.

Now we have Rodriguez, who may sit at the intersection of all the factors needed to break the record. It helps to pitch in a low run-scoring environment, because that increases the chance that a game will fall within the three-run range needed for a save. The AL in 1990 averaged 8.6 runs per game, the second-lowest mark in a non-strike season since 1978, and the White Sox played in what was essentially a neutral park in that league. The current AL is famously scoring 9.16 runs per game, the lowest since 1992; Angels Stadium is a slight hitters’ park in that league.

Rodriguez has had a lot of save chances in part because the Angels don’t blow out their opponents. They rank 11th in the league in runs scored, 12th in Equivalent Average. The lack of a potent offense keeps Angels games close: 54 of their 78 games (69 percent), and 36 of their 48 wins (75 percent), have been decided in the “save range” of three runs or less. In 1990, the White Sox ranked ninth in runs per game and 12th in EqA. One hundred and fifteen of their games (71 percent) of their games were decided by three runs or less, as were 70 of their 94 wins (74 percent).

The Angels in 2008 seem like they’re perfectly positioned to present Rodriguez with the 60 or more save opportunities it will take to break Thigpen’s record. Rodriguez has already blown two saves, so he’ll need at least 59 opportunities to tie, and 60 opportunities to break, the record. If the Angels continue to get both good pitching-including good set-up relief, which helps funnel save opportunities to the closer-and poor hitting, Rodriguez will be in good shape to leapfrog Thigpen into the record books.

The one factor I haven’t mentioned yet is the caliber of Rodriguez’s pitching. Obviously, he’ll have to pitch well enough to convert 57 opportunities, which is no mean feat. When you look at his performance this year, though, you see that despite the save totals, it’s not vintage K-Rod. Rodriguez is striking out less than a batter an inning for the first time in his career. He’s also walking a man every other inning, which is in line with the degradation in his command that we saw last year. His K/BB of 33/17 (after intentionals) is by far the worst of his career. Rodriguez leads the AL in WXRL because of the leverage of the situations in which he’s succeeded; from a context-neutral standpoint, however, he hasn’t been one of the three best closers in the AL this year.

In Rodriguez’s favor is that he’s pitched better since the middle of April after starting the season on a couple of injured ankles. Rodriguez got five days off in a row in the season’s second week, then pitched mop-up relief on April 13. He’s allowed just four runs in 32 appearances since then, although his peripheral numbers (30/13 K/BB in 30 2/3 innings) are still a notch down from his peak performance.

To some extent, this is nitpicking. Thigpen wasn’t the best reliever in the league when he set the record-that was Dennis Eckersley. Rodriguez is clearly good enough to convert upwards of 90 percent of the opportunities afforded him, and the only question is whether he’ll have enough opportunities to get to the mark. The change in the AL’s run context and the layout of the Angels’ roster give him as good an opportunity to do so as any pitcher in recent memory.

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