By notching his fourth save in six days since the All-Star break, and his ninth in 18 Angels games in July, Francisco Rodriguez moved the conversation about the single-season saves record from “whether” to “when.” Needing just 15 saves to tie the mark and 16 to break it, and pitching for a team that plays a high percentage of close games—due in part to a mediocre offense—Rodriguez is in line to not just break the record, but shatter it.
It’s all about opportunity. Rodriguez has a whopping 45 save opportunities in 101 Angels games, in line to break 70 on the season. Record-holder Bobby Thigpen is the only player in history to have even 60 save opportunities in a season, with 65 in 1990, when he converted 57 of them. Note that Thigpen actually blew eight saves that year, and his 87.7 save percentage is relatively unimpressive compared to the 50-save seasons posted in his wake.
What’s interesting is that while Rodriguez may end the year as the single-season save king, he is arguably not one of the four best closers in the American League, and he is unquestionably having a year that, other than save totals, is unimpressive by his own standards. An overlap of generations, a deep pool of power arms, and Rodriguez’s own decline have all combined to lower his status among the best closers in the circuit. Hard to believe? Check out the numbers.
IP RA WXRL VORP K/9 K/BB HR/9 Joe Nathan 41.2 1.08 4.41 20.0 9.9 4.2 .65 Jonathan Papelbon 44.1 3.25 1.98 10.6 10.6 7.4 .61 Mariano Rivera 44.2 1.21 3.38 20.7 10.9 13.5 .40 Joakim Soria 44.0 1.43 3.25 18.4 9.8 5.3 .82 Francisco Rodriguez 45.3 2.18 4.19 16.0 9.3 1.7 .40
Rodriguez is no better than fourth in this crowd, with Nathan, Rivera, and Soria all having better years by any measure other than WXRL. That metric builds in leverage, telling us what we already knew from the save totals: Rodriguez has pitched in a lot of save situations. When you take out opportunity, though, it’s clear that Nathan, Rivera and Soria have all pitched better than Rodriguez has.
This isn’t a one-year blip. Nathan, Soria and Papelbon were all better than Rodriguez last year, and J.J. Putz was as well. Nathan, Papelbon, Rivera, and B.J. Ryan were all a bit better than Rodriguez in 2006, really the last great year on his resume. If you go back and include 2005 and 2004—the latter a season in which he didn’t close very often—it becomes a three-horse race with just Nathan and Rivera, and Rodriguez is clearly #3 in that group. By the most generous accounting, Francisco Rodriguez is the third-best closer in the AL, and if you’re asking me, I’d take at least three, and probably four guys ahead of him.
From 2004 through 2006, Rodriguez was fantastic, posting a 2.04 ERA, 12.5 K/9 and a 3.4 K/BB over 224 1/3 innings. That was his peak, but over the last season-plus a clear degradation in his command—he’s walked 58 men unintentionally in his last 112 2/3 innings, a bit more than one every other inning—has left him looking up at the men in the chart above. Closers have to throw strikes, miss bats and keep the ball in the park, and Rodriguez does just two of those things as well as his peers do.
As it stands now, Rodriguez would set all kinds of negative marks for his class, along with the saves record. He’s a near-lock for the highest walk rate and worst K/BB for any 50-save pitcher. He will be in the middle of the pack for ERA and strikeout rate among that group. His 42/45 success in save opportunities aside, there’s no “Lights Out” feeling when he comes in: since a brief stretch in early June in which he was untouchable, Rodriguez has had just five outings, out of 19 total, in which he didn’t allow at least one baserunner. As long as he keeps walking nearly five men per nine innings on his own, he’s going to be looking up at his peers…no matter how many saves he racks up.