Reading this post this morning, it seemed like a good opportunity to examine the save rule in baseball and the incentives it provides managers and players, and the behaviors that result from them.
In the linked article, John Erardi argues that the Reds should trade closer (and freak of nature) Aroldis Chapman if they’re not planning on using him as a starting pitcher. Which apparently they aren’t, given what has happened in Spring Training the last couple of years.
It’s hard to disagree. Chapman pitched fewer innings than Josh Roenicke and Matt Belisle, both pitchers who at one time pitched for the Reds and no longer do, mainly because they’re run-of-the-mill relievers and run-of-the-mill relievers are a dime a dozen. No offense intended to those two – especially Belisle who we met at a Reds-Rockies game last summer – it’s not personal, it’s just how baseball is. In all 101 pitchers threw more innings than Aroldis Chapman did last year.
Now, we stipulate that innings pitched aren’t the end-all be-all of a pitcher’s effectiveness, but they are a quick and easy metric we can use in discussion. Consider that even a replacement-level left fielder that plays half the time will be in the field for seven times as many innings as Chapman was last year. A solid-but-still-replacement-level starting pitcher who makes 30 starts in a season probably pitches twice as many innings as Chapman did in 2012. And many of those innings will come in game situations where getting an out or three is pretty important to the team’s ultimate chances for victory.
With the official adoption of the save rule in 1969, baseball (perhaps unknowingly) changed roster construction and in-game pitching management for good. They probably didn’t realize it at the time, but we rarely imagine all the possible outcomes of a particular action. They probably just wanted to measure the effectiveness of relief pitchers in a way they couldn’t before, but the decision paved the way for the specialized bullpen and the dark days of Tony LaRussa switching relievers EVERY OTHER BATTER FOR THREE FREAKING INNINGS EVERY DAMNED NIGHT.
Before saves were a thing, every game had a winning pitcher and a losing pitcher. Whoever pitched the ninth inning wasn’t perceived to be nearly as important as who pitched the first five. If you go to Las Vegas and look at the betting lines at any sports book you’ll see that the first five innings of MLB games are still things on which you can place a bet. It’s our contention that the reality hasn’t changed. What good is a fireballing reliever if your starting pitchers are awful? What good is a great closer if your position players can’t hit well enough to get him a lead? Because in this day and age most closers – the best relievers in a pitching staff – don’t come into tie games or games where the team’s behind, because their job is to pick up the Almighty Save. It’s a situation where the well-being of the team is secondary to the accumulation of individual statistics. And that’s not generally considered to be a good thing in a team sport.
It’s hard to blame the closers themselves – they get paid to collect saves. So it’s not hard to imagine a closer – or more likely his agent – lobbying a manager to only bring in a reliever in a “save situation” (we’ll discuss this further in a minute.)
It’s hard to object to putting relief pitchers in regular roles. When people know what to expect they generally perform better, no matter the field. So it’s hard to (on the surface) fault a manager for saying “X, you’re pitching the seventh, Y the eighth, and Z the ninth every night.” That’s good personnel management, right?
On the other hand, a manager’s job is to win baseball games first and keep individual players warm and cozy on the inside second. What good is an awesome closer if a less-talented pitcher gives up a lead before the closer can get into the game*?
* – For example, on June 4th of this year the Reds were leading the Rockies 4-3 going into the eighth inning. The Rockies had the top of their order due up. Before five batters had stepped to the plate the score was 5-4 Rockies and that was that. The two perennially good hitters on Colorado’s roster batted that inning – for almost certainly the last time in the game – and they faced someone who was not the Reds’ best reliever. In fact, Chapman didn’t ever come into the game at all.
The save rule is not completely to blame – it’s just a statistic after all. Unfortunately statistics can be misunderstood. Never forget that all a save really measures is how many times a relief pitcher finished the ninth inning after entering the game with a lead of up to three runs (or pitched the last three innings after entering with a lead of any size which – being rare – don’t really belong in this discussion.) That’s it, though. There’s no separate measurement used that shows how often a reliever came in to face the other team’s best hitter with the bases loaded in the eighth and got him out, but then was pulled for a pinch hitter in the bottom of that inning, letting a lesser pitcher get out three less-talented hitters in the ninth. Unfortunately a lot of fans, managers, and front-office personnel seem to think that a team needs an awesome closer with the right mental make-up to finish games because the ninth inning is different from any other inning. Otherwise they wouldn’t have a stat for who finished it, right?
Personally, I think it’s crap. Look at this year’s closers for every major league team and unless you’re a serious baseball fan, most of those guys you’ve never heard of. A lot of the ones you have heard of are guys you never heard of until they saved 40 games in a season and got a big contract, only to have less success later. They’re not bad pitchers by any means, but we’d wager that the majority of them started out as regular middle relievers and didn’t fail when put into the ninth-inning-closer role. If you’re a relief pitcher in the major leagues, chances are you can get opposing batters out – at worst – seven out of ten times. Even an average pitcher with a 4.50 ERA only gives up one run every two innings. Why not use him in the ninth and save your best reliever for the situations you need him the most?
At the end of the day these arguments don’t make a huge difference. Bullpen management does not make or break a season. But it’s worth asking if an offensively-challenged small-market team should really be paying upwards of $5 million a year to a guy who only pitches one inning every other day.