The role of the save artist has morphed over time. In the past, it was not uncommon for a reliever to work multiple innings in an appearance in order to earn a save. However, it’s been said that the save statistic appears to have had a strong influence on the shift from a multi-inning fireman to a highly specialized designated game ender. Sabermetrics advocates for moving the pendulum away from a single 9th inning closer who is responsible for the save opportunity and instead advocates for using the team’s best arm (for argument’s sake, the best arm = current closer) in the highest leverage situations (for example, Francona’s use of Andrew Miller, especially in the 2016 post season). Whether this will lead to a significant shift in usage has yet to be determined.
I decided to review relief pitcher usage over the decades to get a better sense of the way managers have deployed their relief specialists over the past half century plus. Jerome Holtzman developed the criteria for awarding a save in the early 1960s and tracked it for The Sporting News until the save became an official MLB statistic starting in 1969. Thus, I looked at 1960 (save data retroactively applied as per baseball-reference) for a ‘pre-save’ baseline for pitcher usage where the power of the save statistic had no influence upon managerial decision making. I was concerned about relying too heavily on 1960 data however because pitching trends have a tendency to change over the span of a decade so looking at 1960 and then comparing the data to 1969 might lose some of the descriptive power. Conversely, I was also concerned about using a season close to 1969 because the save was likely entering public consciousness by this time (although not yet formally used by MLB). Thus, I have included 1960, 1968, and 1969 data to give a more balanced examination of early data.
Save of 1 inning or less = 191
Save of 2 or more innings = 180
1968: (the year prior to the save becoming an official MLB statistic)
Save of 1 inning or less = 291
Save of 2 or more innings = 223
1969: (the first season that the save statistic was tracked by MLB)
Save of 1 inning or less = 335
Save of 2 or more innings = 287
I then looked at save data for each decade.
I started with 1970 to see if keeping track of the save statistic had a noticeable impact in year two of MLB keeping save data.
Save of 1 inning or less = 398
Save of 2 or more innings = 335
Data for 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010 indicated the following save totals:
Save of 1 inning or less = 356
Save of 2 or more innings = 404
Save of 1 inning or less = 594
Save of 2 or more innings = 320
Save of 1 inning or less = 899
Save of 2 or more innings = 128
Save of 1 inning or less = 1087
Save of 2 or more innings = 18
I then looked at the most recently completed season of MLB (2016). The most recent save totals were:
Save of 1 inning or less = 1,165
Save of 2 or more innings = 29
Based on this cursory analysis, it appears as though the addition of the save statistic had an influence on the way relief pitchers were utilized. The effect in the 1960s and 1970s appears to be less influenced by the save statistic and perhaps is more accurately a reflection of managers using starting pitchers for less innings per start and their relief corps more frequently. 1980 is a strange year. It is the only year where there were a greater number of two or more inning saves than saves of one inning or less. I did a little more investigating and looked at 1981. 1981 is difficult to assess as the season was shortened due to a player strike (5o days and 713 games missed). However, again, the two inning save was more plentiful than the one inning save (280 vs. 233). What to make of the early 80s? Anyone have a theory?
By 1990, the one inning save begins to gain momentum as the one inning/9th inning closer becomes defined more regularly employed. This is the first time the one inning or less save almost doubles the two or more inning save (594 vs. 320). The one inning or less save becomes the norm for teams by 2000 (899 saves of one inning or less) and this trend rapidly increases. By 2010, there are 1,087 saves of one inning or less and only 18 saves of two or more innings. This pattern continued to hold in 2016 as well (1,165 vs. 29).
The last 16 years of data point to the manager’s extreme reliance on the one inning closer model. It will be interesting to see if teams begin to shift usage away from what has become the norm and utilize the best bullpen arms in the highest leverage situations regardless of save opportunity. I would love to hear what people think regarding bullpen and ‘closer’ usage in 2017 and beyond. Please feel free to leave a comment.
You can follow me on Twitter: @doctordaver