Saturday, October 16, 2010
Save the Rangers...
Last night's Yankees-Rangers game epitomizes why I hate the "save". First of all, the save is inherently meaningless in today's game. In most cases, a closer comes into a game at the beginning of the ninth inning with no one out and no one on, up by 1-3 runs. In cases where a team is up by three runs entering the ninth, a team has a 97% chance of winning the game, regardless of who is pitching. When up by 2 runs, a team has a 94% chance of winning. Up by one run? 90%. So if a team has at least a 90% chance of winning a game when their closer enters the ninth in a save situation, why are teams saving their closers for relatively low leverage situations? The answer is simple. Since the late 1980s, the save has become the standard bearer of performance among closers. Agents use a relief pitcher's ability to rack up saves as a selling point to teams bidding on his services. Managers use saves as a measure for selecting relief pitchers to All Star teams. The save has become nothing more than a status symbol--a way to separate the strong from the weak.
Saves are incredibly misleading in another way. It's a counting stat. A pitcher's ability to accumulate saves relies on his team's ability to provide him with opportunities. If a team plays in an unusually high number of tight games, their closer will have an inordinate number of save chances. Take Francisco Rodriguez for example. In 2008, K-Rod broke the single season save record of 57 by saving a seemingly unfathomable 62 games. At first glance, this seems like quite an achievement. When you look a little closer, you notice that he saved 62 games in 70 chances! Not only had no closer ever saved 62 games, but no closer had anywhere close to 70 save chances! So how did this happen? As a team, the Angels played in an unusually high number of close games, and their bullpen accumulated 66 total saves (with the other four going to Scott Shields). K-Rod got lucky. Contrary to popular belief, K-Rod did not have a career year in 2008. He actually posted his some of his worst peripherals since 2004. Luckily for K-Rod, he was able to leverage the general overvaluing of saves to his advantage. After the 2008 season, he was able to extort a 4 year $48M contract out of the hapless Mets.
Back to last night's game. Ron Washington single handedly screwed his team last night. Going into the eighth inning, up 5-1 the Rangers sent CJ Wilson back out to the mound. He'd pitched seven innings of shutout ball having only given up four hits. It was absolutely the right move. Soon after, the game got out of hand. Wilson gave up a single to Gardner (who made a big time heads up play by sliding into first to beat Wilson to the bag), and a double to Derek Jeter. Washington removed Wilson to the game, and bring out LOOGY Darren Oliver to pitch to Swisher and Teixeria. This makes sense as well. Bring in the LOOGY to pitch to lefty Swisher, and turn Tex over his weaker side. So far, solid managing. Well, Swisher walked to load the bases, and then Tex walked in the second run. The score is now 5-2 with the bases loaded and A-Rod coming the plate. Seems like an obvious time to bring in Neftali Feliz one of the best relief pitchers in the game, right? Well, if you are a sane person, yes. If you're Ron Washington, not so much. Instead, he brings in Darren O'Day! When that doesn't work, he brings in Clay Rapada! When that doesn't work, Derek Holland comes in with the Rangers still up 5-4. Holland faces four batters, and when the inning finally ends, the score is Yankees 6, Rangers 5. All of this happens without Feliz even getting up to warm up. Why? Because it wasn't the ninth inning! Ron Washington left his best pitcher to rot in the bullpen because it wasn't a save situation. He managed his entire game to a statistic, and as a result he gave the Yankees a crucial 1-0 lead in the American League Championship Series. This is absolutely one of the worst management decisions I've ever seen, but it's not like it isn't commonplace. Managers through out the major and minor leagues do this all of the time. They save their best relief pitchers for low leverage situations, while they expect middling middle relievers to take care of the really tough situations. Someday, some smart GM and field manager will figure out how inefficient bullpens are run, and actually have the balls to do something about it. Until then, teams will continue to lose games they don't need to because their manager is too afraid to put their best relief pitchers in the highest leverage situations.