Saturday, September 24, 2011

Saturday Sports Rant: Saves

This week, Mariano Rivera broke the Major League Baseball record for saves in a career. Now, you might wonder just what in the world a save is in baseball. Thinking about this record, I wonder about it as well.

Now, this isn't just about my distaste for the New York Yankees. While my loathing of the Bronx Bombers would be legendary if more people knew about it and it lasted longer, this is about a stat that hovers around 50% meaningless in baseball reality.

Let's look at the definition of a "save" (MLB rules on the web, section 10.19): a pitcher that did not start but finishes a game, pitches at least 1/3 of an inning (gets 1 out), and enters under one of these conditions:

  1. A lead of 3 or fewer runs
  2. The tying run is on base, at bat, or on deck
  3. He pitches at least 3 innings.

So, a pitcher can come into a game after another pitcher has pitched the first eight innings, the offense has provided him a 3-run lead, and as long as he doesn't screw it up and throw a few home run balls, he gets a save.

Really. It's a stat that is awarded as often for just not blowing what your team is on the verge of accomplishing as it is for anything else. Yet now most baseball teams have a specialist in getting saves: he's called a closer.

Here's what happens: the team selects one of their relief pitchers to be the closer. He then almost exclusively pitches in situations that will result in him adding a save to his statistics. If the team is losing, he doesn't pitch. If the team is winning by too much, he doesn't pitch.

Now, I understand the need for someone who can come in calm-headed and straighten out a tense situation. That's valid. However, when you look at baseball history, there's barely a mention of "closer" until the late 70s, and not much until the late 80s. Then, the talk picks up in the 90s through now. Once upon a time in baseball land, pitchers pitched the whole game (they batted too, you American League wimps!) unless something happened to make them leave.

These days, a pitcher goes 6 or 7 innings and then he's done. Give it to the closer. Or to the poor guy that goes in when things are considered beyond fixing.

Where did all this insanity come from? Some, like baseball historians, will link it to Goose Gossage and others. I am not a baseball historian. I blame it on Charlie Sheen.

Why, you ask?

Ever see Major League? The movie, with Sheen, Berenger, and a host of other people….Corbin Bernsen, I think was in it as well. It's a movie that predates Florida baseball teams. The owner of the Cleveland Indians was trying to make the team so bad that no one came, so she could move it to Florida.

Anyway, Sheen plays a good-looking, edgy, pitcher. He's got the looks, the bad-boy attitude, and no baseball stamina. A few innings a night is all he's got. So he becomes the closer. It glamorized the role, and now every team's got to have a closer. That whole "come on the field to rock music" that happens with a lot of closers? Started with Sheen in the movie. Not with baseball necessity.

So, what do I think about this?

Time to dial back the madness. Only award saves that are truly earned: pitcher comes in with the winning run at the plate or on base and it doesn't score. Add that more than 50% of the outs must be by strikeout.  Why?

Not because I dislike Charlie Sheen. Hot Shots remains one of the greatest lousy movies on the face of the earth. Navy Seals was ridiculous enough to keep the world confused about whether SEALS were even real for a few more years. He's been great at being the pretty-boy pain in the neck for years.

What I dislike is how baseball has allowed a low-grade movie to change the face of the game. The stats are padded, the reality of the games as a team effort is downplayed. You read the closing line of a game and you see: winning pitcher, home runs, and save. What about the teamwork that made it happen?

What about the 2B/SS combo that turned 4 double-plays to make it possible? The bunts, the sacrifice fly balls? It's not about the guy on the mound, it's about the nine on the field.

That's my sports rant for the day. Congrats to Rivera for setting a record for a stat that hasn't mattered for the majority of the history of the game. Now, you want to talk about his postseason ERA? That's impressive….

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