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The Case Against The Save

Mark Melancon was a good reliever, but his saves were overstated. Photo courtesy of Arturo Pardavila III.

Mark Melancon was a good reliever, but his saves were overstated. Photo courtesy of Arturo Pardavila III

Monday’s loss in Chicago was probably the biggest punch in the gut this entire season for the Bucs. After clobbering Jake Arrieta, Neftali Feliz and Tony Watson (who had both been used extensively in the past week) gave up home runs and the Bucs lost in 13.

Even though it was Watson’s fifth appearance in six days, people started to question if the southpaw is closer material. Worse yet, plenty are convinced the Mark Melancon for Felipe Rivero trade at the deadline cost them a game that could be crippling now that the playoff chase is nearing the homestretch. That there is no way the Pirates can makeup for losing their ex-closer’s 30 saves.

That argument is not true. The Pirates aren’t missing Melancon’s saves because saves and closers are overrated.

There was once a time in baseball history that if you started a game, you were expected to finish it. It’s why guys like Old Hoss Radbourn used to throw 678.2 innings a year (he actually did in 1884. He did it over 75 appearances, meaning he averaged just shy of 9.05 innings per outing. Let that sink in.) But as baseball moved from the dead ball era to the roaring 20’s, it became apparent that teams would need a bullpen.

Starter workloads have continued to dip from there, adding more men to the rotation and more guys in the bullpen to relieve them. In the same way that wins became a quick, convenient way to see how a pitcher is doing, relievers were given the save stat. Eventually each team settled on one bullpen arm to be the guy they go to in the ninth and get those saves.

In the past few years, the baseball public has shifted a bit on wins. Most people agree that the pitcher with the most wins in a rotation does not necessarily mean he is the ace. You look at other stats like ERA, FIP or WAR to make that conclusion.

So why do people think that the pitcher with the most saves is their best reliever?

In the same way a starter can get a garbage win (he goes five, gives up five but his team scores 10), there are garbage saves. Melancon had 30 saves this year as a Pirate. He only had to face one batter in five of those games. Only 10 of his saves came in one run games. Twelve came when he was given at least a three run cushion.

So why is there so much celebration for the closer when he comes in with at least a three run lead 40 percent of the time he is successful? Any reliever who cannot consistently hold a three run lead has no business being in the majors. Heck, even Corey Luebke only allowed three runs once in his nine outings with the Bucs.

Managers are accommodating players to pad their save stats. Somehow throwing in an average pitcher to throw the ninth and allowing the tying run to get on deck takes away from the magic of the stat. It leads to an oversaturation.

When saves were first recognized as a stat in 1969, Fred Gladding lead the National League by closing out 29 out 35 opportunities. Ten players already have 30 saves and seven more are on pace to reach that figure (meaning they have 25 now). Nine players already have had at least 35 save opportunities. Are we just to expect that there are more games being decided by three runs or less, or are managers trying to validate how good their one reliever is?

“Well Alex,” you may be thinking to yourself, “is there anyone out there who doesn’t subscribe to the norm? The type of manager who doesn’t have his best reliever as his closer? Someone who isn’t just a slave to the save?”

Yes. Terry Francona.

When the Indians acquired Andrew Miller at the trade deadline, it gave them one of the few true bullpen aces in the game. Miller has pitched in 12 games for Cleveland and has gone more than an inning in five of them. They haven’t always been late in the game, too.

For example, on August 4th, Minnesota was playing Cleveland and had pulled back to within two after falling behind early. The lineup was just about to roll over to the top and Francona needed to go to the bullpen. While the sixth inning is considered middle relief, Francona wanted to make sure his lead was safe and went to Miller. Miller recorded a perfect inning and a third, striking out three. Cleveland went on to win the game.

Francona could have held onto Miller for a potential save opportunity, but he wanted to make sure the win was secured first. If you are so lucky to have a guy with a 1.35 ERA who averages over 15 strikeouts per nine innings, why use him to pad a stat rather than when the game is on the line?

So let’s tie this all back to Melancon.

Believe it or not, all outs are created equal. Each team gets 27 of them.

Watson talked about that after recording his first home save on August 6th, saying that there’s “not much of a difference” between being a setup man and a closer and he’s just “trying to get my three outs.”

There is no difference between an out in the third or an out in the ninth. The added leverage in the ninth is just because it’s the other team’s last chance. If a run counts just as much whether it’s the second, fifth or ninth, why doesn’t the same apply to an out?

So if an out is and out is an out, has the Melancon trade hurt the Pirates in 2016? Nope.

Watson may have blown two saves so far, but both of those were in one run games. Only two of his ten saves have come when he inherited a lead of three or more runs. He’s been put in high leverage save opportunities more than Melancon so far.

Rivero has been everything as advertised and then some so far. In fact, he’s pitching just about as well as Melancon is in Washington, even with his alarming 6.60 BB/9 figure.

saves

And that blown lead in Chicago would have been a blown lead anyway. It would have just happened in the seventh and eighth rather than the eighth and ninth.

Melancon was a fine reliever for the Pirates for many years, but he was not as valuable as his save total would lead you to believe. It’s time we look at betters ways of evaluating relievers.

About Alex Stumpf (41 Articles)
Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.
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2 Comments on The Case Against The Save

  1. By your own argument, if we ignore the save metric and look only at ERA (2.64 > 1.57), FIP (4.00 > 2.42), WAR (1.3 < 2.2), etc, Melancon is unarguably better than Watson.

    While I may agree with you that counting stats like saves maybe over-rated, you can't call for fans to ignore such stats in favor of others because it is convenient to a point you choose to make if ALL of the stats support the point you are arguing against.

    Furthermore, you are ignoring the fact that while all outs, and therefor, by extension, all wins are equally important on paper, psychologically, battling to a lead against one of the toughest opponents at the beginning of the playoff push only to see that lead blown and that win evaporate can be soul crushing to a ball club and to the individual players. A fact further evidenced by the ongoing 7 game losing streak brought on, at least in part, by that blown save.

    • While I agree that Melancon is doing better than Watson this year, that’s only part of the argument. For example, I believe that the six outs that Rivero gave Tuesday were more valuable than the three Melancon would have given in that scenario. Watson probably would have blown the lead in the 8th too if he was back in his old role, meaning it never would have got to Melancon.

      I stand by saying that managers are trying to pad their closer’s save stat and it’s making the figure less valuable. In my opinion, your argument of pointing out FIP and WAR are better indicators of how a back end reliever is doing than comparing his save total to the league leaders.

      I do believe a win is a win and 3 outs are 3 outs. After all, people are complaining about the Pirates’ struggled against the Brewers just as much as against the Cubs. Obviously there is a psychological angle for some wins and some save situations, making some games and situations more important than others. I’m not even making the “anyone can close” argument. What I’m saying is that Rivero has been just about as effective as Melancon and fans shouldn’t give up on Watson because he’s struggling to adjust to a new role midseason.

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