Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Good Saves?

Note: With the baseball season entering its final month before the playoffs, I thought I'd start off my September posts with a light baseball essay, to ease myself back into longer posts, since its been over a week since my last one.

As of Tuesday night, Francisco Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Angels has 54 saves, three shy of the single-season record set in 1990 by Bobby Thigpen of the Chicago White Sox. Normally, when a baseball record is close to being broken, sports readers and viewers are subject to quite a bit of media analysis, with the player/team in question being either applauded or scrutinized, especially if the baseball record has stood since at least the 1970s. If Rodriguez gets 58 saves (which is all but guaranteed, barring injury), it will be the biggest broken record since Barry Bonds hit his 756th career home run last season. As everyone knows, Bonds' scrutiny came from a suspicion of steroid use. Rodriguez is also being scoffed at a little, but through no fault of his own. He's merely pitching in the wrong era of baseball.

Baseball has, for a long time, been plagued by the rise of "purists:" fans and commentators who resist changes to the game, whether those changes are the lengthening of the season (Major League baseball expanded the 154 game season to 162 in 1961), Astroturf, night games, and the designated hitter rule, among other things. Baseball is usually referred to as a conservative game, and purists harm it by trying to make it even more conservative. The change to the game that affects Rodriguez is the fact that modern closers (pitchers responsible for getting saves) usually only pitch one inning per game, whereas in the past they were responsible for two or three innings, thus making their job even harder. Granted, most baseball players will agree that the final three outs of a game are the hardest, but that doesn't stop critics from complaining that Rodriguez is having an easier path to the single-season save record. As of late, I've been torn, debating whether or not I agree with that assertion, or whether it's just a fact, a testament that baseball has changed since 1969 (when the save became an official statistic).

I did some very basic math, trying to figure out the average number of innings pitched per game for Rodriguez, compared to older relief pitchers. The game numbers and innings pitched totals are courtesy of Baseball Reference, a needlessly addictive baseball website. Keep in mind that these numbers are not totally precise, since I rounded off the innings totals, and the numbers included some games started. However, these players were primarily relief pitchers and closers:

Francisco Rodriguez (2004-present): 397 Games/443 Innings Pitched/Avg: 1.1 IP/game
Bobby Thigpen (1986-1994): 448 Games/568 Innings Pitched/Avg: 1.26 IP/game
Lee Smith (1980-1997): 1022 Games/1289 Innings Pitched/Avg: 1.26 IP/game
Bruce Sutter (1976-1988): 661 Games/1042 Innings Pitched/Avg: 1.57 IP/game
Rich Gossage (1972-1994): 1002 Games/1809 Innings Pitched/Avg: 1.80 IP/game

Compared to some of the older pitchers, Rodriguez isn't pitching nearly as much on average, but is that his fault? It's a fact that baseball teams worry constantly about over-working and possibly injuring a highly paid pitcher, but part of me would like to see a return of an older style of baseball where pitchers worked more in games instead of being immediately pulled out due to trouble or high pitch counts. After this season, Rodriguez's record might stand for awhile, but I don't think that it will be as respected as other baseball marks. Sadly, the save isn't considered as sexy as a home run or a strikeout.

Yes, I've been defending him a lot so far, but in his mind, the single season save record will be an achievement: for his bank account. I lost a lot of respect for him when he started discussing his off-season free agency in July, with so much of the season left to play, with his team in the best chance to clinch a playoff spot. Of course athletes are going to go for the biggest contract, but most of them at least wait until the end of the season to talk about it.

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