I’m going to start this with a simple fact that might make it sound like I’m picking at the great record of Mariano Rivera. I promise you: I am not. I think my admiration and respect for the Great Rivera is fairly well established. Heck, I wrote this thing.
But there’s something else here. And so I’m going to give you a bit of trivia. Mariano Rivera just got his 600th save. It’s a big an impressive-looking number. SIX HUNDRED. So now, ask yourself this: How many of those 600 regular season saves were at least two-inning saves?
Before I give you the answer — do you have your guess yet? — I should tell you that while Rivera will any day now break Trevor Hoffman’s record for overall saves, he is not quite the record-holder for two-inning saves. That would be Rollie Fingers with 135.
The Top 5 looks like so:
1. Rollie Fingers, 135
2. Bruce Sutter, 130
3. Goose Gossage, 125
4. Dan Quisenberry, 120
5. Hoyt Wilhelm, 114
No, Rivera’s not quite in there … will get to him in a minute. There’s something I’d like you to notice about this list. Wilhelm, in addition to being fifth on the two-inning list has the record for most three-inning saves with 53. Following these seemingly insignificant records offers a nice little timeline for how the closer role has changed the last 50 years. Wilhelm predates the other four; he pitched mostly when there was no official save rule. So managers used him and all other relievers however and whenever they wanted. Three innings? Four innings? That was decided at the manager’s whim. The save statistic obviously had no bearing on how managers worked because it didn’t exist or wasn’t anything anybody cared about.
Fingers, Sutter, Gossage and Quisenberry were transition closers. When they became relief specialists, the save was an official statistic and it was steadily gaining popularity and deference. And their roles changed as their careers went on, especially Fingers. As Bill James points out, there have been two pretty dramatic changes in the way relievers are used: Both of them, I think are directly tied to the save rule.
First: “The practice of limiting the closer ONLY to pitching in save situations, which occurred very suddenly in 1978-1980.”
I would say this one began in with Fingers. Throughout the early 1970s, Fingers was widely viewed as a hugely important part of the Oakland A’s teams that won three straight World Series. He would pitch 125 innings a year, finish off 50 games a year, and he had that great mustache. What he did not have were big save totals. He averaged about 20 a year in Oakland. That was fine. His value, his managers determined, was in the number of innings he pitched and the number of games he could affect. Saves were very much a by-product of strategy and not the other way around.
Then, in 1977, Fingers signed with San Diego — to much fanfare. Free agency was still new and scary and uncertain. And the Padres decided it was in their best interest to use Fingers more often in save situations, or more to the point when the Padres were ALREADY WINNING. In 1978, two things happened. Fingers led the league with a healthy-looking 37 saves — a career high and almost twice as many as he would typically get in Oakland. And the Padres also took a quantum leap forward, from a 90-loss team to their first-ever winning record. People pay attention when there’s a sudden turnaround.
The idea of every team using a good pitcher to secure victory in the late innings started to take off, and it moved fast. In 1980, 14 pitchers had 20-plus saves — a record. In 1981, the strike year, Fingers became the first reliever in 30 years and the first ever in the American League to win an MVP award. In 1982, five different closers had 30-plus saves — a record. In 1983, Dan Quisenberry set the saves record with 45 saves. The next year, Bruce Sutter matched that record and seven different pitchers had 30-plus saves, including Willie Hernandez who won the MVP award. The save was hot.
But, even so, managers still felt empowered to use their best relievers in a variety of roles. Dan Quisenberry had 27 two-inning saves in 1984 and 26 in 1983, those are the top two marks in baseball history and probably will be forever. You can see above that Sutter … Gossage … Fingers were all counted on for long saves. We’ll keep peppering this things with charts: Here are the Top 10 seasons with the most saves where the pitcher got at least four outs:
1. Dan Quisenberry, 1983, 35 saves
2. Bruce Sutter, 1984, 32 saves
3. Quisenberry, 1984, 29 saves
4. Rollie Fingers, 1978, 28 saves
5. Dave Righetti, 1986, 26 saves
(tie) Quisenberry, 1982, 26 saves
7. Bruce Sutter, 1982, 25 saves
(tie) Lee Smith, 1985, 25 saves
9. Jeff Reardon, 1985, 24 saves
(tie) Sparky Lyle, 1972, 24 saves
(tie) Bill Campell, 1977, 24 saves
Well, you can see, that except for Lyle all of them happened between 1977 and 1985, or just after Fingers signed with San Diego. The transition of “fireman” — that wonderful 1970s term for reliever — and “closer” was beginning. But those first closers were still versatile pitchers who could be used in a variety of different ways.
But not for long. Here’s Bill James’ other dramatic change:
Second: “The practice of limiting the closer to the ninth inning, which occurred more gradually between 1985 and 1995.”
Yes, this was the Phase 2. I’ve heard people say say that Bruce Sutter was the first closer regularly used as a one-inning guy, but the records don’t really bear that. Sutter never had more than a dozen one-inning closes in his career. Until 1985, the record for one-inning saves was 16, and it was held by Fred Gladding in 1969 and Wayne Granger in 1970. If there was any early pioneer for the one-inning closer, I would say it was manager Sparky Anderson, Granger’s manager in 1970. In 1972, Captain Hook — which is what they called Sparky — used Clay Caroll in that role, and Carroll had 15 one-inning saves. Sparky later put Rawly Eastwick and Will McEnaney in some one-inning save chances.
But the trend wasn’t really catching on. There were always one-inning saves, of course, but they were circumstance more than anything else. Here’s a great statistic for you: From 1969 (the year the save became an official statistic) through 1985, one-inning saves made up only 21% of all saves. That’s barely one in five.
In 1986, Houston manager Hal Lanier used his bullpen in a kind of quirky way. He had 31-year-old Dave Smith — who to that point had been a pretty good but mostly unknown reliever — come in pretty often to start the ninth inning of games the Astros were winning. People noticed. Smith made the All-Star team. He had 24 saves that year, and 17 of them were the one-inning variety. That was the most ever. The Astros were also a good team in 1986, winning 96 games, playing that classic series against the Mets. I think Dave Smith, not Sutter, was the first modern day closer. It was beginning.
In 1987, the one-inning save took a quantum leap forward because of a name you probably did not expect to see in this post: Peter Edward Rose. Yep, under then Reds manager Pete Rose, lefty closer John Franco had 24 one-inning saves, by far the most up to that point. Now the save was beginning to announce its presence with authority. In 1988, for the first time, the one-inning save made up more than than 30% of all saves. One-inning wonders included Franco, Smith, Jeff Reardon and a former starting pitcher many had assumed was washed up: Dennis Eckersley. Oh yeah, I’d say Eck played a huge role in all of this too.
In 1990, Bobby Thigpen had a Wayne Gretzky kind of year for one-inning saves. The record had been Franco’s 24. Well, Thigpen had FORTY ONE one-inning saves and a mind-boggling FIFTY SEVEN total saves. It was nuts. Every manager wanted a Thigpen of their own. And soon, every manager had one. In 1991, the one-inning save jumped over 40%. In 1992, more than half the saves were one-inning saves. In 1999, it was more than 70%.
This year? Well, this year the one-inning save is clocking in at a staggering 85.3%, the highest total ever. There’s a good chance that this year, for the first time, there will be more than 1,000 one-inning saves.
Which takes us back to Rivera. Remember the original question: How many two-inning saves has Mariano Rivera had in his regular-season career?
Yep. Eleven. This is not a black mark on Rivera’s career any more than it is a black mark on Ted Williams’ career that he didn’t watch more video or pitchers. This is the story of an era. Truth is, Rivera has been the most sturdy of closers in the Age Of One Inning Closers. He has 116 saves of more than one inning — nobody since 1994 has even half that many.
Most saves of more than one inning (since 1994):
1. Mariano Rivera, 116
2. Keith Foulke, 55
3. Trevor Hoffman, 52
4. Danny Graves, 49
5. Jason Isringhausen, 42
Still, questions persist: Why are closers so limited? Why do they almost exclusively pitch one inning? Is it because, after much study and observation, everyone in the game realized that one-inning closers are more effective at holding leads than multiple-inning guys? Maybe, but I doubt it. The numbers I’ve seen strongly suggest that teams are blowing late-inning leads at exactly the same rate they did in the the 1980s and the 1970s and the 1950s and so on. Is it because hitters are so much better and the only way to counter that improvement is with a one-inning closer? I suppose that’s possible.
Is it because the reduction of innings makes closers better pitchers over seasons and careers? That would be an interesting research project, but I don’t see any evidence at all that suggests closers are better or more durable now than they were in, say, the the 1970s and 1980s. Is it because managers and analysts think that one-inning closers have more impact on a team than the old Swiss Army Knife fireman? Again, it’s possible, but I doubt it. Between 1974 and 1994, eight relievers won Cy Youngs, and three won MVP awards. I think this was probably misguided voting but it is still true that since the strike only one closer has won a Cy Young (Eric Gagne in 2002, an award Mark Prior probably should have won) and none, not even Mariano, have won an MVP (Rivera has never even received a first place MVP vote). The feeling, at least among the voters (who generally do reflect pretty well the feeling inside the game) is that closers are not as important as they used to be.
So why? Well, I think the biggest reason is simply this: The save rule. It’s kind of crazy, if you think about it, but I think it’s real. I would argue that Jerome Holtzman — who invented the save rule mainly because he was put off by Roy Face’s misleading 18-1 record in 1959 — has had as dramatic an effect on the way closers are being used as any manager or any pitcher.
Look at the save rule: A pitcher can get a save if he finishes a victory, isn’t the winning pitcher, and fulfills one of three requirements:
1. He enters the game with a lead of no more than there runs and pitches at least one inning.
2. He enters the game with the potential tying run on base, at the plate or on deck.
3. He pitches for at least three innings.
Focus on that first requirement because the other two can’t really be predicted. A manager can’t know that he will use a reliever for three innings — heck, managers can’t be sure their STARTERS will go three innings. And he can’t really know when his team will have a middle-of-the-inning save situation with the potential tying run is on deck. The only sure way he can try to get his pitcher a save is to start him in the ninth inning with a lead of three runs or less. And that has become the staple — the one-inning save.
The rules might explain the usage, but why did the save become important to anybody? Well, I’m obviously still just spewing my opinion, but I think the save just made everybody feel better about things. Closers obviously loved the save (more money and credit). Managers, I think, loved the save because it was something tangible in a game that can be so maddeningly obtuse (“Look how many saves my closer is getting. I MUST be doing a good job”). Baseball fans have a long history of loving numbers that suggest winning performance (Wins! RBIs! Saves!) and the very nickname — CLOSER — evoked guts and gunslingers and TNT shows.
I think all of it created a complicated whirlwind of pressures that nobody had expected. Closers got paid a lot more money than other relievers, so every reliever wanted to be one, every agent wanted to represent one. So that meant more pressure to GET SAVES. Managers, meanwhile, wanted and needed contented and confident closers — nothing crushes the soul of a manager faster than blown leads in the ninth inning — so they started their best and highest-paid relievers almost exclusively in save situations. Fans wanted a closer that had a lot of saves, and media types like me started demanding that the GM go out and get an effective closer — YOU CANNOT WIN WITHOUT A CLOSER, we shouted.
And soon, there was no breaking away from this circle. Efforts to try something new with bullpens blew up with the first lost lead. “Closer by committee” became a dirty phrase. It became conventional wisdom that relief pitchers needed “roles” to be at their best, like relievers were artists or divas too fragile to begin games unsure of the place in the world.
And so on. I think the closer momentum just kept growing and growing until the closer, like Fannie Mae, became too big to fail. I’m sure that if you told anyone in the 1960s that one day pitchers would make $10 million a year for throwing 70 innings a year while pitching almost exclusively the ninth innings of games that team was leading, well, they probably would have been less surprised if you described an iPad.
Another question: What would have happened had the save rule been just a little bit different. What if the rule had demanded that closers pitch MORE THAN ONE INNING to get a save and that the tying run had to be AT THE PLATE for it to be a save situation … forget about that on-deck stuff. That’s it. Two simple changes, both about as logical as the actual rule itself. The minimum requirement for a save would be to enter the eighth inning with nobody on base and a two-run lead.
What if? How much would baseball history have been altered? Bill James suggests that if the save rule was different, managers probably would have never made the shift to the one-inning closer, that they probably would still be using relievers the way mangers did in the 1970s and 1980s, with closers pitching in 70 games and throwing 120 or 130 innings a year. I agree. If you look at the most one-inning saves in a season — another chart — you will see they’ve all happened in the last few years:
1. Francisco Rodriguez, 54, 2008
2. Mariano Rivera, 47, 2004
3. John Smoltz, 46, 2002
4. Jose Valverde, 45, 2007
(tie) Trevor Hoffman, 45, 2006
(tie) Eric Gagne, 45, 2003
7. Bob Wickman, 44, 2005
(tie) Eddie Guardado, 44, 2002
(tie) Eric Gagne, 44, 2002
10. Four players tied at 43.
John Axford (42 one-inning saves) and Craig Kimbrel (41) both have a shot of breaking into the Top 10 this year.
I have little doubt that even if relievers were regularly used for two or three innings, Mariano Rivera still would have been far and away the best reliever of the time. I can say this with extreme confidence because — and I know you Rivera fans have been shouting this since the beginning of the article — Rivera HAS been used like a multiple-inning closer. When? In the playoffs, of course. Rivera has made 94 playoff appearances, and 58 of them have been more than one inning. Thirty three of them have been TWO innings or more. An astonishing 31 of his 42 postseason saves were more than one inning.
I think this this is telling. Joe Torre changed the way he managed in the postseason — “And Joe’s not waiting, he’s going to Rivera RIGHT NOW!” He managed to win every game, and he wasn’t about to let the save rule or any other conventional wisdom prevent him from using the greatest closer of all time when he most desperately needed him. During the season, sure, Torre managed more or less like everyone else, and Rivera was used pretty much the way every other closer was used. But in the postseason, it was the 1970s again for Torre and Rivera. Torre will go to the Hall of Fame as a manager. And Rivera is the best postseason reliever in baseball history.
So, I feel sure Rivera would have been the best even if he had a different role, even if he was a pitcher who got 30 saves a year and pitched 120 innings. But what about other guys? What about Trevor Hoffman, a converted infielder who was drafted, traded and dumped before he caught on as a one-inning maestro in San Diego? Would managers have figured out: “Hey, Hoffman’s really amazing at holding leads if you just start him off in the ninth inning?” Jose Mesa was a busted out starter when the Indians made him their one-inning closer in 1995. Without the save to guide everyone, would that role have even occurred to the Indians? Mesa in 1995, I should say, is one of only two closers since the strike to receive an MVP vote. The other was K-Rod in 2008, who after being an exceedingly valuable reliever in 2004 was made into a one-inning when-the-team-is-winning specialist and, as you can see above, in 2008 he set the record for one-inning saves. He then got a $37 million deal. Would his life have looked ANYTHING like that without the save stat?
I don’t think so. I really do think baseball has been dramatically altered by a statistic invented by a perturbed sportswriter. Let’s end this thing with one more thought about Rivera. He is the best relief pitcher who ever lived. But he’s also a failed starter. Baseball is such a fickle game. When I think of Rivera setting the save record, I think about how PERFECTLY he fits his era, his space, his team, his role. There are so few people who are ideal for their moment of time. John Wayne was, I think. Johnny Carson. Elvis. Lucille Ball. John Unitas. Michael Jackson. Seinfeld. Oprah. Michael Jordan. If they had come around in another era, in different circumstances, there’s no telling how they might have expressed their talents, but it seems likely that they would not have inspired a generation.
If Rivera had come up in another time, he would have been great. But he might not have anything approaching 600 saves. If he had been with another team, he would have been great. But we might not have known just how good he was in the playoffs. And if he had been used 120 or 130 innings a year, he would have been great. But maybe he would not be as brilliant as ever at age 41. All of that is impossible to know, of course. What we do know is how good Mariano Rivera has been. When he breaks the record, raise a glass to him … and also to Jerome Holtzman who invented a flawed statistic that has changed the game and also made Mariano Rivera larger than life.