The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 15, 2013

Thoma column: Overthrowing the tyranny of the save


The Mankato Free Press

---- — The Twins lost in 13 innings on Thursday. Their best relief pitcher, Glen Perkins, never got into the game.

The Twins won Saturday. In the eighth inning, protecting a 4-1 lead against a stretch of hitters who were (a) predominantly left-handed and (b) the most dangerous in the Yankee lineup, Ron Gardenhire used a right-handed reliever (Casey Fien). Perkins, a lefty, was held back for the ninth inning and a much softer part of the Yankee lineup.

To be sure, it worked; Fien had a scoreless eighth, Perkins a scoreless ninth. But the eighth inning was the inning that had the best chance of going sour for the Twins, and their most talented reliever (who also had the platoon advantage in his favor) wasn’t in the picture.

It’s the tyranny of the save stat. Bullpens throughout major league baseball are structured on a false premise — that the save, the glory stat for relief pitchers, accurately reflects the innings of most importance. Managers today universally reserve their best relievers for save situations.

And someday, it will end.

It might even end with the Twins, although it would take a manager willing to challenge the current conventions of pitching use. That’s not Gardenhire.

They do have a closer, in Perkins, who appears open to the notion that the save-based bullpen is not the most efficiently used, and that’s an essential ingredient for a bullpen revolution. It’s difficult for a manager to go against convention if the players involved don’t buy into the plan.

The current pattern of the one-inning save is of fairly recent vintage. In 1987, Jeff Reardon had 31 saves; 10 of them were of more than one inning. He also went 4-2 in games in which he entered in the seventh or eighth innings. I’ll guarantee you: Gardenhire’s closers (Eddie Guardado, Joe Nathan, Matt Capps and Perkins) haven’t had 10 multi-inning saves in Gardy’s tenure.

But Readon’s use was organized around the save, albeit frequently longer saves than today. That evolved into standard strategy in the late 1970s and early ‘80s as managers tried to break their arm-wrecking pattern of overuse of the firemen.

Just as an example of what was happening in that era: Gene Mauch became the Twins manager in 1976 and was fired during the 1980 season. His relief ace’s innings pitched each year during his tenure: 167.2 (Bill Campbell); 146.2 (Tom Johnson; Tom Burgmeier also threw 97 relief innings); 99 (Mike Marshall, who didn’t join the team until mid-May); 142.2 (Marshall again); 136.1 (Doug Corbett).

In contrast, last year Josh Roenicke, then with the Rockies (and now a Twin) led the majors in relief innings with 88. (Reardon had 80.1 in 1987).

Perkins may not throw 60 innings all season. I don’t think it’s a good idea for him to throw 120 out of the bullpen, but 60 is too few — especially when a goodly percentage aren’t of particular importance.

Edward Thoma (344-6377; ethoma@mankatofreepress.com) maintains his Baseball Outsider blog at fpbaseballoutsider.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider.