The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Sports Columns

July 15, 2013

Thoma column: Overthrowing the tyranny of the save

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.

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