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Time to Weigh Saves – But How?

By Mike Silva ~ January 22nd, 2011. Filed under: Mike Silva, Sabermetrics.

The recent retirement of Trevor Hoffman brought up the old debate about the value of the save. Hoffman had 601 in total for his career, more than any reliever in the history of the game. That probably will change sometime before Mariano Rivera‘s latest two year deal expires. Regardless, Hoffman should be a first ballot Hall of Famer since his numbers out of the bullpen, coupled with years of excellence, dwarf other closers in the Hall such as Eckersley, Sutter, Fingers, and Gossage. What Hoffman’s candidacy also could do is change the way we evaluate the quality of closers, something that no longer can be done by measuring saves alone.

No one will confuse me as an advanced member of the sabermetric community. Over the last couple of years I have warmed up to some theories, and incorporated it into my opinions. It doesn’t take a genius to say all closers are not created equal. In 2007, Joe Borowski saved games for the Cleveland Indians. That team beat the Yankees, and nearly finished off Boston to go to the World Series. Borowski saved 45 games that year as a below league average pitcher. His 5.07 ERA and 1.5 WHIP weren’t screaming “game over” when he came out of the bullpen. To be fair, Borowski did have a decent walk to strikeout ratio, which probably was the only reason he was able to achieve success being so hittable, but his season will not go down as impressive despite the lofty save totals.

Hoffman was no Borowski, but he had a penchant for disappearing when his team needed him most. The Yankees had no problem with him in the ’98 World Series, the National League lost home field advantage in 2006 thanks to Hoffman, and the Padres fell short of the playoffs after he blew a save to Colorado in game number 163 in 2007. Hoffman was always a standup guy after his losses, that has never been in question, but to say he is on the same level as the elite closers in history might not be accurate.

Marty Noble wrote a column for MLB.com saying the save rule needs to be reevaluated. This quote summed up my thoughts about saves best:

Stuff, command, nerve, moxie and the ability to eliminate bad memories as quickly as an Etch-a-Sketch erases are essential for quality closing. But achieving the last out on a fly ball to the wall in a three-run game can warrant the same credit — one save — as striking out the 3-4-5 batters with the bases loaded in a 23-22 game with the wind blowing out at Wrigley.

He went on to say perhaps it’s time to develop a point system weighting saves based on the degree of difficulty. There are advanced metrics that start to delve into this topic, namely win probability. The problem is that closers, by definition, will be used in high leverage situations. Those stats also don’t measure the intangibles essentially to being a successful closer, such as “nerve, moxie, and ability to eliminate bad situations.” I know some may laugh, but great closers need to forget about yesterday’s blown save and come back today. John Franco, for all his faults, never seemed to allow a bad performance carry over to the next game.

Also, is a 1-2-3 inning where you struck out the 7-8-9 hitters worth more than someone who walked Barry Bonds, got Jeff Kent to ground into a double play, and popped out J.T. Snow? Add in the fact that save occurred in Colorado, versus San Francisco, a pitchers park. What about closing games in the AL East versus the weaker offenses in the NL West?

Can there be a way to weigh saves statistically, but quantify intangibles such as difficulty, ballpark, opponent, situation, stress level, etc.

If there were, maybe we could appreciate Joe Borowski‘s 2007 better. Perhaps Trevor Hoffman isn’t viewed with the level of skepticism of the naked eye. Maybe John Franco wouldn’t have received less than 5% of the Hall of Fame vote, and Lee Smith would have already been enshrined in the Hall.

We need better stats than we have today, but we can’t just eliminate the “look and feel” that comes with evaluating closers. Maybe adjusting the Bill James “Game Score” to closers is something to consider.

Perhaps someone smarter than me will read this and revolutionize the closer analysis. Just remember me when it comes time to small print credits at the end of the book.

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Mike Silva has hosted sports shows on 107.1 FM Champions ESPN Radio Long Island ,1240 AM WGBB , Blog Talk Radio and live from Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant. He’s also built and maintained two popular social media hubs: New York Baseball Digest and Sports Media Watchdog. Mike has broken national and local stories, as well as been mentioned on the YES Network, SNY.tv, WFAN, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, NY Daily News, New York Magazine, Journal News and the NY Post. Contact Mike professionally at mikesilvamedia.com

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2 Responses to Time to Weigh Saves – But How?

  1. Jay

    Interesting stuff and while I agree with the idea I doubt that saves will ever be weighted in a way that can be expressed “on the back of a baseball card.”

    Those who delve deeper than that already have ways to weigh saves in their own minds, some of which you mentioned such as WHIP, ERA and High Leverage.

    When it comes to the HOF and saves I think the door is certainly opened for viewing saves differently based on the fact that certain other benchmark stats (i.e. 500 HR) no longer ensure HOF status but that just deals with total quantity, not the quality within that quantity.

    I have no solution to your problem to offer but I’m glad you raised the question. It’s funny but when I saw the headline I clicked on this article thinking (happily) that it would be about weighing saves in the context of Free Agency and Types A and B designation. That’s another area that I think weighing saves, both versus “other saves” and versus relievers who have not accrued saves at all (set up, middle) merits investigation. Set up and middle relievers receiving Type A status muddles the entire free agency process in my opinion.

    So there’s another article for you. I hope you’ll mention “Jay” in the small print credits (wink).

  2. birtelcom

    Baseball-reference.com has a stat that is remarkably useful for relief pitchers called Win Probability Added (WPA). As you note, Mike, the Save stat has many weaknesses as an evalautive stat for relief pitchers: it lumps tough saves and easy saves together, it ignores important relief performances when they don’t fit the save definition and it fails to penalize blown saves. WPA much more carefully reflects each pitcher’s actual contribution to improving or reducing his team’s chances of winning a game. WPA looks at the probability the pitcher’s team had of winning the game (based on four important factors: the score, inning, outs and men on base) before each plate appearance against the pitcher and then, after each such plate appearance, adds or deducts the increase or decrease in that probability resulting from that PA to the pitcher’s total “Win Probability Added”.

    So, for example, when a closer enters the game at the beginning of the bottom of the 9th inning, if his team is ahead by one run, history suggests that his team will win the game about 85% of the time. If the closer then successfully closes out that one-run win for his team, he has increased his team’s win probability from 85% when he entered the game to 100% when he has finished (an increase of 15%, or 0.15). So he gets 0.15 of Win Probability Added for that game. If he had come in with his team ahead by three runs going into the bottom of the ninth, he would only get 0.03 of Win Probability Added because when he entered the game his team already had a 97% chance of winning.

    On the other hand if the closer comes in with his team ahead by one run at the start of the bottom of the ninth and he gives up a single and a homer to lose the game, he will have 0.85 subtracted from his Win Probability Added, because his team has gone from an 85% chance of winning when he entered to 0% when he finished.

    This is a much more precise system for allocating credit or blame to relief pitchers than the traditional “Save” stat. It achieves much of what Marty Noble is looking for in his search for an approved relief pitcher evaluation stat. Although Joe Borowski was 1st in the AL in saves in 2007, he was 21st in the AL in Win Probability Added among relievers that year. His teamate Rafael Betancourt had only three saves in 2007 but was second in the AL in WPA by a relief pitcher, behind only J.J. Putz, who had 40 saves in 2007.

    According to the Play Index at baseballl-reference, the all-time top five career regular season Win Probability Added totals for relief pitchers (at least 80% of their games pitched being relief appearances) are:
    1. Mariano Rivera +50.8
    2. Trevor Hoffman +34.4
    3. Goose Gossage +32.6
    4. Hoyt Wilhelm +30.1
    5. Billy Wagner +29.3

    Hoffman, Rivera and Wagner are first, second and fifth in saves all-time, but Hall of Famer Gossage is 18th in career saves and Hall of Famer Wilhelm is 34th. At least in this respect, WPA seems to be measuring career greatness more accurately than saves.

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