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Among all the terms of baseball, the save might carry some of the quirkiest rules, regarding things like the score when a pitcher enters a game, or a hurler’s save percentage, which compares saves against the total number of opportunities to get saves.
What is a save opportunity in baseball? It happens each time a relief pitcher records either a save or a blown save. Also known as a “save situation,” it’s basically how many chances a pitcher gets to record a save.
The decision on whether or not a reliever could get a save upon entering a game is made at that moment: when he enters the game. A reliever can’t enter a game with a huge lead and purposely let in enough runs so his team leads by only 3 runs to then qualify him for the save. More on that below.
What Exactly is a “Save” in Baseball?
The save is a statistic to gauge relief pitchers, on how well or often they end games without surrendering a lead they inherited. The term “save” is somewhat misleading, because not often do relief pitchers “save” the game at the end. Often, they just record the final outs.
But some relievers do, indeed, put out fires (rallies). It is why they might be called “firemen.” They are brought in during “hot” situations, e.g. with runners on base of a close game in the late innings, to quelch the opposition’s efforts to take the game and the W.
The term “save” first surfaced in the early 1950s as baseball club executives tried to figure out ways to measure how well relief pitchers fared. Starting pitchers always had their won-lost record, but relievers into the 1960s were mostly just pitchers not good enough to start games.
After World War II, some relief “specialists” surfaced, like Joe Page of the New York Yankees. Some managers liked to have a special “weapon” ready on the bench to bring in specifically to end games. Those were pitchers who not only had good stuff on their pitches, but also cool heads to deal with the late-game pressure.
The save as the statistic we know today was created by journalist Jerome Holtzman in 1959. It took another 10 years before the MLB adopted the save as an official statistic.
The save has been measured retroactively, using statistics from many previous seasons, for pitchers before 1969 (judged by the save rules of 1969). The save did not become a huge thing until the mid- to late 1970s with true specialists like Bruce Sutter and Rich Gossage. The single-inning 9th-inning closer was made popular by Dennis Eckersley in the late 1980s.
How Often Do Saves Happen?
Saves do not occur in every baseball game. While the propensity for saves fluctuates (and cannot be controlled by management), a general rule is you can see a save recorded about every other game. That is, every 2 games on average.
- Blowouts. One team takes too big a lead and a closer is not needed.
- Complete games. A single pitcher tossed the entire game and therefore got a Win or Loss only.
- Comebacks. If a relief pitcher enters a game and finishes an inning, but remains in the lineup of a tie game, and then his team scores to end the game with a victory, that pitcher gets a Win (and no save happens for either team).
- Blown saves. Lost saves at the very end of the game means that final pitcher gets no save, nor will the last pitcher on the other team.
What is Needed to Qualify as a Save Opportunity?
Rules for earning a save have changed a bit as the statistical category matured, mainly to address the awarding of saves during ridiculous blowouts.
Again, a save opportunity is when a relief pitcher either records a save, or blows one. Today, save opportunities are when the pitcher is the final pitcher for his team (and not the pitcher who gets the “win” stat), and enter the game with his team leading by no more than 3 runs. The pitcher must complete at least ⅓ of an inning (1 out) without losing the lead.
Also, starting in 1974, when a pitcher entered a game, either the tying run had to be on base, or at the plate when he entered, to qualify for a save.
A pitcher can get charged with a blown save, but his team still wins the game. That’s when the reliever coughs up a tying run. The save is blown, but the game continues as a tie. Later, that reliever’s team could come back to finally win.
As stated above, the statistic can be quirky. While it seems a simple thing to award the last pitcher on the winning team with a save, sometimes there are “buts” and “except whens”:
- A pitcher can enter a game in an official save situation, but does not finish the game (meaning he was replaced). If he departs while his team still leads the game, that original pitcher will not be charged with a save opportunity.
- Pitchers can’t create their own save opportunities. That is, if a pitcher enters a game with a lead of at least runs ~ hence no save situation ~ but coughs up a run to make it a 3-run lead, that does not change things. Save situations are determined only at the moment a pitcher enters a game, not during that pitcher’s stint on the mound.
- Pitchers can get a save in a game ending with a lopsided score, if he pitches the last 3 innings (or more; as long as he throws the final 3 innings and records the final out).
What’s Better? Saves or Save Percentage?
Saves are a tricky way to judge the effectiveness of relief pitchers. Certainly, the more saves the better a pitcher is assumed to have tossed. However, consider the blown save, and it’s a hurtful impact to teams.
When a reliever comes in during the last inning with his team in the lead, his teammates (and fans) expect him to “close the door” on the opposition’s opportunity to rally and score enough runs to take the lead and win. When relievers fail in saves, often it is spectacular, and demoralizing for that team.
A whole lot of saves in a season does not mean a single reliever is the best in the league. A better way to judge these pitchers is how many of their save opportunities did they convert? This means save percentage, and the higher the better.
Why? Much of saves as a statistic depends on luck. Namely, whether or not a pitcher plays for a team that rarely blows the other team out (win by a large number of runs), or on a team that rarely wins, therefore few save opportunities.
Enter ‘Sandman’: Mariano Rivera
Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, arguably the best “closer” in Major League History, only led his league in saves 3 times (over 19 seasons). A reason is his team, the New York Yankees, blew out opposing teams more often and therefore there was no need for a closer or save.
Mariano led all of the MLB with 53 saves in 2004, his most in a season, and wound up with a career total of 652 saves, the most ever. His nickname, “Sandman,” refers to his ability to put batters to bed for the night. Something like that. (Yankee Stadium used to play “Enter Sandman” by the band Metallica while Rivera walked from the bullpen to the mound to enter games).
By the way, Goose Gossage has the most blown saves all-time, with 112. In a single season the most blown saves was 14, held by 6 pitchers in a tie, most recently Ron Davis of the Minnesota Twins in 1984.
K-Rod and the Anaheim Angeles in 2008
Francisco Rodriguez of the Anaheim Angels recorded the most saves in a single season in 2008, with 62. Consider that the next-highest season save total is 57 ~ a full 5 runs behind the best ever. Rodriguez had an extraordinary season, right?
Maybe, maybe not. First, his team won 100 games that year and claimed a division title, so he had plenty of chances. The Angels that season also were not a powerhouse offensively, so there were plenty of close games for “K-Rod” to close out.
However, that season, K-Rod blew 7 saves, for a just-okay 89% save percentage. Many baseball experts believe there was at least one, and possibly several, closers who had a better season than K-Rod. It’s just that he got 69 chances to get a save, by far more than any other reliever.
Best Saves Percentage Ever
For a career, Trevor Hoffman of the San Diego Padres successfully closed out more games than he blew, or 591 saves in 621 chances (95.2%). The best save percentage in a season is 100%, shared by many. There have been several seasons where a pitcher recorded a save in every chance possible.
Final Words about Save Opportunity in Baseball
Baseball is not alone in having “save opportunity” as a statistic. Hockey also does, for its goalies. The difference is the former relates to completed games, the latter is the percentage of individual plays a goalie made successfully (e.g. goals allowed vs. total number of shots against).
Save opportunities are important to track to help gauge the effectiveness of a team’s designated “closer,” or the relief pitcher expected to shut down the opposition to “save” victories.
Many MLB relievers who tallied the most saves in a season also benefited from having the most save opportunities. So, he had more chances to get saves. Not all relievers get a lot of chances especially if they throw for a poor team.
Dividing the number of saves by the number of save opportunities will deliver a save percentage. This represents the percent of time a pitcher records a save when given a chance to do so. The higher the percentage, the more successful that pitcher was in terms of closing out victories.
Those statistics, along with earned run average (ERA) and strikeouts-per-innings ratio, can be useful in determining just how well your closer is pitching.
Question: What is the longest save in MLB history?
Answer: Joaquin Benoit of the Texas Rangers got a 7-inning save on Sept. 3, 2002. He entered the game in the 3rd inning and went the rest of the way ~ even holding a no-hitter until the 9th inning!
Q.: Longest save in World Series history?
A.: Madison Bumgarner famously ended the 2014 World Series for the San Francisco Giants, with 5 scoreless innings against the Kansas City Royals in Game 7.
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