To Come: Final analysis-best reliever of all time and greatest bullpen of all time.
The 1990s and 2000s
The Chase.--Third Day...
"D'ye see him?" cried Ahab; but the whale was not yet in sight.
"In his infallible wake, though; but follow that wake, that's all... Here's food for thought, had Ahab time to think; but Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels;...How the wild winds blow...as the torn shreds of split sails lash the tossed ship they cling to. A vile wind that has no doubt blown ere this through prison corridors and cells, and wards of hospitals, and ventilated them, and now comes blowing hither as innocent as fleeces. Out upon it!--it's tainted...And yet, 'tis a noble and heroic thing, the wind! who ever conquered it? In every fight it has the last and bitterest blow. Run tilting at it, and you but run through it. Ha!...Would now the wind but had a body; but all the things that most exasperate and outrage mortal man, all these things are bodiless...These warm Trade Winds, at least, that in the clear heavens blow straight on, in strong and steadfast, vigorous mildness; and veer not from their mark, however the baser currents of the sea may turn and tack, and mightiest Mississippies of the land swift and swerve about, uncertain where to go at last. And by the eternal Poles! these same Trades that so directly blow my good ship on; these Trades, or something like them--something so unchangeable, and full as strong, blow my keeled soul along! To it! Aloft there! What d'ye see?"
"Nothing! and noon at hand!...I've oversailed him...Aye, he's chasing ME now; not I, HIM--that's bad; I might have known it, too...About! about!
Steering as she had done, the wind had been somewhat on the Pequod's quarter, so that now being pointed in the reverse direction, the braced ship sailed hard upon the breeze as she rechurned the cream in her own white wake.
-Moby Dick-Or the Whale, Chapter 135, By "Don't Call Me Babe"Herman Melville
After killing many e-trees with my last two installments on relief pitching (covering the 1970s and '80s) and anticipating the final analysis phase of this little project, I will keep my comments on the last thirteen years to a minimum. For the sake of brevity-and since I do not know how to refer to the current decade, which is only three years old anyway-I will refer to this period as the Nineties.
So what happened in the Nineties? Basically, baseball continued on its megalomaniacal course. Bullpens got bigger and more specialized. The closer role became synonymous with the save statistic as closers earned their arbitration and free agent living based on the stat. Save totals went up. Swingmen became an endangered species. "And Leon is getting laaaarrrrrger."
It is my assertion that the entire system has, like Ahab in the excerpt above, passed its goal by without realizing it. I am intently interested in what the Red Sox will be doing this year to "rechurn the cream" of the relief pitching wake. But more on that in the analytical section. For now, I'll try to keep an open mind.
In the Nineties:
The 50-save reliever was born and born again. In 1990, Bobby Thigpen set the one-year record of 57 saves that still stands today. Two years later Dennis Eckersley became the second to reach 50. Reaching 50 saves in a season has now been done eight times and five times since the last round of expansion in 1998.
In 1993, Lee Smith became the first pitcher to surpass 400 saves in his career. Smith ended his career with 478 saves in total. John Franco joined Smith in the 400-save club in 1999.
The number of men in the 300-save and 200-save clubs exploded as well. Here is a progression of those men at the end of each decade (I used 100 as the minimum in previous analyses, but given that there are now 99 men with at least 100 saves for their career, this figure becomes cumbersome):
After 1969 | After 1979 | After 1989 | Today
Name Sv | Name Sv | Name Sv | Name Sv
Hoyt Wilhelm 210 | Hoyt Wilhelm 227 | Rollie Fingers 341 | Lee Smith 478
| Sparky Lyle 223 | Rich Gossage 307 | John Franco 422*
| Rollie Fingers 221 | Bruce Sutter 300 | Dennis Eckersley 390
| Jeff Reardon 266 | Jeff Reardon 367
| Dan Quisenberry 244 | Trevor Hoffman 352*
| Sparky Lyle 238 | Randy Myers 347
| Lee Smith 234 | Rollie Fingers 341+
| Hoyt Wilhelm 227 | John Wetteland 330
| Gene Garber 218 | Roberto Hernandez 320*
| Rick Aguilera 318
| Robb Nen 314*
| Tom Henke 311
| Rich Gossage 310
| Jeff Montgomery 304
| Doug Jones 303
| Bruce Sutter 300
| Rod Beck 266*
| Todd Worrell 256
| Dave Righetti 252
| Troy Percival 250*
| Dan Quisenberry 244
| Mariano Rivera 243*
| Sparky Lyle 238
| Hoyt Wilhelm 227+
| Jose Mesa 225*
| Gene Garber 218
| Gregg Olson 217*
| Dave Smith 216
| Jeff Shaw 203
| Bobby Thigpen 201
* indicates active
+ indicate Hall of Famer
The Eighties save totals were explosive when compared with the Sixties and Seventies, but they were nothing compared to the Nineties. The totals for 200-save men per decade are one as of 1969, 3 after 1979, 9 after 1989, and 30 today (six of which are still active). That's basically 30, 31,32, and 33 (well, plus 3)-a nice exponential progression.
Meanwhile, the men who had led in saves in the past-i.e., Wilhelm and Fingers-were getting elected to the all of Fame. Now, Fingers is 7th in saves, Wilhelm is 24th-right ahead of the redoubtable Jose "Make A" Mesa-, and no one else has been elected to the Hall.
The saves numbers have changed so rapidly that the change has obscured the value of pitchers like Goose Gossage (13th), Bruce Sutter (16th), and Dan Quisenberry (21st), all of whom were arguably more valuable to their teams in the day than three of the top four in career saves (Lee Smith, John Franco, and Jeff Reardon) were to theirs.
This argument I feel is a stronger explanation for the current dearth of Hall of Fame relievers than the ubiquitous "The Hall voters don't value saves" argument. They value saves, just not the relievers who have high totals in that statistic. I believe that there are voters who do not select the worthy candidates that I mentioned because they are over one hundred saves behind John Franco, a player who will not be regarded as a strong Hall candidate when he retires. No one would vote for Ned Williamson because his 27 home runs in 1884 were astronomical when put in context (if with the home field help). 27 home runs just isn't that impressive a number. More investigation is needed into the context of the earlier save totals but the Hall voters are not interested in investing time in such a project.
OK, I'm back down from my soapbox. In the Nineties closers became poster children for the save stat. Here as a table of the cumulative stats for closers per decade. I posted this in the Eighties entry and have but for the Nineties, I would like to base the numbers on team save leaders not on an arbitrary save cutoff (20 saves) as I used in the Eighties study (RA= Relief Appearance):
A closer in the 2000s pitches a hair over one inning, records a save in almost every other appearance, and has little to do with wins and losses, especially wins. Look at the change since the 1970s especially in saves and innings per appearance.
Here is a table of the percent of team save leaders who amass a certain percentage of the team's total saves. For example, the 100% column tells you the percentage of all "closers" who register all of their team's saves. Note how each bracket is increasing especially into the late Nineties and early 2000s:
The closers became save machines pitching one inning at a time. So how did this affect the rest of the staff?
First starters almost never complete a game today. The number of pitchers per game is approaching an average of four. The concept of swingmen has disappeared almost completely. A reliever was a reliever by trade even if he didn't close. They began to start games less often. Here's the closer table from above for middle relievers:
The percentage of relief appearances goes up while the wins, losses, saves and inning pitched go down. Well, why is that if the middle relievers are taking up the slack from the starters and closers? Because there are more of them (6.37 per team in 2002).