Danville, Kentucky – Sometimes, life gets in the way of your carefully made plans. I've wanted to write a post giving a full-throated defense of Saves for a while, but with the nerds ruining the game in so many ways, sometimes its hard to find the time. I’ve written before about how traditional metrics like Wins and Losses have unjustifiably come under fire. I’m writing here to defend another way of ranking pitchers that nerds are hoping goes the way of Joe Nathan’s arm or Joba Chamberlain’s job. I’m talking about the save – which is how we separate ice-blooded executioners like Mariano Rivera, Aroldis Chapman, Greg Holland, and Fernando Rodney from your garden-variety relief-pitcher. Nerds hate the save for the same reason they hate the W – because they can’t stand the individualist element of baseball. They think all outs are created equal, and that any old pitcher can pitch in any old inning. A good pitcher will pitch well in any inning, they insist, making relief pitchers as interchangeable as French fries or onion rings at your favorite chain restaurant. FIP and WHIP are what matters, they’ll whine, as they look up from their spreadsheet at you with the same blank stare they gave the cool kids as they were picked last for dodgeball in middle school.
But pitchers are more than just a few digits on their fangraphs page. They’re mortal men, with human shortcomings. They get frightened. They get overexcited. They need stability. At the GM plant we had positions, and we had roles. We signed contracts with the understanding that we would work from 9 AM to 5 PM, and then complain about our ex-wives at the nearest Golden Corral until we got kicked out or they ran out of breaded catfish at their magisterial buffet. Men need certainty. They need to know what their job is. I have no idea how me and the other boys at the GM plant would’ve been able to eat as much catfish if you mixed up our routine on a day-to-day basis. Can you imagine how chaotic and confusing the GM plant would be if on certain days the plant manager told us to go to Golden Corral first, then work on the assembly line, then complain about our lives and then eat catfish? Not many cars would get built, which is all that America needs now that Obama has taken up the job-killing legacy of NAFTA by pushing for a new round of union-busting, China-coddling, outsourcing round of free trade agreements. What is my point here? My point is that men need to know what their job is and when they are supposed to do it. This is a concept that escapes your average fangraphs writer, who write articles utilizing advanced analytics about a children’s game precisely because they’ve never held a job.
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The save is great because it encourages managers to use their toughest guys in the toughest situations. It exists for a simple reason. Because not all outs are created equal. Getting outs in the 1st through 8th inning is not the same as getting outs in the 9th inning. Being a closer requires a special presence of mind, and a special mentality. Managers have long recognized this. It’s why the 8th inning belongs to Wade Davis while the 9th inning belongs to Greg Holland, despite Wade’s superior peripherals. Davis has admirably filled in for Holland at times, just as the GM plant was full of blue-collar guys who were willing to pick each-other up in their time of need. But if Ned Yost were to sub Davis into the 9th inning role for the long term, he might not like what he sees. Baseball history is replete with examples of otherwise competent pitchers wilting under the pressure of taking the mound in the most important inning. Baseball history is also replete with examples of great closers pitching like John Danks when used outside of the 9th inning or a non-save situation. Saves are a great stat precisely because they recognize this distinction between those with the chops to pitch when the game is on the line, and those who rack up empty FIP points and K’s pitching in garbage time. Any man with nerves steely enough to rack up 20 saves is obviously cut from a different cloth. As baseball's future may be taken over by instant replay robots replacing the umpire and MLB communists who discount the democratically elected all-stars, the closer's role seems certain to remain. The only question is will we save it.