Shutdowns and Meltdowns Should Kill the Save

On Friday, Jonah Keri penned an impassioned plea to kill the save statistic.

If you’re an Indians fan still rattled by Thursday’s disaster, or just a baseball fan sick of suboptimal decisions resulting in painful losses, the man to blame is a late Chicago sportswriter named Jerome Holtzman. Fifty-three years ago, in an effort to shift more recognition unto underappreciated relief pitchers, Holtzman invented the save statistic. Today, that invention is responsible for far more unintended consequences, and far more heartache, than Holtzman could have ever intended. Bloody battles are fought over the ill-begotten riches that saves bestow on those who can get them. Managers lose games for their teams by getting seduced by saves. Pitchers who fail in save situations get labeled as gutless pariahs.

It needs to end now. It’s time to kill the save, send it to hell, and strand it there for eternity.

In case you missed the subtlety, Jonah’s not a big fan of the save, or more accurately, not a big fan of the repercussions that valuing saves has had on modern day bullpen usage. As the save has grown in popularity, so has the rigidity of bullpen roles, and reliever usage has been modified to specifically fit the definition of the save that was created by Holtzman. It is one of the few instances in sports where obtaining a statistic, rather than maximizing a team’s chances of winning, actually drives how teams utilize their players.

However, as Jonah notes, the current system is so entrenched in the economics of today’s game that it isn’t as simple as just convincing teams to stop managing in a certain style. Reliever compensation is driven very heavily by the amount of saves a pitcher can compile, and any attempt to move away from the save as a measure of value could be viewed by skeptical players as simply an effort to drive down costs. If Major League Baseball is ever going to move away from the save as a driving force of reliever valuation, it has be replaced by a system that would be acceptable and understandable by the relievers themselves, and teams would have to make a concerted effort to explain why a redistribution of funds without a reduction in total expenditures on relievers would actually be an improvement for relievers as a whole.

In order to get that kind of wide scale acceptance, the metric replacing saves would have to be approachable and easily explained, and also line up with what relievers understand their job to be – come into close games and preserve a lead or keep the deficit to a minimum. Any metric that is context neutral will never be accepted by those within the game, as reliever performance is inextricably tied to the situation into which a pitcher is placed. Any stat that seeks to displace the save has to take the inning, score, and base/out situation into consideration.

That leads us to WPA, but getting teams and players on board with using a stat that gives them credit for +0.24 wins in a given performance isn’t going to be an easy transition. So, what’s needed is a metric that accounts for leverage-specific performance and preferably looks like saves and blown saves, so it can be offered up as an easy-to-understand improvement on an outdated system.

Enter Shutdowns and Meltdowns. Quoting Jonah again:

This might sound a bit complicated, but it really isn’t. By using 6 percent as the cutoff, you get a stat that runs on a similar scale to saves and holds. Elite closers and setup men will rack up 35-40 (or more) shutdowns and very few meltdowns, just as a dominant closer can earn that many saves, while blowing very few. If you’ve ever watched poker on TV, you’ll see a player’s odds of winning a hand rise or fall by a certain percentage based on the cards the dealer flips over. Same easy-to-follow concept here: If you retire the side 1-2-3 in a big spot (say, two runners on, none out, and you enter with the game tied in the seventh), you get a shutdown, just as hitting your nut flush on the river will usually win you a hand. The only difference is the pitcher has more control over the outcome in this case, rather than it being left to random chance.

The key is that SD/MD puts closers and other members of your bullpen on even ground. That way you don’t end up overpaying for a pitcher who happens to record the final out of a ballgame. Greatness is greatness, and it gets rewarded whenever it might occur during the course of a game. We know that at least one relief pitcher has adopted SD/MD to track his own performance: Daniel Bard kept close tabs on the stat before getting converted back to a starter’s role this offseason.

The big barrier to acceptance is going to be getting players on board with being evaluated by something other than saves, and we know that at least one Major League pitcher has already bought into the value of SD/MD. Naturally, it’s a reliever who was dramatically undervalued by the current system, and found that SD/MD better represented how valuable he actually was to his team. Getting good setup men and middle relievers on board will obviously be easier than getting closers on board, since a shift in reliever valuation will move money from ninth inning guys to seventh and eighth inning guys.

Still, that redistribution is something that the majority players should be in favor of. Very few players come up as closers, and most elite relievers spent a few years toiling as a setup man before getting promoted to the big chair. In order to become a closer, they had to perform very well in that earlier inning role, and they generally received little to no compensation for those performances. By moving to a system that paid relievers based on Shutdowns and Metldowns, relievers would become more highly valued earlier in their careers, and the shift to receiving real paychecks earlier would transfer money to guys who have previously been underpaid and then gone down with severe injuries before they could ever cash in on their success.

In reality, many of the best relievers in the sport don’t last six years, and if they don’t become a closer early in their career, their arbitration payouts are limited due to their lack of saves. It’s completely possible for a high quality reliever to have a good five year run and never really get rewarded financially for that success. For instance, Mike Adams has recorded 103 Shutdowns and only 24 Meltdowns over the last six years, and his 81% SD/MD rate is eighth best in baseball since 2006, ranking between Francisco Rodriguez and Rafael Soriano on the leaderboard. Despite that, Adams will make $4.4 million this year after his third trip through arbitration, and he’s garnered a grand total of just over $9 million in his career. Soriano made $18 million before he became a free agent, while Rodriguez made just over $21 million in those same six years.

By replacing saves and holds with Shutdowns and Meltdowns, Major League teams could more accurately reward those players who actually perform well out of the bullpen, and could move towards a system where managers weren’t beholden to an outdated statistic. By getting rid of the save as a valuation metric, teams could more efficiently utilize their best relievers while also still ensuring that they were financially rewarded for pitching well in critical situations. The binary nature of SD/MD will appeal to players who see their job as “success or fail” based on how their performance directly affects the scoreboard, and the fact that it scales very similarly to saves can help it receive acceptance that other measures never will.

Jonah’s absolutely right – Major League Baseball should begin taking steps to kill the save statistic, but they can only do that if they have a worthy successor in place that Major League players will adopt as a replacement. Shutdowns and Meltdowns can be that successor. We don’t have to be slaves to the save anymore.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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10 years ago

I’ve also seen Tom Boswell quote Tyler Clippard as someone who was well aware of his high WPA, presumably because he needs an alternative way to measure his considerable value. (Clippard was second in the league in WPA for pitchers last year, and third in the league with 40 shut downs. Interestingly, Nats closer Drew Storen also had 40 shut downs.)