Answer Man: Unraveling the mystery of baseball saves

News-DemocratMay 27, 2013 

Q. Can you please explain how and when a pitcher is credited with a save? I always thought they should reward someone for preserving a very close lead. But sometimes they seen to be given when a reliever enjoys a huge lead that even I could protect.

-- B.T., of Belleville

A. What started as the simplest of statistics now sounds like it was hammered out by one of those gangs of 12 in the U.S. Congress. Well, OK, it's not quite that bad, but you do have to read very carefully as you wade through the various ifs, ands and buts that have been added and modified over the past 60 years.

But the history is fascinating. And, wouldn't you know it, a St. Louis Cardinal was in on it from the start, according to the late Jerome Holtzman, a Chicago sportswriter for 50 years and Major League historian from 1999 to his death in 2008.

As early as 1952, three big league executives started awarding saves to any of their teams' relievers who finished a winning game but was not credited with a victory. It didn't matter if the score was 2-1 or 12-1. As long as he was on the mound when the final out was made, he earned a save in the eyes of Pittsburgh's Irv Kaze, Brooklyn's Alan Roth -- and the Redbirds' own Jim Toomey, Holtzman wrote in 2003.

But the honor went largely unnoticed by the other 13 teams and the press until Holtzman himself decided relievers just weren't getting their just due. It was May 1960, and Holtzman was on the Cubs' bus outside the Chase Hotel in St. Louis. He was thinking how Cub relievers Don Elston and Bill Henry were protecting a lot of Chicago leads, but weren't getting much credit.

The year before, Pirate reliever Elroy Face had a season that bullpen aces probably don't even dream about. He was 18-1, which is still a Major League record for victories in relief. But in studying Face's record, Holtzman noticed that 10 of these victories came after Face had lost the lead -- or what we now call a blown save. Only because his offensive buddies bailed him out did he wind up with a win total that likely will never be matched.

Putting all that together, Holtzman decided it was high time relievers earned recognition for preserving leads that led to victories. So on that bus in St. Louis, he showed his proposed save rule to Cubs broadcaster Lou Boudreau. Holtzman's formula had four requirements, but the main one was that the reliever had to enter the game with the lead and, during the course of his work, had to actually face the tying run at the plate.

Boudreau said he liked the idea, so Holtzman sent it to J.G. Taylor Spink, editor and publisher of The Sporting News, for whom Holtzman corresponded. Spink immediately sent his 33-year-old writer a bonus of $100 or $200 and told Holtzman to be sure to pass on any similar ideas.

On July 27, 1960, The Sporting News announced it had adopted the save as its invention and thereafter would award Fireman of the Year trophies to the top relievers in each league. Giving one point for a win and one point for a save (Holtzman thought a victory should have earned two points, but c'est la vie), the first two winners were Mike Fornieles of Boston -- and Cardinal Lindy McDaniel.

But Holtzman wasn't satisfied because Major League Baseball itself hadn't adopted it as an official statistic. Finally, he was appointed chairman of a Baseball Writers Association committee formed to convince the Scoring Rules Committee to adopt it. In 1969, it did, marking baseball's first new major statistic since the run batted in was added in 1920.

As I mentioned, the rule has undergone changes over time. In 1961, for example, the tying run merely had to be on deck, not at the plate. Now for a save, four conditions must be met, according to Rule 10.19:

For starters, he must meet all of the following three conditions: He must be the last pitcher in a game won by his team; he isn't the winning pitcher; and he must pitch at least a third of an inning.

But that's not all, and here's where it gets a little messy. He also must meet one of the following conditions, too: He enters a game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches at least one inning. Or he pitches for at least three innings. Or he enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base or at bat or on deck. So, yes, although it would rarely or never happen today, a relief pitcher could get a save if he entered with a 12-0 lead in, say, the sixth inning and finished the game.

If anyone ever asks you, the Dodgers' Bill Singer is credited with the first official save when he pitched three scoreless innings to preserve Don Drysdale's 3-2 win over Cincinnati on April 7, 1969. The Yanks' Mariano Rivera has the most in a career -- 626 and counting.

Today's trivia

On Sunday, the Cardinals' Edward Mujica earned his 14th consecutive save. How many does he have to go to break the record?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: According to Acts 11:26, Jesus' disciples were called "Christians" for the first time in Antioch.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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