Baseball: Pitchers' saving grace

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The Independent Online
EVERY story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and the same goes for a baseball game. In 1960 a Chicago reporter called Jerome Holtzman decided that the pitchers who deliver the punchline to end a game, the closers, deserved - what else? - a statistic of their own, called a 'save', to measure their achievement.

Yet when Boston's Jeff Reardon broke Rollie Fingers' record of 341 saves on 15 June, praise was muted. Many argue that saves are not what they used to be.

Holtzman invented the save while working on the Chicago Sun-Times, and it took nine years before it was officially recognised by the major leagues, and a further six years before the present formula was settled on in 1975.

A save is now awarded if a pitcher preserves a victory and finishes a game when he (a) enters with a lead of three runs or fewer and pitches one inning; (b) enters with a lead of three runs or fewer with the tying run on base, at bat or on deck; (c) pitches the last three innings irrespective of the lead he inherits.

The statistic has made stars of men like Oakland's ace closer, Dennis Eckersley, and St Louis' Lee Smith, who would previously have been treated as mere bullpen fodder but who now command multi-million-dollar salaries.

Those who say the closers are not worth their inflated salaries point out that the number of games with a save has increased from 38 per cent in 1978 to 52 per cent last year. That reflects the way managers now use starting pitchers, few of whom are allowed to pitch complete games, for fear of damaging their precious arms.

'Pitching 300 innings a season used to be your badge of courage,' Tom House, the Texas Rangers' pitching coach, said. Last year only Boston's Roger Clemens (271 innings) and Chicago White Sox's Jack McDowell (253) came close. Nowadays a starter is routinely pulled after five or six innings, to be followed by a plethora of middle relievers, a set-up man and a closer, who will rarely be asked to pitch more than one inning.

Yet Eckersley, who on Sunday converted his 31st consecutive save opportunity, an ongoing record, defends his ilk against the charge that they never had it so easy. 'There's a lot of glory in this job,' he said, 'but it's terrible when you screw it up. Anybody who does what I do and says he doesn't feel the pressure is lying.' One bad pitch can lose the game.

The purists may not like the modern way of closing but it is effective. Two years ago the Cincinnati Reds won the World Series using three closers in a row - the 'Nasty Boys', Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers - three power pitchers who would take care of the last three innings.

Now Myers is gone, but Dibble and Charlton maintain the tradition, as Chicago Cubs' manager Jim Lefebvre recognises: 'In a close game against the Reds, you have to look at the fifth inning as if it's the seventh, because they can bury you with those two closers.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- MAJOR LEAGUE RESULTS AND STANDINGS -----------------------------------------------------------------

AMERICAN LEAGUE: Minnesota 7 Boston 5; Milwaukee 6 Chicago White Sox 3; Cleveland 4 Kansas City 3; NY Yankees 8 California 3; Oakland 6 Detroit 2; Toronto 8 Seattle 4; Baltimore 3 Texas 2.

----------------------------------------------------------------- East Division ----------------------------------------------------------------- W L Pct. GB Toronto Blue Jays 56 35 .615 - Baltimore Orioles 52 39 .571 4 Milwaukee Brewers 48 42 .533 7 Boston Red Sox 43 46 .483 12 New York Yankees 43 48 .473 13 Detroit Tigers 43 50 .462 14 Cleveland Indians 37 55 .402 19 ----------------------------------------------------------------- West Division ----------------------------------------------------------------- Minnesota Twins 56 35 .615 - Oakland Athletics 53 38 .582 3 Texas Rangers 49 45 .521 8 Chicago White Sox 44 46 .489 11 Kansas City Royals 40 51 .440 16 California Angels 38 53 .418 18 Seattle Mariners 37 56 .398 20 -----------------------------------------------------------------

NATIONAL LEAGUE: San Diego 9 Montreal 2; Philadelphia 6 Los Angeles 5; New York Mets 8 San Francisco 4; Cincinnati 5 St Louis 4; Atlanta 3 Houston 2 (10); Chicago Cubs 4 Pittsburgh 2.

----------------------------------------------------------------- East Division ----------------------------------------------------------------- W L Pct. GB Pittsburgh Pirates 51 41 .554 - Montreal Expos 46 46 .500 5 St Louis Cardinals 45 46 .495 5 New York Mets 45 47 .489 6 Chicago Cubs 42 49 .462 8 Philadelphia Phillies 39 53 .424 12 ----------------------------------------------------------------- West Division ----------------------------------------------------------------- Cincinnati Reds 54 36 .600 - Atlanta Braves 53 37 .589 1 San Diego Padres 49 44 .527 6 San Francisco Giants 44 47 .484 10 Houston Astros 41 41 .446 14 Los Angeles Dodgers 40 52 .435 15 -----------------------------------------------------------------