Pitching by the Numbers: Chasing saves

Michael Salfino

After tackling wins last week, I should at least explain my season-long avoidance of the saves category, which I do realize impacts many fantasy championships.

Here’s the key takaway/complaint: through Sunday, the 37-win Astros have generated one less save (23) than the 71-win Red Sox.

Since it’s human nature to think we can predict anything, we tend to seek in drafts and in in-season trades the closers on the teams that are most successful/likely to continue winning.

But clearly win totals don’t correlate that well to save totals. It’s not just the Red Sox who are laggards. The 69-win Tigers have only 26 saves. That’s 11 less than the Yankees, who have won 10 fewer games.

If there's any way to forecast that the Orioles would have a save for every 1.5 wins (versus every three for the Red Sox), I’d like to see it. But someone is going to win a league because they have Jim Johnson instead of, say, Jonathan Papelbon (the Phillies’ rate is also very poor).

If we break the majors down by record, the 10 teams with most wins average 34 saves, the middle 10 average 30 saves and the bottom 10 average 27.4. That’s the edge we’re paying for in projecting records in March. But of course, you have to discount that for our ability to project records. So it’s probably best to ignore the team context all together (especially if others are paying for it).

Here’s the chart. W/S is wins per saves, the lower the number the more save opportunities. League average is 1.9.

A complaint can be that I didn’t include blown saves. But that’s a deceptive stat because non-closers can only blow them and never get them. The stat should be blown 9th inning saves and when the lead is lost before the ninth inning, it should be a blown hold. Unless the closer comes in (gasp!) when more than three outs are needed. (Oh, the humanity!) Ernesto Frieri has five saves of more than three outs. Of actual closers, Bobby Parnell and Edward Mujica have two. No one else has more than one. I feel like an old man screaming at kids on my lawn, but I hate, hate, hate how closers are deployed today.

The other issue with saves is just how quickly closers can lose their jobs. Tom Wilhelmsen was great last year and closing a week ago or so and now is in the minors and maybe finished at age 29. Fernando Rodney has a worse WHIP. Jim Johnson is locked in as closer with a league-leading 39 saves and has a 1.28 WHIP vs. 1.27 for Wilhelmsen. I know, I know – Wilhelmsen lacks The Will to Save (TWTS, trademarked).

Smart guys going against the grain would have bet that Casey Janssen’s numbers last year were not a fluke. And they’ve been proven right – 0.884 WHIP. Add a solid 35 Ks in 37.1 innings for Janssen, too. But in the most important category for relievers, Janssen owners have a paltry 21 saves to show for their player-projecting brilliance.

And look at Greg Holland, who struggled so badly with his control in 2012, being elite at preventing walks in 2013. Why? Who the heck knows and it doesn’t matter much for next year because relievers, like French fries, are only good when they’re hot and they don’t stay hot long. (They’re also good with salt and vinegar – the fries, not the relievers.)

My advice if you’re playing the waiver wire in the category now is to totally ignore team record and all foundational stats except K/BB ratio. The problem is that the sample sizes are so small. But each season is like a big reset button so the guys who are doing something unexpected this year like Holland with his control are likely to continue to do it through the end of the season (barring injury). Next year, though, all bets are off. Then, we’re back to merely guessing, hoping our guys don’t collapse and play on teams that provide ample save opportunities.