A couple of months ago, I took a look at some hitting records set since Major League baseball expanded its postseason back in 1969 and the odds of those records falling in the next 3-4 decades. Naturally, a companion piece on pitching standards was in order, so here it is.
You’d have to be an excellent reliever to set the single-season record for saves, right? Well, no, actually. You’d just have to be in the right place at the right time.
Just ask Bobby Thigpen. During an otherwise mundane nine-year major league career, Thigpen and the White Sox team he played for had everything click just right in 1990. He finished 73 games that season and compiled a record 57 saves, protecting the lead in well over half of Chicago’s 94 victories. Thigpen did pitch very well that year, sporting a 1.83 ERA, 211 ERA+ and 1.038 WHIP in 88.2 innings.
Those accomplishments earned Thigpen an All-Star nod, a fourth-place finish in the American League Cy Young voting and even a fifth-place tally in the Most Valuable Player voting. His 7.1 strikeouts-per-nine and 3.2 walks-per-nine, leading to a middling 2.19 strikeout-to-walk ratio, illuminate a strong-if-unspectacular performance that benefitted greatly from opportunity and luck.
Before Thigpen, the single-season standard bearer was Dave Righetti with 46 in 1986, so when Thigpen surged past Righetti a mere four years later and increased the record by 24 percent, it’s no wonder it took a while for the record to fall once more.
Of course, the mark now is held by Francisco Rodriguez, who shut the door on 62 occasions (out of 69 games finished) during the Los Angeles Angels’ 100-win 2008 campaign. Four years later, K-Rod finished with a whopping three saves while serving as a setup man in Milwaukee for John Axford. Rodriguez is still looking for a job for 2013.
It seems that just about any reliever could stumble into the right situation and accumulate a whole bunch of saves one season, so identifying who might take down the record is about impossible. However, one thing K-Rod has working in his favor when it comes to the long-term security of the record is simply the length of the season. Each team plays 162 games a year, and only the best teams get 90-plus wins, which seems to be the low threshold for anyone hoping to earn 63 saves.
Those wins have to be close often enough to require the use of a team’s closer, and they need to be spaced out just right so that he doesn’t get worn out or skipped if too many opportunities come up in a row. And, of course, that closer would need to convert nearly every chance he gets, as Eric Gagne did in 2003 when he didn’t blow a single save among his 55 opportunities.
For the single-season save record to fall, it would require a perfect confluence of factors, but we’ve seen it happen before.
Odds of record falling: 13.42 percent.
As Thigpen, Rodriguez, Righetti, Gagne and countless others have aptly demonstrated, it’s difficult to remain an effective closer for an extended period of time. Only five players have saved more than 400 games in their careers, and only two have surpassed the 500-save mark. Of course, those two gentlemen also reached the 600-save plateau.
Trevor Hoffman‘s “Hell’s Bells” intro song played as the preview for nearly all of his 601 career saves. You may know that his final save was not recorded for his long-time team, the San Diego Padres, but for the Milwaukee Brewers. However, did you know that his first save also was not as a Padre, but as a Marlin? Indeed, Hoffman’s first 35.2 major league innings—and two saves—were thrown for Florida.
Hoffman twice led the league in saves, reaching as high as 53 in 1998 and topping the NL with 46 in 2006. In the surrounding years, he remained a steady force at the back of the bullpen, consistently closing down game after game until he retired following the 2010 season with the big-league mark of 601 saves. His career totals of a 2.87 ERA, 141 ERA+, 1.058 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, and 3.69 KK/B in 1035 innings indicate the staying power necessary to compile a massive saves total.
However, even as Hoffman was setting the record, he was looking in the rear-view mirror at the one who soon would overtake him.
The New York Yankees once had this pitcher in 1995 who started 10 games for them one year and pitched nearly as many times in relief. He stunk, with an ERA of 5.51 and a WHIP over 1.5. Figuring to give him another chance, they put him in the bullpen the next year, and he proceeded to throw 107.2 innings with 130 strikeouts, an ERA of 2.09 and an ERA+ of 240, picking up five saves along the way. Quite the improvement, huh?
In 1997, their previous closer gone to Texas via free agency, the Yankees decided it was time to unleash possibly the most effective single pitch ever in the ninth-inning role, handing over the closer duties to Mariano Rivera. The rest, as they say, is history.
Serving batters an unhealthy diet of his deadly cutter, which induces almost nothing but swing-and-miss hacks and broken-bat squibbers to the infield, Rivera has usurped Hoffman as baseball’s all-time saves king—with 608 and counting—and assumed the mantle of greatest relief pitcher ever.
Over 1291.2 innings, he has a 2.21 ERA, 206 ERA+, 1119 whiffs, a mere 277 walks and a WHIP of 0.998. And what’s perhaps most amazing is that those numbers don’t do him enough justice.
Rivera has earned numerous accolades, too, including 12 All-Star appearances, MVP votes in nine seasons, and Cy Young tallies in six, though he’s never won the award. And, of course, there are those five World Series championships and 17 playoff appearances in his 18-year career.
No, he has not been perfect, as anyone who watched the 2001 World Series can attest. However, Rivera’s postseason performance includes such highlights as 42 saves, a 0.70 ERA, and 33.1 consecutive scoreless innings – all major league records. Yes, this is veering a bit off path since the record up for discussion is a regular-season one, but deviating a bit to reinforce how phenomenal Rivera has been seems appropriate.
Rivera mostly throws one pitch, and almost no one can touch it. His all-time saves mark looks rather untouchable, too.
Odds of record falling: You’re kidding, right? On the high side, I’ll go with 0.1 percent.
Consecutive shutout innings
Just before baseball broke into four divisions, the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale spent his early summer—May 14 through June 8—no allowing a single run. These days, that might be five or six starts and 40-45 innings, but back in 1968, that meant 58 frames from Drysdale, and that consecutive number of scoreless frames broke the 1913 mark of Walter Johnson, one of the game’s all-time great hurlers.
Amazingly, St. Louis’ Bob Gibson began a chase of Drysdale before the LA hurler had even finished his run. Gibson reached 47.0 innings before surrendering a tally. Of course, this was the original Year of the Pitcher, so runs were scarce overall, and the opportunity to set a record was rarely better.
In 1987, baseball had one of its more potent offensive campaigns ever, with both leagues setting single-season home run marks. In 1988, things settled down, with homer rates plummeting nearly 30 percent from the season before. Still, it was a tough time to be a pitcher—unless your name was Orel Hershiser.
Hershiser, a Dodger like Drysdale, kept National League baserunners from crossing home plate for 59 straight innings, squeaking by Drysdale to establish the all-time record that still stands. Over those 59 frames, Hershiser whiffed a mere 38 batters, but he limited his opponents’ opportunities by surrendering only 31 hits and 11 bases on balls.
The season ended with Hershiser’s streak intact, and there was some debate about baseball’s official stance that records such as this one can not carry over to the next year. However, that discussion was settled quite easily when Hershiser gave up a first-inning run to the Cincinnati Reds on Opening Day of 1989. The book was close din every way on his accomplishment, and that achievement remains at the top of the charts.
There have been a few good runs at Hershiser’s mark since he set it, with Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey reaching 44.2 scoreless innings this past year and Brandon Webb getting to 42 blank frames in 2007. One of the more surprising challengers was Brad Ziegler, who began his career in 2008 with 39 straight scoreless innings, all in relief.
Since 1988, on one pitcher has gotten within 15 innings of Hershiser’s record. It’s a bit like Joe DiMaggio‘s hitting streak, both in the number itself—59 vs. 56—and in the total of each player’s closest pursuer—44.2 innings by Dickey and 44 games by Pete Rose. Their challengers have barely gotten three-quarters of the way there, which leaves a rather cavernous gap, one that is likely to remain.
Odds of record falling: This record is impressive, but it’s more likely to fall that DiMaggio’s, especially as the pendulum swings back towards pitching dominance, so I’ll say 15 percent.
Any other pitching records set in the last 45 years seem likely to last that long into the future? Let me know in the comments below which ones you think will survive.