Talking Baseball

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Posted by Jon on Thursday, April 29, 2004

Saves: Anybody's Stat

Last year, Danny Graves had a terrible season. He ended the season with four wins and 15 losses, a winning percentage that wasn’t even matched by Mike Maroth, Nate Cornejo, or Jeremy Bonderman, the Tigers’ three most losing pitchers of the year. Danny’s ERA (5.33) was over a run higher than league average. He struck out two more batters in 2003 than he had the year before—but in 70 more innings of work. What a difference a year can make, eh?

It seems that Graves, back as the Reds’ closer this season, has returned to is old self. After all, he’s tied for the league lead in saves and has brought now sports an ERA below four. He’s back and he’ll be solid throughout the season, right?

Wrong! I just watched Danny Graves give up a two-run lead in the ninth inning. Graves came into the game with an 8-6 lead, promptly struck out Lyle Overbay. Then he allowed Wes Helms on base with a single and got Brady Clark to foul out. With the aid of two errors and a wild pitch, Bill Hall (who?!) came to the plate and hit a 2-0 pitch 430 feet to left-center—a walk-off blast.

And they call this guy a closer! Yes, Graves is tied for the league lead in save with 10 when his team has only played 18 games this season. But has anybody noticed how many games Graves has blown this season? Counting tonight’s game, he’s up to a less than robust three blown games. Throw in another loss he suffered and realize that he has now allowed five homers in fewer than twelve innings—stir and season—and it becomes evident that despite leading the league in saves, Danny Graves is nothing better than a replacement pitcher with a glitzy job description in Cincinnati.

I’m astonished that Graves not only mustered a 2004 roster spot on a Major League rotation, but even more so that he has been reinserted into the closing role, in which he will be expected to pitch in tight games. If he weren’t blessed with playing in Cincinnati, whose pitching talent is matched only by the wonderful arms in Detroit, it would be hard to imagine Graves pitching in a difference-making game situation.

Let’s look again at last season’s stats. Graves allowed 30 home runs in—gulp—169 innings, or the equivalent of a homer every 5.2 innings pitched. Not only is this mark terrible for a pitcher who relies on inducing grounders by keeping the ball down in the zone, but it was second only to Rick Helling’s penchant for longball in 2003 for pitchers with over 150 innings pitched (by my count).

Thoughts were that this season, Graves would temper his 2003 pace. You know, regression to the mean and all that jazz. But so far, with five dingers in 11.2 innings, his ratio is a revolting 2.34. His Earned Run Average is back down, but his Unearned Run Average is now a staggering 6.98. Needless to say, the season is early and can hardly be used as a full-season’s gauge of aptitude. He’s managed to save a league leading number of games, but he has been anything but spectacular over this first month of play, which brings me to my closing remarks.

If a pitcher throwing that terribly can accumulate ten saves in 18 games, leading the league in saves while at the same time allowing five home runs at crucial late-game junctures, the category of ‘saves’ loses all credibility and legitimacy as a measurement of ability, guts, or effectiveness.

Last season, Jose Mesa and Mike Willams finished the season with 24 and 28 saves respectively. Neither “closer” could hold his own in comparison to Ron Mahay, let alone Gagne, Smoltz, Wagner, Foulke, or Rivera. Comparing more favorably to replacement-level (or below replacement-level) production than relief ace production, these guys still managed to close over 50 games between them. How is this possible? Jeff Tam, the definition of “replacement level,” with a Value Over Replacement Level (VORP) of 0.1 last season, looks decent when compared to these chumps.

Mahay 45.1 38 20 3.18 3 11.5
Tam 44.2 26 25 5.64 5 0.1
Williams 63.0 39 41 6.14 5 -2.9
Mesa 58.0 45 31 6.52 7 -7.2
I’ll give you a moment to shudder at the thought that Williams, with those numbers, was in fact a 2003 All-Star. Now that that’s out of your system, notice that Danny Graves has already allowed as many home runs as Williams did all of last season—or should I say, throughout last season’s farcical summer.

All this goes to show how useless the statistical category of saves really is. This has nothing to do with the argument of where to place one’s relief ace. Instead, it goes to show that saves can be garnered by just about anybody, from below replacement level pitchers to relief aces. But relying on saves and “save situations” to determine the appropriate juncture for a call for the ace of the ‘pen is more than foolish.

You can’t have it both ways. If having a closer is a key asset to a team, then why are many of today’s closers so terrible?

If you had any misgivings about sabermatricians’ denouncing of the category of saves being used as an indicator of anything other than opportunity, I hope your tune changes before Graves saves his next game. Or I should say, before Graves allows another game-losing home run.

Moeller Magic in Milwaukee

Yesterday, Chad “the Tooth” Moeller—a career .254/.325/.390 hitter—managed to pull out a nifty game. We rooted for him and he bit the bullet, hitting for the cycle in his first four at-bats of the Brewers’ defeat of the Reds at the hands of the aforementioned Danny Graves. But don’t worry, I can guarantee it won’t happen again. From here on out, Moeller’s reputation will decay back to its original status. Hitting for the cycle is determined by little more than luck and whenever it occurs, it’s blown way out of proportion. Like saves, they are not predictive of future production or of past abilities. But at least this Moeller will have something to chew on for the rest of his career.

Moeller wasn’t the only one making history in the win. Rookie Milwaukee pitcher Jeff Bennett recorded the first win of his already odd career. If he continues to succeed in the Majors, you may see more players adopting the flat-hat look. But it’s hard not to root for anybody who attempts to forge new ground in a sport filled with tradition.

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