When you’re trying to close out baseball games and get saves, it helps a lot to be big and fast. They’re not the only thing that matters, but they sure make it easier to pick up your savings.
But what, exactly, are “saves” in baseball?
In baseball, a relief pitcher must take the mound with a lead of three runs or less, pitch the last three innings, and not let the other team score.
This is called a save. The closer is the player who is most likely to get a save, but any reliever who goes three innings without allowing a run can win the award.
The word “save” is easy to understand, but it might be hard to understand all the things that must happen for a save to happen. So, come on, let’s get going.
What Is a Save in Baseball?
There are many different kinds of saves, but they all have the same goal: to keep the game close and protect a late lead.
To get the save, a relief pitcher must come into the game with a three-run lead or less, the tying run on base or in the on-deck circle, or throw at least three innings to close out the game for the winning team without letting them lose the lead.
Due to how easygoing the situation is, pitchers have a lot of chances to get saves, but they can only do so if they can protect leads and close out games.
Now let’s talk about how a pitcher gets a save in more detail.
How Do Pitchers Earn a Save?
Maintaining a lead is needed to get a save, but this is only true in certain situations.
There are three things a pitcher must do to get a save, but only one of them is required.
The easiest thing to happen is for a pitcher to come in during the ninth inning with a lead of three runs or less and get the last three outs. Most people use this method to save money.
When the visiting team scores three runs or less in the top of an inning in extra innings, the home team brings in a reliever to finish the game.
Pitchers have also ended games when they were in a “save situation.” This doesn’t always happen in the ninth, but when it does, it’s the highest of the high-leverage situations. It could be a little bit more than three runs.
For a save to be possible, the tying run must be on base, in the batter’s box, or on deck.
This would be a save if the pitcher came into the game with the bases full and a five- or four-run lead. A pitcher gets a save when he or she gets the last out of a game that his or her team wins.
Even less common is for a pitcher to take the mound in the sixth or seventh inning with a lead and then shut out the other team.
When a pitcher comes into the game with a lead of three runs or more, he can still get the save if he pitches the last three innings.
As a last note, it’s important to remember that a pitcher can never win and save in the same game. Since starters have to go at least five innings to get a win, relievers don’t get many chances to earn saves by throwing three or more innings.
Still, if a starter only lasts a few innings and a reliever comes in and out with a lead, the starter may still get a save if they go at least three innings. Depending on how the other relievers do, though, the official scorer may instead give the win to the reliever who wins the game.
There are times when a pitcher meets all three requirements, but only one save is given in the end.
How Often Do Saves Happen?
Even though it’s against the rules, there are some games where a save is not possible, like when the starting pitcher throws a complete game, the score is very one-sided, or the home team wins in extra innings.
In 2019, there were a total of 1,180 saves, or 48.6% of all games, in 2,429 Major League Baseball games.
Since there have been less saves since 1998, this number is much lower than it used to be.
In 2015, there was a record number of saves: 1,292. 53.2% of games ended with a save.
As baseball teams use more pitchers from the bullpen, the number of saves each team gets has gone up. In 1920, for example, a starting pitcher threw a full game in more than 56% of games (1392 in total).
So, the average number of saves in the league that year was less than ten (147 total among 16 teams). But over the next few decades, the number of games played and the number of saves were about the same.
In the 1970s, the trend briefly changed, but in 1980, for the first time in MLB history, there were more saves (902) than complete games (856).
Since then, it has happened every year.
The average team saves about 40 times a year, which is almost the same as it was in 1990.
How Did Saves Come to Be?
When baseball was first made in the middle of the 19th century, there was no such thing as a “save” or “relief pitcher.”
Even though baseball looked very different than it does now, pitchers were still expected to go the whole game well into the 20th century.
In the 1950s, baseball executives started talking about the idea of the “save.” In 1959, journalist Jerome Holtzman defined the term.
Even though the save was not officially counted as a statistic until 1969, a lot of research has made it possible to count saves all the way back to the early days of Major League Baseball.
At first, there were a few small differences, but in 1975, the modern save rule became the official rule.
It’s clear that not all saves are the same. In the early years of the study, pain relievers were used in a very different way than they are now.
Fangraphs says that in 1977, ML teams had 180 saves of at least three innings. This trend was largely caused by the use of high-quality relievers for longer periods of time.
In the 1980s, however, the way relief pitchers were used changed. Dennis Eckersley is thought to be the first “one-inning closer.” Nearly every time Eckersley was used, it was in the ninth inning.
As more teams did the same thing, the number of three-inning saves went down from 146 in 1987 to 42 in 1993 to four in 2010.
On the other hand, this year’s 32 saves of three innings or more were the most since 2001.
We’ve talked about the save’s history and how a pitcher might get one today. What happens if a pitcher comes in to save the game in the ninth inning but fails to do so? So, he didn’t do the save right.
What Is a Blown Save?
The percentage of times a pitcher failed to close out a game is called the “blown save” percentage. This is because a pitcher won’t always be able to close out a game.
When a pitcher comes in to save the game but lets the winning run score, this is called a “blown save.”
Saves can be brought back from similar situations, but blown saves can’t. To get a save, a pitcher must throw the last out of the game. A pitcher who blows a save, on the other hand, does not have to throw the last out of the game.
During a game, a pitcher from either team or even the same team could blow a save at any time. In fact, the Houston Astros botched no less than four saves in a single game in 1995. They lost that game, which wasn’t a surprise.
During a game, a team can blow more than one save, but a pitcher can only do it once.
For example, if a reliever loses the lead but then sees his team regain it, he will be credited as the winning pitcher, but the game will no longer be considered a save opportunity until he is replaced by another pitcher who takes over the lead.
Another way to say this is that a pitcher can win and blow a save in the same game, but not the other way around.
Blown saves are an even newer statistic than saves themselves. They were made in 1988 by academics who wanted to compare how often relievers (and teams) blow leads and how often they don’t.
The hold, another official statistic related to the save, was also created in the 1980s. Wait, what does hold mean? Okay, so let me elaborate.
What Is a Hold in Baseball?
The hold is another stat that only relievers care about. The hold is a statistic for middle relievers and set-up men that can be thought of as a “pre-save.”
When a relief pitcher comes in to save a game, gets at least one out, and then gives the lead to another reliever, this is called a “hold.”
A pitcher can get a hold if he or she goes to the mound with a lead of three runs or less, or if the tying run is on base, at the plate, or on deck.
Major League Baseball doesn’t count holds as an official statistic, which is one reason why they aren’t very well known. Because of this, many government agencies do not keep track of holdings.
Hold totals aren’t always easy to find. Some box scores may have them on the pitching lines (typically marked as H, number).
The record for saves in Major League Baseball is 231, which is held by longtime relief pitcher Arthur Rhodes.
If you go to Rhodes’ page on Baseball-Reference, which is probably the most complete statistics site out there, you will have to go to his Advanced Pitching stats and scroll down to the seventh table to find out how many holds he has. That is, you’ll have to put in some work to find hold phone numbers.
Like failed saves, more than one pitcher can get a hold. Because relievers usually only pitch for one inning at a time, it is possible for several relievers on the same team to get a hold in the same game.
A pitcher can’t get a win and a hold in the same game, just like he can’t get a save and a win in the same game. A pitcher can’t have both a hold and a blown save in the same game, which is another rule.
A “blown hold” doesn’t exist either. Consequently, a blown save would be given to a pitcher whose only responsibility was to preserve a run lead into the seventh inning.
One way to judge a pitcher’s overall performance is by how well they protect late leads. Even though holds are rarely talked about, they do have some statistical value.
Since middle relievers and set-up men don’t usually get many saves, a pitcher’s number of holds may be a good way to tell how well he’s doing in that role.
Now that you know the difference between a save and a hold, you’ll understand what’s at stake the next time a reliever comes out of the bullpen in the ninth inning.
Odds and Ends
- Mariano Rivera, who will be in the Hall of Fame one day, has the most saves in his career with 652. In 2007, Francisco Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Angels hit 62 home runs.
- Eric Gagne, a closer for the Los Angeles Dodgers, saved 84 straight games from 2002 to 2004. This tied a Major League Baseball record. He went 55–55 in 2003.
- On September 3, 2002, Joaquin Benoit of the Texas Rangers worked seven innings to get the longest save in the history of Major League Baseball. Benoit came into the game with a 4-0 lead and won it after the first batter faced by the starting pitcher, Aaron Myette, was thrown out. The win went to Todd Van Poppel, who came in to pitch for two innings.
- The Texas Rangers beat the Baltimore Orioles 30–3 on August 22, 2007. They were the first team in the history of Major League Baseball to score 30 runs in a game. Even though the Rangers won by 27 runs, the game was saved by Wes Littleton, who pitched the last three innings.
- As was already said, Arthur Rhodes set the record for most holds in a Major League Baseball career with 231. Joel Peralta of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013 and Tony Watson of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015 both scored 41 goals in a single season.