Back in the day before Sean Forman killed the statistical print annuals with his shiny website, Baseball-Reference.com, the Bill James Handbook was one of the biggest THINGs of the offseason. These days, it is still published because you never know when an EMT attack will make B-Ref inaccessible. James had added some stuff over the years beyond player stat lines, and one of those things is relief pitcher categories. Tough Saves are included in that – these saves being defined as having the tying run on base when the pitcher enters the game.
Let’s take a look at how the American League teams fared in this:
About 25% of Tough Save Opportunities were successfully converted to Saves, which is why they are called Tough Saves. One thing of note: the Indians Cody Allen was 4/4 in Tough Save Ops, the most in the Majors. Now let’s look at the National League:
A few of things stand out — St. Louis was absolutely outstanding compared to the rest of baseball, probably an anomaly, but still worthy of a hat tip. The NL only converted 17% of its Tough Save Opportunities (12.5% is St.Louis is out of the mix*), but what really stands out is the significantly fewer Tough Save Ops in the NL. Certain Managers in the NL seemed to loathe switching relievers with the tying run on base. Matt Williams, who once was called upon by John Hart to fill Sir Albert Belle’s shoes and failed, only put Nats’ relievers in one Tough Save Opportunity. Bud Black and Donnie Baseball only steered his Dodger relievers into two Tough Save Ops (Mattingly seemed content to let gas cans like League and Wilson to explode like White Phosphorous grenades in a Vietnam cave network). Meanwhile Walt Weiss didn’t seems to have too many qualms about bring in a reliever with the tying run on base, and that didn’t not work out at all for him in terms of protecting the lead.
So what does this tell us? Well, one year of data doesn’t tell us much, but we do have come historical context. In 2000, there were 371 Tough Save Ops in the Majors, and 119 were successfully converted — a 32% success rate. In 2014, there were only 202 Tough Save Ops with 44 being converted, a 22% success rate. Does this mean that relievers these days are being coddled? Or are managers smarter? I don’t know the answer — I would have to look at a whole bunch of different things. The one thing that has stayed constant is the Bullpen Winning Percentage — about .505 in 2000 and 2014, but might not mean anything.
One more thing of note to close — in 1989, the NL Cy Young winner Mark Davis was 22/24 in Tough Save Ops.