There’s often discussion about baseball’s most unbreakable record. Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak comes up a lot, as well it should. Others note the changing game and point to Cy Young’s 511 wins. And Will White’s 75 complete games in a season would seem to be pretty safe as well. In this post, however, I’m going to argue that the most unbreakable record is Francisco Rodriguez’s 62 saves in 2008. Let me explain.
Records that Don’t Count
I don’t count records from individual games or just a couple of games. For example, nobody is going to break Johnny Vander Meer’s mark by throwing three consecutive no-hitters. But if I just wrote about that, this would be a pretty boring post.
And foolish, made up records don’t count either. For example, nobody with over 30 World Series innings pitched and an ERA below 1.00 will post 155 oWAR ever again. The Babe is the Babe, but that’s a made up record. It’s not standard at all.
We’re talking about single-season records here. Standard ones.
Records that Do Count
Do you know who the single-season strikeout king is? If you guessed Nolan Ryan’s 383 in 1973, you’re not right. Not even close. He’s just eighth on the list, behind five pitchers from 1884 and two from 1886, including Matt Kilroy and his 513 punchouts. Maybe you don’t want to count numbers from the American Association or the Union Association. If that’s the case, we’re looking at Old Hoss Radbourn’s 441. And maybe we don’t want to count times before the mound was at 60’6”. Then it’s Ryan. Records like this one count, and even in the hyper-high strikeout environment of today’s game, Kilroy seems safe. But the game changes, and I don’t want to say never.
Yes, the game changes. That’s kind of the point of this post.
The Evolution of the Save Record
Back in 1969 when the save became an official statistic, Jack Acker was the single-season leader with 32. The next year, Wayne Granger saved 35. In 1972, it was 37 for Clay Carroll. Next came John Hiller’s 38 in 1973. That lasted all the way until 1983 when Dan Quisenberry saved an amazing 45 games. One year later, Bruce Sutter tied that mark, and then Dave Righetti extended the record to 46 in 1986. That was destroyed by Bobby Thigpen’s 57 in 1990 and then by Francisco Rodriguez’ 62 in 2008. So what I’m saying is there has been tremendous turnover in the single-season saves standard.
But there won’t be anymore. Not ever.
I know what you’re thinking. This guy’s out of his mind! And maybe I am, but not when it comes to this post or this take. Hear me out.
Closer Is a Role, Not a Position
In the Hall debate about Trevor Hoffman and Edgar Martinez, among others, we’ve heard comparisons, which are ridiculous to my mind, between closers and designated hitters. It is a fact that designated hitter has been a position since 1973. Closer, on the other hand is a role. In fact, I find it to be a long-term fad that is ending.
In just the second season of the save being official, there were ten players with at least 22 saves. However, it wasn’t until 1978 that ten “closers” reached 20 saves in the same season again. The first time each of the top-ten reached 25 was 1984. It wasn’t until 1989 that each of the top ten reached 30. By 1993, 38 was the 10th total. We peaked at 41 in 2004, and were between 34 and 39 every year since. Until last year, that is. Yes, closers are saving fewer games.
For years, Mariano Rivera was throwing multiple innings in the post-season. We’re not talking about the same way Rollie Fingers did, but we know Joe Torre appreciated the idea of using his best arm at the most critical time. Then in 2016, something amazing happened. Rather than saving his best pitcher for the ninth (or eighth), Indians manager Terry Francona began to deploy his best arm when it mattered most. Andrew Miller pitched ten games in those playoffs. Once he entered in the eighth, four times in the seventh, twice in the sixth, and three times in the fifth inning. And he never recorded as few as three outs. To me, the closer role changed forever with these playoffs.
Teams will come around more slowly in the regular season, but believe me when I say that they will come around. At least a little. If I knew how to search for one-inning saves with a team up by three runs, I suspect there would have been fewer in 2017 than in the years before. And while that type of save won’t disappear, I suspect we’ll see fewer of them. Let’s say your closer was needed for four outs the night before. Perhaps he’ll be given a 4-1 game off and let one of the ten other capable arms close things out.
That’s coming. And when it does, there will be fewer saves for closers. So yes, it’s a role. And yes, it’s a fad that has changed and will change more.
Lots of Runs
Baseball has its ebbs and flows. For a period of time there’s more offense, then less, then more again. Since 2014, both leagues have seen their runs scored increase each year. With more runs, scores are further apart, and thus fewer save opportunities.
Couple fewer save opportunities because of scoring with fewer because of managerial choice, and there’s a shrinking window for anyone to approach K-Rod’s 62. Nobody has been within ten of him since he set the mark, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.
Okay, maybe 62 isn’t baseball’s most unbreakable record. I like hyperbole. But it ain’t going anywhere. The game has changed, and it’s moving away from closers even more. K-Rod is king!